Thinking about the forest with Ellie Davies
By Marie Escorne, teacher and researcher in Arts at the Université Bordeaux Montaigne, UR ARTES, May 2023.
In his book How Forests Think, anthropologist Edouardo Kohn defines the forest as “a complex and cacophonous, emergent and expansive web of living, growing and mutually constitutive thoughts”. At a time when we seem to be witnessing a real “call of the forest”, it is not uncommon to see artists sneaking into this canvas metamorphosed into a workshop in which the work to come is woven. Since it is not (or not only) a question of representing the woods but of working in the forest, of immersing oneself in it and becoming impregnated by it, we can ask ourselves both how the creations are nourished by this environment and how the forest thinks through the artists.
It is with the work of Ellie Davies that we propose to consider these questions more precisely. Born in 1976, she is known for having developed several series of photographs in the forest. The artist grew up in the south of England, near the New Forest, a vast medieval forest in which she used to play with her twin sister. After studying photography in London, Ellie Davies returned to the area and tried, in her words, to “discover if these remembered and imagined places could be [hers] again”. So she wandered through the forests of her childhood, and later through those of Dorset, Dartmoor and Wales, often alone with her camera, until she reached “the heart of the forest, where ‘there is almost no sky'”, she says.
For an artist whose medium is light writing, it may seem surprising to seek to achieve this almost total darkness. However, this description evokes the camera obscura, a technical device that finds an astonishing replica in the forest, as Clelia Nau has shown. In the chapter entitled “Chambres de verdure” in the book Feuillages, in which she draws this parallel, the art historian and theorist also explains that photographers tried their hand at making images in the forest of Fontainebleau in the 1840s, using the daguerreotype and calotype processes. Attractive and photogenic by nature, one might say, since it “captures […] absorbs [and] reflects” light, the forest is nonetheless difficult to photograph, not only because of the material constraints that did not facilitate the task of the pioneers of photography, but also because of the “sometimes difficult lighting conditions imposed by the forest”:
In this place [continues Clélia Nau] where half-light and darkness reign, and which in certain circumstances, when the sun’s rays penetrate the foliage in waves, allows moments of supreme irradiation, there is a constant risk – either through a lack or an excess of light – of under- or over-exposure.
Let us add that the forest does not easily fit into a frame, especially perhaps that of photography. This medium, in fact, seems to adhere so much to appearances that one may fear that it cannot translate the wealth of sensations generated by the forest. Yet Ellie Davies uses several processes to produce, through the photographic image, a “vision” mixing sensitive perceptions and mental representations. For the series Stars (2014-2015), for example, she uses the superimposition of constellations recorded by the Hubble telescope on the photographs she has taken in the forest. Giving the forest the appearance of familiar territory and yet just as strange and foreign as the distant galaxies photographed by the space telescope, the result awakens or reawakens our “sense of wonder”, to use the title of a famous article by Rachel Carson. For the author of Silent Spring, it is indeed essential to “preserve and strengthen this sense of wonder and miracle”:
I am certain [she writes], that this is something lasting and important. Those who dwell, whether scientists or laymen, on the beauties and mysteries of the earth never feel lonely or weary of existence. Whatever the vexations or worries of their personal lives, their thoughts will find ways to lead them to inner contentment and renewed enthusiasm for life.
In some of the images in the Stars series, the tiny points of light give the impression of rays bursting through the trees, illuminating dust grains or leaf films suspended in the air. At other times, concentrated in halos on the trees or on the ground, the glittering dots are reminiscent of fireflies, which Guy de Maupassant compared precisely to “star seeds”. But there is also a fairy-tale aspect to the powdering, which alludes to the legends in which, in England as in many other parts of the world, the woods are inhabited by marvellous presences.
