This episode of the Fermynwoods Contemporary Art Podcast features a rich and profound work by A Ton of Worms – a multidisciplinary artist and writer whose primary focus is an immersive communing with Taxus Baccata (the English yew), through both classic art forms as well as field recording, whittling, fermentation, and propagation.
Their work also addresses the conservation of persecuted wildlife and plants, the maligned and misrepresented (often chthonic) species overlooked by many, and the beauty and effulgence of decay at the intersection of nature and civilisation.
Wood as Home, Dirt as Time is the audio recording of a performance piece undertaken on the Summer Solstice of 2023 and edited retrospectively into sound collage. It explores themes of time, space, nature, and human connection through the chthonic lens of an ancient yew tree – conjuring the imagined state of consciousness of a being that lives and perceives in centuries rather than years.
A transcript of the episode is available here, which includes the following text composed by A Ton of Worms to contextualise the work.
Statement on Piece
“Wood as Home, Dirt as Time” is the audio recording of a performance piece undertaken on the Summer Solstice of 2023 and edited retrospectively into a sound collage. It explores themes of time, space, nature and human connection through the chthonic lens of an ancient yew tree growing beside an – at least – Saxon age church.
As an embodied, experiential piece captured solely in sound, it’s important to contextualise the specifics of action, place and time beyond of what can be determined by the recording. The central audio component of WAHDAT revolves around the artist visiting an ancient yew tree in the Hampshire village of boarhunt – a hulking tree hollowed by an estimated eighteen hundred years of existence. This particular tree is reputed to have once housed a medieval family for a winter stretch, and upon visiting it’s clear to see how its spacious interior could do just that. Having set up a recorder in the tree’s bole, the artist then went about building a rudimentary instrument modelled after the diddley bow of the American south – a simple folk instrument that shaped the sound of the blues, with origins in West Africa. This was constructed from a previously scavenged length of yew wood, into which was hammered a nail at either end. A length of guitar string was then stretched between the nails and wrapped about each. A glass jar was wedged beneath the string as a bridge (search diddley bow construction for further details). The instrument was then placed in the yew’s trunk and played percussively as best it could be. Having wrested the fullest from this simple noise maker, the instrument was dismantled and the piece of wood left as an offering to the gargantuan yew.
Using the massive interior of the tree as a sort of megaphone held to the ground, the vibrations of the rattling string were directed into the earth, bouncing between the net of roots and into the deep past, into history made organic – to when those folk inhabited the tree, to the early church, to the new agers and heathens who leave clooties and crystals, to the lovers who fuck obscured by green-black foliage, and into the bones of the buried and the underworld opening into our own from the gaping wound of the yew itself.
The species is just as important a part of the piece as the action and represents the duality of ‘xylophobia’. As a place of sanctuary, in the case of this particular tree – possibly a shelter; also its co-option by the Christian faith, which has come to embrace it as an emblem of Christ’s sanguineous immortality, and as a living relic proudly maintained by a community.
…Alternately, as a poisonous tree deeply associated with wildness, witchcraft, the dead and the marginalised – with what we fear. This binary is acknowledged in the piece through distinct chapters. In the central chapter of the three, when the tempo is slowed, the instrument is ‘played’; its penetrating vibrations flood into deep time and the world beneath and are reflected back in connection with the moon and night. During this chapter a section of a recording made during the witching hour of the night of the full moon succeeding the solstice also plays – midnight church bells and the scurrying of rodents – tying the piece to previous field recordings in its associations with Hekate, the chthonic goddess – yew being her tree.
Various effects and motifs were added in post-production to give the final audio piece a texture more reminiscent of the aged tree. The somewhat expected failure of the diddley bow made for uninspired listening alone but was enlivened through its transformed tempo, joined by the slowed prehistoric warbles of blackbirds and lengthened roars of passing cars – never out of reach of the fury of civilisation. Clicks and taps of wood on wood, wood on bone, bone on bone, mimic the minutiae of the tree’s shell and the unseen that inhabit it. Anarchic and clandestine. A metronomic drum beat stitches the track together and maintains some semblance of continuity, driving the arrow of time as it warps to and fro. Droning harmonica also holds the sections together, in a gradual crescendo that changes pitch during the subterranean section.
Samples of humans are scattered throughout the piece, spoken segments as well as the sound of action, woven into the tapestry, to keep, like the revving of passing cars, the melee of human society present. A woman makes a meat pie and puts it on an open fire to cook – the evocative sounds of what once could have been. Musings on churchyards, their yews, the dead and their ties.
None of the original recording has been cut. Though the tempo has in parts been lengthened (and only lengthened) the performance was captured and remains in full – a singular moment in time and space, unrehearsed and alone with this ancient organism. Failures and fumblings. It is low fi, fuzzy and imperfect. Whilst it may seem a slog to listen to in full, at its almost 50 minute length, the piece conjures the imagined state of consciousness of a being that lives and perceives in centuries rather than years. Consider the flitting of a mayfly to a tortoise. The subjective dreamlike state of a millennia old tree as we ephemeral creatures go about our lives around it.
The accompanying visual is a video response to the episode, by artist Sapphire Goss.
A Ton of Worms is a multidisciplinary artist and writer whose primary focus is an immersive communing with Taxus Baccata (the English yew), through both classic art forms as well as field recording, whittling, fermentation, and propagation. Their work also addresses the conservation of persecuted wildlife and plants, the maligned and misrepresented (often chthonic) species overlooked by many, and the beauty and effulgence of decay at the intersection of nature and civilisation.
For Xylophobia our guest curators for the Fermynwoods Podcast are Marie-Chantal Hamrock and Astrid Björklund. Marie and Astrid have previously collaborated as SUBTERRA for Aerial Community Radio in Aberdeen, which “navigates speculative narratives of the chthonic (of relating to or inhabiting the underworld) through text, poetry, soundscapes and music.” The two bring their own flavour to a new series of 10 Xylophobia-themed Podcast episodes.
Sapphire Goss is a multimedia artist who uses obsolete technologies to explore experimental materiality and hybrid collaborative forms to make work that grows, decays and lives beyond the screen. Sapphire responds to each Xylophobia podcast episode with a new video.