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Paul Gough
    "... We were marooned on a frozen desert.There is not a sign of life on the horizon and a thousand signs of death.Not a blade of grass, not an insect; once or
    twice a day the shadow of a big hawk, scenting carrion. I suppose I can endure cold, and fatigue, and the face-to-face death, as well as another; but extra for
    me there is the universal pervasion of Ugliness. Hideous landscapes, vile noises, foul language and nothing but foul, even from one's own mouth (for all are devil-
    ridden), everything unnatural, broken, blasted,the distortion of the dead, whose unburiable bodies sit outside the dug-outs all day, all night, the most execrable
    sights on earth... "
    Letter from Lt. Wilfred Owen, 2nd Manchester Regt. to his mother, 4th February 1917.
The Danger Tree
To an earlier generation of poets and painters Owen's desolate experience on the iced battlefields of Flanders might have beenconsidered Sublime. To Owen, a battle-wearied subaltern, it was the epitomy of depair, an omnipresent ghastliness that sappedhis spirit but, ironically, honed his poetry. Owen's fragmentary poem 'Cramped in that funnelled hole' describes the nightmare predicament of lying exposed on a blasted landscape. He describes a deserted battlefield where the jagged edges of shell-craters appear as wicked teeth, the mud in the bottom as phlegm caught in the throat. His letter of February 1917 captures, as possibly no other fragment of war experience has done, the trauma of isolation in a man-made desert.

Elsewhere Owen had described No man's Land as 'like the face of the moon chaotic, crater-ridden, uninhabitable, awful, theabode of madness'

Is this not the same territory as that dominated by the Upas Tree ?

The art critic Richard Redgrave has given us the most comprehensive description of that strange beast:
    "This fabulous tree was said to grow on the island of Java, in the midst of a desert formed by its own pestiferous exhalations. These destroyed all vegetable
    life in the immediate neighbourhood of the tree, and all animal life that approached it. Its poison was considered precious, and was to be obtained by piercing
    the bark, when it flowed forth from the wound. So hopeless, however, and so perilous was the endeavour to obtain it, that only criminals sentenced to death
    could be induced to make the attempt, and as numbers of them perished, the place became a valley of theshadow of death, a charnel-field of bones."
A more recent art historian has elaborated on this vivid description, informing us that the fable drew on the strange story of the poisonous anchar tree, first revealed by the 18th century botanist Erasmus Darwin. In the Romantic era it became a familiar and potent image adopted by such poets as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, occurring in Lord Byron's Childe Harolde's Pilgrimage and in Robert Southey's epic poem Thalaba. But probably the most significant evocation of this bizarre plant is in the vast canvas painted by the Bristol based painter Francis Danby. He painted The Upas, or Poison Tree, in the Island of Java in 1819; a year later it heralded his triumphal arrival on theLondon art scene. By the standards of its time it is not a huge painting - it measures 5 feet by 7 - but its sense of scale is enormous: the cowering figure is dwarfed by the landscape, the tree - an innocuous stalk - dominates the surrounding terrain; and the rocky valley - said to have been modelled on the Avon Gorge - is the epitomy of inhospitability, a hazardous, leafless regime of crags and fissures.

The picture though was fated. After mixed reviews it sold for £150, but the fee went straight to Danby's host of creditors, the artist having worked up an impressive debt during his residency in Bristol. Within years the picture declined in quality: sloppy technique and recklessly thick varnish had rendered the image unreadable. By 1857 the picture was barely visible. It was as if the poisonous exhalations of the motif had spread to the very paint surface. Extensive cleaning and removal of layers of dark varnish have revived the painting, but even after sophisticated conservation work it still catches the light badly and is difficult to read. Like the eponymous tree itself one approaches the vast canvas with squinting eyes and a cautious tread.