In her book Apprendre à voir: Le point de vue du vivant, Estelle Zhong Mengual looks at the importance of ‘fairies’ in the writings of nineteenth-century women naturalists. What seems incongruous (the presence of goblins and leprechauns among scientific texts) can be explained by a desire to take refuge in the imaginary while the world, the object of increasingly advanced knowledge, becomes less and less opaque. Nevertheless, the art historian puts forward another hypothesis according to which “summoning the motif of fairies is a way of being able to speak well of the living world, of being able to do it justice in its processes and effects – and of weaving a relationship more in tune with its very nature, of the order of gratitude and wonder*”.
The use of fairies* thus makes it possible to show that each portion of nature is made up of a multitude of organisms that we often cannot see with the naked eye: it opens up a universe in this world, depicting it as animated and full of a secret and rich life, as the photographer Ellie Davies rightly does. By suggesting these presences through the simple game of superimposing cosmic images on the photographs of the sylvan space, the artist reminds us that this environment is made up of beings (plants, animals) radically different from us who are nevertheless like us “stardust”, to use Carl Sagan’s expression popularised by Hubert Reeves.
But overprinting is not the process most often used by Ellie Davies, whose work most often consists of taking photographs of the results of interventions she carries out directly in the forest. The shape of the path and the use of natural materials recall the creations of other British artists such as Richard Long (1945) or Andy Goldsworthy (1956), who also produced some of their works in the forest. However, Ellie Davies distinguishes herself from these precursors of art in the natural environment by an approach that to this day is deployed almost exclusively in the forest, the latter thus being truly integrated into the artist’s plastic vocabulary. The gestures she makes in the forest space are not intended to leave a lasting impression. As a follower of Leave No Trace*, she creates installations and ephemeral arrangements that generally last only as long as the photo is taken. Yet it is through these gestures that the forest space becomes a workshop: it is through them that the woods go from being a setting to a factory and almost a laboratory, i.e. a place of experimentation but also, in reference to the photographic laboratory, a place where images are formed.
The series Come with me, for example, shows paths winding through the trees. Made with leaves, flour sprinkled on ferns, and wool, these traces give a temporality to the still image: as we follow them with our eyes, we sink into the woods and the image and mentally recompose the way the artist had to move through the space to place these elements before going behind the camera, as if on the other side of the mirror, to observe and capture the result. The title of the series, Come with me, sounds like an invitation to enter the forest, following a seemingly friendly, hypnotic voice that fairy tales have taught us to be wary of. The images are reminiscent of children’s games, but there is something unsettling about them, perhaps because a presence is suggested but never seen, or because the paths, sometimes darkly coloured, are lost in the unfathomable darkness of the woods in the background.
These photographs by Ellie Davies are reminiscent of the world of fairy tales, in which the forest is omnipresent: a place of the forbidden, of loss or abandonment, it is the place where an initiatory journey takes place, where good or bad encounters take place, without which there would be no story. Bruno Bettelheim reminds us in his Psychanalyse des contes de fée that fairy tales often begin when children are chased from their homes:
Being driven out of the house [he argues] may be unconsciously experienced by the child either as a desire to be rid of his parents or as the idea that his parents want to get rid of him. The child released into the world, or abandoned in a forest, symbolises both the parents’ desire for the child to become independent and the child’s desire, or anxiety, about that independence.
Representative of this ambivalence, the forest is both desirable and threatening, as are the characters encountered within it: the old woman living in the forest in the tale “Jeannot and Margot” (or “Hansel and Gretel”), for example, takes on the features of a kindly grandmother to attract children to her, before appearing in her true nature as a witch-ogress… The forest is in fact the space of lure and curiosity, of buried impulses and desires: “Who would not like to hold the power of a witch or a fairy and use it to satisfy all their desires”, asks Bruno Bettelheim? “Since the earliest times [writes the psychoanalyst] the practically impenetrable forest where we get lost symbolises the dark, hidden, practically impenetrable world of our unconscious”.
With great economy of means, Ellie Davies’ interventions draw on this imaginary and unconscious world of the forest, capable of awakening a hint of hylophobia (fear of the woods) or nyctohylophobia (fear of the dark woods). At once marvellous and disturbing, the images obtained sometimes even give the sensation of being generated by the forest which the photographer penetrates and which she allows to think within her. In some cases, it seems that working in the forest space is also a way for the artist to heal her wounds and transmute her own experiences. Indeed, Ellie Davies recounts that the Fires series, begun in 2017, shortly before her father became seriously ill, continued during the time she accompanied him through the ordeal he did not survive.
