The forest whose tree rings are chapters in a book. How understanding what is inherently human in the natural world can help save the environment
A hundred years is an insignificant measure of time for a tree yet is humbling with respect to human mortality. For those that tend the forests of Nordmarka, just outside Oslo, this amount of time, reflective of a tree’s lifespan, seems small. Conceptually, Future Library Oslo, a public artwork commissioned and produced by Bjørvika Utlvikling, looks towards the forest to see what it can reveal about human’s connection with nature.
The team behind it, headed by Scottish artist Katie Paterson have planted 1,000 trees which will supply paper for a curated anthology of books to be printed in 2114. Every year, one writer, chosen for their forward-thinking, will contribute a text which will be held in trust, unpublished, until the forest matures. So far, Future Library has received contributions from Margaret Atwood David Mitchell, Sjón, Elif Shafak, Han Kang and Karl Ove Knausgård. After the stipulated hundred years, once the trees are fully grown, this artwork will be reborn as a limited-edition collection of one complete set of the texts.
The entire process, from conception to production of the literary works, keeps in mind Future Library’s values (and concepts) of imagination and time, inciting aims of stewardship and protectionism towards the planet. The authors’ work is interconnected with the natural world that they are reliant on for publishing, imagining the forest as «containing the writers’ ideas like an unseen energy». When speaking of the process, Anne Beate Hovind, the Chair of the Future Library Trust, highlights how this artwork «is a very organic process. Most of the authors see themselves as part of a family tree. When they enter into this family, it seems like something happens in the way that they perceive the position of their work in time».
Karl Ove Knausgård, the 2019 author was attracted to Future Library as «there are so many different aspects of this project that I like. From a writer’s perspective, it’s exciting to do something and know that it will be published in a completely different setting, in a completely different world». Embracing people’s fascination with the future «is doing something practical» and culminates in the author writing a letter to their (and our) future self.
Every year the literary work is given to the Norwegian forest in a handover ceremony involving the author, the Future Library Trust and members of the public. This ritualistic ceremony provides a further connection of human and nature, allowing a greater understanding of the position of this artwork in the natural world.
The timeframe created by Future Library is important in and of itself as «the concept of one hundred years is beyond our lifetime. It’s in our reach, we can comprehend it, but it surpasses our position in the world». This conception is both a collective and personal challenge. Anne has found that «100 years has confronted me with my own conception of time, it’s made me rethink my position in time and my own mortality. Had it been an 8-year-old project, nobody would have paid attention to it because there would be no surprises, yet 100 years grabs peoples’ imagination».
Future Library goes deeper than the anthology of books that will be produced in 2114. Katie insists that it «has nature, the environment at its core — and involves ecology, the interconnectedness of things, those living now and still to come». It has become a borderless project as «it’s crossing religion, age, ethnicity and location». Anne believes that the notion of how humans interact with each other and the natural world fulfils them with a basic human need of connection. This feeling of interdependence with nature removes the notion that humans are superior, with the ability (and desire to) conquer.
«The world isn’t in a binary of nature vs human. We’re thinking about what the natural world needs, rather than just what we want». In doing this, Future Library Oslo has the potential to initiate environmental change. «It’s really up to all of us to do it, to work towards making a difference. We are in the position where aims towards change are accessible and within our reach; we need to grasp this opportunity. Future Library is a very strong call for action». And this call to action extends to the issue of climate change, with a level of urgency «we can’t ignore it anymore. We need to make these decisions (to alleviate climate change) now but the content of these decisions need to invest in a long-term project. Repairing nature will take time». And it is by looking towards the time taken to grow a forest, that humans can gain an understanding of the longevity of our actions.
The process, from planting native Norwegian Spruce (Betula pubescens) to nurturing them, has the forests’ sustainability at its core. «It’s about the maintenance of resources carried out in a sustainable way. We took samples from the surrounding forest and replanted them in situ, making sure to not introduce new species. The forest is incredible as it takes care of growing itself; all we have had to do is put red ribbons on the trees because they’re so small». This protectionism has altered the concept that a human’s role is to conquer nature, rather looking at ways to immerse humans into a more natural and environmentally aware way of life.
The project allows an understanding of «the slowness of growing of nature as it takes many years to grow a forest. You cannot rely on immediacy with the natural world; you have to be patient». Anne believes that, by encouraging the public to see the importance of the forest, they will feel more of an affiliation with the natural world. «Going into our piece of forest every year and seeing the changes that have taken place over time really makes you aware. For those who have come year on year, they’re going to be able to see how the world is changing. It allows people to understand the work that it takes to grow something – the amount of time that it will take is so humbling».
This importance of human connection indicates how Future Library requires more than just the author to tell a story. Everyone has a part to play in sharing the narrative, just as everyone has the opportunity to share in nature. «There are so many ways to relate to this work. Everyone who experiences it is able to share their experiences with others, and this is how we can spread our message». It relies on others in the future to carry on its legacy. «We have to do our best now, but most of it is trust. Trust is such a special, and fundamentally human word; having to trust people in our society. This is what it’s about; we have to believe that people will take continue our work and fulfil our aims».
Whilst, for many the notion of a hundred years can be frightening, Future Library aims to bring hope. «If you don’t have hope, then we have lost. Future Library is insistent that there is a future. We see this in the longevity of the trees that we planted; there is a forest, and somebody will (and has to) take care of it. Margaret Attwood believed that launching Future Library was an act of optimism, and I completely agree with this. It is such a simple concept; to plant a tree and to make it grow. And this is something that is within reach for most of us, which makes it easier to engage with and act on at a personal level». Yet this initiative needed a catalyst; «I had to be the one to start it, to make a change so that future generations can carry it on. I see this process as a form of accountability for those who will come after us». This action towards preserving the natural world, is a gift to those future generations.
Anne hopes that in the future, this project will «invite people in years to come, to meta-communicate about their lives, to be silent and consider who we are; to stay connected. When you start walking through the forest, you cut through the initial small talk. I would like Future Library to help to fulfil our human need to be connected to others». And Anne sees the trustee members of now and the future to have their own responsibility «I carry a gift to share with others. My role is to communicate, be transparent, share the story and the work with people to make it accessible for all no matter who they are. Every conversation that I have with people is intense and honest, so I think Future Library invites you to focus on the simplicity of the natural world. I want this work to fulfil its role as a common, just as the forest is; it’s a shared space for all of us to experience».
Over time, as the trees grow, their rings almost becoming the chapters in the books that future authors will promise, Future Library Oslo continues to inspire. It is difficult to envisage where the world will be in a hundred years, whether humans will still be reading their books, whether there will be any aspects of the natural world remaining. Yet if we can adhere to the aims of Future Library and understand that we do not have to be superior to nature, then there is hope that we can embrace patience and long-term thinking to reverse the ensuing environmental disaster.