A Rustle in the Trees

Read a new text by Steven Bode reflecting on A Forest Tale by Ruth Maclennan two years on—now contextualised in the wake of Russia’s developing authoritarian regime and the war in Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin has a problem in his back yard. Not content with waging war on his neighbours, he has chosen to pick a fight with a much bigger enemy – in this case, the assembled ranks of the forces of nature. To an extent, he may even believe that conditions are moving in his favour. Putin’s efforts to re-assert what he sees as the outermost boundaries of the so-called ‘Russkiy mir’ (‘Russian world’) may be foundering, but a new opportunity seems to be presenting itself on his flank. The Arctic North of this vast country, for so long an insuperable barrier to human habitation and commercial activity, is easing its icy grip as the planet warms, hatching hopes of newly navigable maritime routes through once frozen waters and extravagant dreams of a new frontier for the exploration, and exploitation, of natural resources (gas, oil, precious minerals) on whose export contemporary Russia increasingly depends.

His eyes may light up at this prospect, but Vladimir Putin has a problem at his rear. Melting sea ice inevitably means melting permafrost. Two thirds of Russia is land that has been frozen rock solid for millennia, and its rapid thaw is having huge ramifications: buckling roads, undermining buildings, playing havoc with pylons and pipelines. A new horizon (of newly visible, viable terrain) may be hoving into view, but it is doing so as the ground below is literally shifting. As well as all this, the thawing tundra is releasing massive quantities of methane – one of the most active agents in global heating. No great shakes, perhaps, for someone like Putin, who has joked that rising temperatures will mean that the Russian people will no longer need to wear fur coats. Spectacular cave-ins such as the enormous crater at Batagaika in Russia’s Sakha republic (dubbed the ‘gateway to the underworld’) are not so easily dismissed. Nor are environmental disasters such as the major oil spill near Norilsk, following the rupture of giant storage tanks, also apparently caused by dramatic subsidence.

Russia has form when it comes to ecological devastation. The Soviet Union had its own share of environmental despoliations and depredations, often as a result of gargantuan, megalomaniac projects such as the damming (or reversing) of rivers, or the forced cultivation of vast swathes of unsuitable arable land, during the Stalin era of collectivisation. Heavy industry was given free rein, in pursuit of Stakhanovite targets of economic progress, with little thought about the acrid, black smoke that was billowing into the air, or the chemical waste that was pouring into the rivers. Other countries, too, were just as big culprits (and, sadly, still are), but there has been little evidence, in Russia, of late, of green shoots of green policies to, at least, attempt to mitigate those earlier excesses. The extractive juggernaut rolls on. Drilling and mining are rampant. Pollution is commonplace and increasing. Regulation is scant or non-existent. Longer-term environmental impact comes a poor second to short-term material gain.

Film still from Ruth Maclennan, A Forest Tale (2022).

Ruth Maclennan’s short film, A Forest Tale (2022), was shot in various far-flung locations in the Arkhangelsk oblast of Northern Russia during the deep midwinter of December 2021. The region has a strong claim to being the principal frontline in the battle of opposing worldviews outlined above, where idealistic aspirations to protect local habitats and indigenous traditions are pitted against an expansionist, state-sponsored programme of industrial and commercial development. No prizes for guessing which one is winning. Diamonds have recently been added to a long list of minerals and other natural resources that have already been plundered, while, on the coast, deep water ports are being constructed to service an anticipated boom in maritime traffic between China and Europe once Northern sea-routes offer the ice-free passage that climate change seems destined to deliver.