It is interesting that Ellie Davies chose fire for this series, an eminently symbolic and polysemous element, deeply linked to the forest:
What then is the primary human function of woods [Gaston Bachelard asks in La Psychanalyse du feu]: is it shade; is it the fruit so rare and so puny? Is it not rather the fire? And here is the dilemma: do we make fires to worship wood […] or do we burn wood to worship fire, as a more animistic explanation would have it?
Made in the forest with the help of a few branches, the fires photographed by Ellie Davies conjure up the joyful reveries of campfires and truancy of which Gaston Bachelard spoke, comparing the child to a “little Prometheus” stealing the parental matches to make his own fireplace. For fire is a matter of prohibition, of risk, of adventure, but also of the transmission of know-how, of “passing the torch”:
We therefore propose to classify under the name of the Prometheus complex [writes Bachelard] all the tendencies that push us to know as much as our fathers, more than our fathers, as much as our teachers, more than our teachers. Now, it is by handling the object, it is by perfecting our objective knowledge that we can hope to put ourselves more clearly on the intellectual level that we admired in our parents and our teachers.
Ellie Davies’ ordeal in making the Fires series reminds us of this bond of filiation between a father (a photography enthusiast and camera collector by the way) and his daughter. However, without any presence to warm up within the images, the homes seem somewhat gloomy and conjure up images of a lost childhood. The flames, threatening to spread to the surrounding woods, are perhaps more likely, without a guardian, to die out and disappear: the fire that burns itself out and lets out wisps of smoke is a form of memento mori, reminding us of our inevitable finitude.
However, it is necessary to project oneself into Ellie Davies’ situation to understand these images in a different, more positive way: the artist takes refuge in the woods in difficult moments, builds fires there, and takes photographs of them. The gesture is repeated, like an almost primitive ritual, perhaps votive or purificatory. Absorbing oneself in the forest and in artistic practice is at once a comfort, a respite, an attempt at reparation, a way of doing something with the pain (this gnawing fire) by depositing it in the world, in the heart of the forest in this case, so that it may perhaps be less heavy. In the fire fixed on the image, one can read filial affection, vital energy, the life drive struggling to find a way through.
This last reflection is in line with an earlier series entitled The Dwellings (dated 2012) for which Ellie Davies, then pregnant, builds huts. These are somewhat of an exception in her work as they remain in place longer than the previously mentioned installations, allowing the artist to photograph them repeatedly to show their evolution. In another way than fire, the hut is also linked to the woods and the imaginary of the forest: built like a bird’s nest with materials found nearby, it is a precarious, rudimentary habitat evoking children’s games as well as the history of humanity and the origins of architecture.
In a short essay entitled Nos cabanes, Marielle Macé explores the poetic and utopian potential of these “constructions of little”:
Making huts then: gardening the possible. To take care of what is whispered, what is attempted, what could come and is already coming: to listen to it, to let it grow, to support it. Imagining what is, imagining within what is. Start from what is there, make use of it, enlarge it and let it dream.
The hut thus opens up a world, offering the possibility of making things up, of inventing stories. One could say that the artist is making a story that echoes the one that springs up in the depths of her being. The cabin is a metaphor for this interiority, offering a representation of the intimate in that it draws an “inside” to which we do not have access in the photographs. The dens we contemplate in fact turn their dark opening towards us, as mysterious as the origin of the world. These gyres are the image of what a mother can experience in this moment of waiting for the child to come, the body of another than oneself coiled up inside oneself, a universal phenomenon and yet always as fascinating as it is disturbing. To be for nine months the dwelling place of the unborn child that one can only imagine before meeting it is an experience that lends itself to all sorts of projections and fantasies that it is perhaps also a question, for the artist, of conjuring up by making a shelter for them, by “bringing them into the world”.