Ninety-nine years after Danby finished his painting, the young soldier-artist Paul Nash was struggling with his own 'magnum opus', the huge canvas now known as The Menin Road. Like Danby's image it describes a blighted land - the Western Front. For over four years two huge armies had faced each other seperated only by a buffer zone called No Man's Land, in places a mile wide, in others a few yards. It was a marginal, liminal world that assumed phantasmagoric properties out of all proportion to its size. Often unmappable and always hazardous it exerted an extraordinary power over combatants. Patrols setting out in to its dangerous interior were likened to polar explorations; the poet David Jones, serving at the front with the Royal Welch Fusiliers, likened it to a 'great fixed gulf' - but recognised that it was also a place of strange ironies:
    ' ... the day by day in the wasteland, the sudden violences and long stillnesses, the sharp contours and unformed voids of the mysterious existence profoundly effected the imaginations of those who suffered it. It was a place of enchantment'.
Like the terrain around the Upas tree No Man's Land was scourged, swept incessantly by fire and lethal poisons. For Paul Nash it provided a rich but wretched subject matter described in a letter from the front in November 1917 :
    ' ... no glimmer of God's hand is seen anywhere sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man, only the black rain out of the bruised and swollen clouds all through the bitter black of night is fit atmosphere in such a land. The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomesmore evilly yellow, the shell
    holes fill up withgreen-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease ...'
Nash sensed the stange ironies of Nature on the battlefield. Several months earlier he had been confounded by the regenerative power of the natural order, watching in astonishment as 'dead' trees spouted new buds and lilac bloomed in the trenches. The English pastoral tradition was always capable of re-asserting itself in the most harrowing of circumstances and for Nash it would be the 'ridiculous mad incongruity' between apparent death and burgeoning life that would fuel so much of his war art. In his drawings great gobbets of barbed wire take on the illusion of thornbushes and gorse; in The Menin Road itself the painter captures the weird ironies of so much front line existence by painting two large, verdant tree shapes that are, in fact nothing of the sort - they are huge plumes of smoke bursting from artillery shells.

Of all wars the Great War, 1914 - 1918, seems to have been characterised by a widening sensitivity to the idea of violated landscape. Perhaps it was because the war on the Western Front was an attritional war, a prolonged siege over a deserted battle ground bereft of troops; a war in which opposing combatants rarely saw each other but where they had to become highly sensitised to the topography of the land in front of them, a land where the terrain, especially the 'enemy land', had to be constantly analysed, monitored and codified. Offering vantage, protection and a focal point on this new desert combatants developed a special relationship with trees:
    'I never lost this tree sense: to me half the war is a memory of trees; fallen and tortured trees; trees untouched in summer moonlight, torn and shattered winter trees,
    trees green and brown, grey and white, living and dead. They gave their names to roads and trenches, strong points and areas. Beneath their branches I found the
    best and the worst of war.'
Affections aside, trees were also the icons of doom. Combatants soon realised that a single tree could become a registration point for enemy artillery, and a tendency to collect around isolated trees was often a mistake. As one front soldier learned to his peril:
    "The 'Lone Tree' was the assembly point for the wounded, and all around on the grass there were dozens of wounded on stretchers waiting to be taken down by the
    ambulance column. This tree was a favourite for the German artillery and I could never understand why the wounded, transport, cookers and ambulances were
    allowed to congregate in this area. Apparently, somebody later recognised the danger and the tree was felled"
It is a reprise of the Upas Theme: the lone tree as a point of maximum danger, inverting its normal function as a place of refuge and shade. In the course of the war, trees, and especially small woods, were to become renowned death traps. Mametz Wood, Mansel Copse, Delville Wood, amongst dozen of others, some no larger than a tennis court, were to become infamous killing grounds, points of extraordinary mayhem fought over for months. The map designation of 'copse' and 'wood' soon became irrelevant as the trees were felled by artillery shells, splintered by shrapnel and charred by fire and, all around, the earth was churned into an undifferentiated 'obscene porridge'.

Pine and Shrine
On these old battlefields individual trees have since become the focus of elaborate rituals of commemoration. On the Anzac battlefield in Gallipoli one period of that sordid campaign came to be named after a solitary conifer which dominated the sky line near the enemy front line. The Lone Pine has become firmly established in Australian folklore as a place, an event, a defining moment in the birth of modern Australia. The tree itself was cut down by the Turks hours before the first attack on their position. But its trunk was found jammed in an old trench and seeds from it were sent back to Australia and planted in the grounds of the nation's war museum. After the war seeds from this tree were returned to Turkey and planted on the approximate location of the original Ð it thrives today, a 30 foot mature pine that miraculously survived a forest fire that ravaged the region last summer. This slightly bizarre planting ritual, involving seedlings being sent halfway around the world continues today veterans groups, historical societies and distant relatives now elect to plant trees, rather than planting stone memorials and there is a constant traffic of new saplings from the Antipodesto be lovingly reared on the Dardenelles.

On the Western Front many individual trees have become shrines for the new hordes of battlefield pilgrims: a scarred hornbeam in Delville Wood that thrives today despite being riddled with shrapnel; another tree in the centre of the Newfoundland Memorial Park near Beaumont Hamel - known as 'The Danger Tree' - which has been kept nominally alive having been 'planted' - somewhat crudely - in a barrel of cement. Arboreal symbolism is rife: lines of maples planted alongside Canadian monuments; oak trees grown from acorns bought over from Cape Colony that have been planted as a processional avenue leading to the memorial for the South African dead.