Archangelsk oblast, like most of subarctic Russia, is also an area of dense taiga forest. And lumber, too, has been a longstanding resource for the people who live there and work there. What Maclennan’s film highlights, however, in its encounters with local artisans, historians and naturalists, is the extent to which it has traditionally been a sustainable resource. Of course, trees have been felled, often in great numbers, as land has been cleared, but a pattern of living close to nature, and making optimal use of renewable materials such as wood, is engrained in many rural communities. As well as a source of timber, the forest is also a rich preserve of folk tales, with their own roots stretching back through the generations. These folk tales, myths and fables, in turn, provided an equally rich motherlode of interest and attraction for Russian poets and literary figures who often made direct allusion to the stories’ lexicon of moral lessons and archetypal virtues, in similar vein, perhaps, to the way that the pre-revolutionary radicals of the 19th century Russian intelligentsia, the narodniks, drew inspiration from what they perceived as the native wisdom and indefatigable spirit of the rural peasantry.

There is a knowing echo of this in Maclennan’s film, whose self-consciously storybook journey through an enchantingly wintry, fairy tale landscape is punctuated by traditional songs and hard-won nuggets of half-forgotten knowledge, and whose culminating chapter consists of a gathering of artists, scientists and other interested parties who have convened at a remote site in the forest to discuss what guiding principles might be gleaned from their surroundings to prompt a sufficiently revolutionary change in people’s behaviour to address the growing emergency of the global climate crisis. This small, informal gathering is in marked contrast to the annual round of climate mega-summits, such as COP 26, which took place in Glasgow the month before.

Small and informal it may be, but the gathering, like the film as a whole, is a perfect vehicle for sharing and imparting simple, insightful truths: that living sustainably and resourcefully in tune with nature is a manifesto for the future, that the ‘old ways’ have lasted as long as they have for a reason, and that a toolkit for living light upon the land is often surprisingly close to hand. As Maclennan brought her small cohort of artists, thinkers and craftspeople together in an enclave in the Northern forests in December 2021, Vladimir Putin was almost certainly planning the massed military manoeuvres that would lead, a few weeks later, to the illegal invasion of Ukraine. (That event directly coincided with the launch of an exhibition, organised by our partners, Arctic Art Institute, at the Museum of Artistic Development of the Arctic in Arkhangelsk, where the film was due to premiere. Although Maclennan was no longer able to attend, the opening provided a symbolic moment of solidarity and resistance for the younger Russian artists who had contributed to the project). 

Film still from Ruth Maclennan, A Forest Tale (2022).

Two years on, A Forest Tale has acquired a new, often haunting resonance. Maclennan has had a long fascination with the Arctic and the Russian North as a place of wonder, and as a site of environmental transformation caused by human impact. Earlier films such as Cloudberries (2019) or Call of North (2014) are despatches from that fragile border zone that mix local interviews and intimate documentary footage to report how traditional village life or independent, indigenous cultures are being threatened by colonising influences and modernising imperatives. The fact that the Russian state was prepared to go even further, not so far away, and not only grab land but wreak absolute carnage casts a dark shadow over the interim. But Maclennan’s sensitivity to human lives and individual stories has become, if anything, even more poignant in the face of reminders (from Ukraine and elsewhere) of the human cost of war. Everything is strangely heightened. The occasional sound of wind in the trees as the camera opens out onto another pristine, snowy landscape feels more and more like the early whisper of a coming storm, while the communal bonfire around which the participants at the gathering congregate in the final scene of the film acts as both an emblem of warmth and solidarity and an ominous intimation of approaching conflagration. 

Some of the invited Russian artists add fuel to the flames with a series of powerful, and increasingly incendiary, to-camera speeches whose content is coded in symbolism but whose targets are clearly evident. There is remarkable prescience here, and remarkable bravery. Behind the headlines of Putin’s authoritarian clampdown and the brutalities of his war in Ukraine, the climate crisis still rages, making its presence felt across a country that is warming two-and-a-half times faster than anywhere else in the world. A Forest Tale, like Maclennan’s earlier Russian films, is a bellwether and barometer of these big ecological changes, but it is also a practical yardstick of some of the incremental human and societal changes that can happen, and need to happen, in parallel. The Russian forest is full of voices, like in the best fairy tales. This particular tale may not promise a happy ending. But the voices reverberate anyway, hoping and waiting to be heard.

Steven Bode is Associate Director of Film and Video Umbrella.

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