In his book on the Métamorphoses, Emanuele Coccia makes birth the experience that links us to all other beings and more fundamentally even to the Earth:
If we are born [writes the philosopher], it is because each of us, in our body as in our soul, is only a part of the world. To be born is to prove that we are nothing more than a metamorphosis, a small modification of a tiny part of the flesh of the world. But the part of our mother’s body that we have incorporated into our own – as well as the seemingly smaller part of our father’s – is only one step in an endless chain of transformations and incorporations: we were part of their bodies before we became what we are, but also part of what each of the two bodies was before our generation. We have an ancestral past that makes each of our bodies a limited and infinite part of the history of the Earth, the history of the planet, its soil, its matter.
Making a cabin in the forest is ultimately part of this metamorphosis: the forest, a workshop, provides the material for a construction born of its flesh and at the same time distinct, transformed by the artist’s action into a crafted and yet fragile entity. Closely woven with the environment in which it is inscribed, the hut lends itself to a reflection on the way we inhabit nature and the world, not only through its construction but also, of course, because it is a particular habitat:
The experience of the hut [thus asserts Gilles A. Tiberghien] is in fact an experience of nature: a way of being not sheltered from the world but outside oneself. The hut, in fact, neither encloses nor protects the person who inhabits it; on the contrary, it exposes him to himself and to nature conceived as exteriority.
In this sense, the hut seems to us paradigmatic of what happens to the artist working in the forest. It represents the absolute exterior space (as the word “forest”, built on the Latin fors, “outside”, reminds us) which can seem as strange as it is foreign (it is only one step from the forest to the English foreign*). However, it is also an interior, a dark room that provides a shelter, a refuge in which it is sometimes good to retreat. This environment is in fact, like the hut, conducive to an intermingling of interior and exterior, because escaping from it in no way means being outside the world, but rather opening up to it in another, perhaps more profound way, as we have tried to show through the sensitive work of Ellie Davies. Thinking about the forest with an artist thus makes it possible to show that far from being reducible to a plantation of trees, the forest is a skein made up of many threads that are also the result of the distillation of our dreams.
©Marie Escorne, Université Bordeaux Montaigne, UR ARTES
 Eduardo Kohn, Comment pensent les forêts. Vers une anthropologie au-delà de l’humain, traduit de l’anglais (États-Unis) par Grégory Delaplace, Bruxelles, Zones sensibles, 2017, p. 117.
 Ellie Davies, quoted by Virginie Luc, dans Les Magiciennes de la terre. L’art et la nature au féminin, Paris, Ulmer, 2017, p. 44.
 See Les photographes de Barbizon. La forêt de Fontainebleau, Paris, Hoëbecke/BNF, 1991, cité par Clélia Nau, Feuillages. L’art et les puissances du végétal, Vanves, Hazan, 2021, p. 153.
 Ibid., p. 159.
 Ibid., p. 153.
 We refer to the artist’s website to see the series analysed here : https://elliedavies.co.uk/gallery/.
 Royalty-free photographs https://hubblesite.org/resource-gallery/images [dernière consultation le 30 avril 2023].
 Rachel Carson, « Le sens de la merveille » (The Sense of wonder, 1956), Paris, Corti, 2021.
 Ibid., p. 22.
 Guy de Maupassant, Julie Romain, La Petite Roque, Œuvres complètes, Paris, Louis Conard, Libraire-Éditeur, vol. 16, 1925, p. 215.
 Estelle Zhong Mengual, Apprendre à voir. Le point de vue du vivant, Arles, Actes Sud, 2021.
 Ibid., p. 209.
 Ibid., p. 213. Words followed by an asterisk are in English in the text
 Ibid., p. 214-215.
 See Andy Goldsworthy, Terry Friedman, Bois, traduit de l’anglais par William Olivier Desmond, Arcueil, Anthèse, 2016.
 Ethical principle of not leaving any lasting or polluting traces on the site.
 Bruno Bettelheim, Psychanalyse des contes de fées, Paris, Robert Laffont, 1976, p. 132.