The formalism of so much of the commemorative planting on the Western Front - and especially at Gallipoli where the cemeteries are mathematically symmetrical, the rosemary bushes clipped by precision instruments - is at odds, one might think, with the informality and irregularity of the Picturesque aesthetic that has dominated English garden design since the late 18th century. War graveyards are a return to the geometric order of the Tudor knot-garden and the harsh abstract patterns of le Notre and Hampton Court. It is as if the British embraced the formalism and regimentation of Classicism as an antidote to the collapse of order during and after the war. With their rank upon rank of aligned white headstones, manicured lawns and pristine flowerbeds the military cemeteries strung along the western front like 'beads on a rosary' bring a structure and order that must have been cruelly missing in the maelstrom of battle and in the sordid world of the trenches.

The macabre fascination with battlefield icons such as The Danger Tree and the Lone Pine may be more than just commemorative passion. It may be deeply ingrained in the English gardening psyche. After all, was it not one of the fathers of 'The English Garden', Charles Bridgeman, who, when designing the Royal Park at Kensington Gardens in London, replanted nearly 1,200 dead elms in 1728. WilliamKent is said to have continued this bizarre practice believing it to add a necessary Gothic touch to the otherwise prim scene.

The Hollowed Oak
Although the solitary ancient elm or oak was to became a staple element in any respectable Romantic landscape composition, our ecological era takes a dim view of this fascination with blackened, charred nature. Perhaps we can never eradicate the appalling images of the Great War, their reprise in the fire-bombed cities of Dresden and Coventry, and again in the industrialised blighting of nature carried out in the name of democracy - in the form of agent orange - in Vietnam. This was chemical deforestation on an epic scale, a fore-runner to the slash-and-burn economics required by the hamburger industry.

New industry has become neurotically sensitive to images of despoilation. Take this cutting from The Guardian, circa 1988:
    "A small but significant bit of image-adjustment is about to take place at the Trawsfynydd nuclear power station in Wales.A clump of dead trees which invariably
    features doomily in TV shots of the place is going to be put to the chain saw. The suggestion came not from the CEGB's public relations squad but from David
    Williams, a local undertaker who sits on the community liaison committee. It's not clear if he's going to claim the wood."
The most interesting aspect of the Upas legend, though, is that the tree is not dead. Like Paul Nash's 'budding stumps' the outward appearance is notoriously deceptive: it attracts and lures only to repel and lay waste.

One parallel to this unique condition exists: the strange tale of the 'Dummy Tree' that was first erected on the Western Front in 1915. The Dummy,or Periscope Tree, was a masterpiece of deception. Somewhere along the British side of the front line a specially chosen tree would be studied, measured and then, one night, chopped down. That same night an exact replica - but one hollowed out, lined with steel, and equipped with an internal ladder and a perch for observation work - would be put up in its place. In the light of the following day, to the German spotters in the opposing trenches, nothing would seem to have changed, except now the British had a new vantage point - highly useful in the flat countryside of Flanders. The first British dummy tree - a fake willow -had been devised by Solomon J Solomon, a 54 year old Royal Academician, who envied the expertise of the French Ecole de Camouflage - at that time led by the head scene painter from the Paris Opera - which was mass producing dummy corpses, horses, and other such novelties. Solomon's tree weighed over 7 cwt, and was lined with bark from a decayed willow cut down in Windsor Great Park. It took twelve men to lift and erect, but having been installed near the Yser Canal it proved to be too confined a space for the observer. A subsequent tree, 13 ft high and disguised as a splintered oak became the prototype. it allowed the occupant to observe, consult maps, even snipe on an unsuspecting enemy. A veritable Poison Tree indeed.

Camouflage, as an intentional distortion of Nature, may be our inheritance of the Upas Tree. Today, the 105 mm light guns of the Royal Artillery are expensively and elaborately decorated with disruptive camouflage netting. Masquarading as a form of nature it emanates, much like the Upas, regular spouts of deathly vapour, 'pestiferous exhilations' that blight the land around for anything up to 15 kilometres.

But probably the apotheosis of the Upas legend in this century is to found in the great artillery cannon of the First World War. These monstrous weapons, often designed as static coastal guns might weigh up to twenty tons, had to be moved by nine tractors and required twelve men using light railway and a crane to load the one ton shell. The entire works were screened by the artifice of camouflage - acres of painted hessian and disruptive patterning spread over and around the giant gun. It was an industrialised siege machine, masquarading as a bushy copse, which would suddenly and cataclysmically spout a ton of fire and smoke, sending tremors through the earth around for hundreds of yards and igniting nearby grass with its muzzle blast. The Upas Tree in its modern guise.