 Ibid., p. 127.
 Ibid., p. 126.
 The introductory text of a publication of Ellie Davies’ work (Into the woods), written by Miranda Gavin, refers to these phobias, available online at the artist’s website, URL : https://elliedavies.co.uk/book/.
 Gaston Bachelard, La psychanalyse du feu (1949), Paris, Gallimard, 1992, p. 65.
 Ibid., p. 29.
 Ibid., p. 30-31.
 See in particular Gilles A. Thiberghien, Nature, Art, Paysage, Actes Sud / École Nationale Supérieure du Paysage / Centre du Paysage, 2001, p. 119.
 Marielle Macé, Nos cabanes, Lagrasse, Verdier, 2019, p. 54.
 Ibid., p. 47.
 Emanuele Coccia, Métamorphoses, Paris, Payot & Rivages, 2020, p. 28-29.
 Gilles A. Thiberghien, Nature, Art, Paysage, op. cit., p. 199.
Into the Woods by Christiane Pratsch Monarchi, May 2023.
Experiencing Ellie Davies’ most recent works made around chalk streams is to lose oneself in some of the world’s last places of unspoiled nature. Lush ecosystems thrive in and around the moving waters, halted in crisp detail and high resolution in the artist’s images to enable a haptic encounter, a feeling of experiencing this place in person.
When I recently spoke with Ellie, it was on a day so cold and wet I was doing everything possible to warm and insulate myself. Ellie mentioned it was actually the perfect weather to go out into the woods to make new images. The diffused, overcast light and moisture in the air create the ideal photographic environment which resonates with the feelings of stillness and calm she searches for when going into nature.
In a departure from previous series, Ellie has realised her newest works from a vantage point which is no longer grounded; it’s as if we are dragonflies or birds, hovering over the stream, actively engaged in looking, hearing, breathing the scents of these aquatic plants and the crystal-clear waters. Or are we asleep, having a wonderful dream of flying?
Suddenly it becomes clear that there are lights dancing on the surface of the water. Where would these come from on such an overcast day? I think back to the fairy tales of my childhood, the will-o’-wisp and magical lights on the sea, in the forest – are these sprites dancing and beckoning me to enter the water? Is their intent entirely playful? Folklore has attempted many explanations of the dancing lights often seen by travellers over bogs and marshes; science details the chemical reactions of certain gases which may cause them – but I am now considering some ancient spirits, souls still wandering the forest and conversing with us through the sparkling waters. These are, in fact, ancient places co-existing in our modern world.
The creation of England’s chalk streams began more than 100 million years ago, in the Cretaceous era, when the world was much warmer than today. Aquatic plants and creatures which sank to the seabed over millions of years created a sedimentary layer of chalk within the earth’s crust. This layer shifts and reappears on many continents, but in England and Normandy this chalk emerges in such a way as to filter rainwater through the sediment to create these streams and their unique ecosystems. Not susceptible to flooding or drying out, these rivulets and rivers are filled with water which doesn’t vary much from 10 degrees Celsius year-round. In ancient times, all kinds of tribes and settlers appreciated the abundance of these naturally replenishing streams, but their waters have more recently been channelled and abstracted in places, and sadly, with resultant damage to ecosystems and pollution.
The Cretaceous period ended, geologists believe, when a giant asteroid crashed into Earth, creating conditions for a global cooling and mass extinction. Considering such a catastrophic event while calmly gazing on the limpid waters in these images seems inconceivable, yet we are reminded daily of the incipient dangers of rising temperatures and warming seas that human actions have helped to cause.
I return to the sparkling reflections on the waters’ surface, dancing on the small turbulence of the stream. Where are they leading us? Ellie has said, “I love things that seem uncanny or peculiar in everyday life, and in woodland this often comes in the form of a sensory change—a different atmosphere that you can’t necessarily explain. The imagination becomes freer, and the mind wanders to what might be.“
Here the artist leaves us in our dream, the magical lights playfully beckoning us to do everything we can in hopes of preserving this paradise when we awaken.