Thursday, May 25, 2023

The Walking Wood Xylotheque

A xylotheque is a library of wood samples, a form devised during the Enlightenment as part of the project to define nature in terms of categories, types, kinds, and value. It allowed people to compare the grain, colour, and density of different woods, in a time when new species from overseas were being introduced.

I previously made a xylotheque in the form of wooden hinged books, in oak, each containing an inlaid sample of a tree species from the native woodland, for the hidden gardens (Glasgow). 

This is an outdoor xylotheque, sheltered within a hut, built around an oak tree.

In this new version of a xylotheque, the walking wood, rather than standard samples, the artwork consists of 12 walking sticks. 

Each shaft, or shank, is made from a different native species by my long-term stick-maker collaborator Peter Redhead.

The final xylotheque artwork will consist of two permanent displays, by a footpath, in woodland, created with Bill Breckenridge. The sticks will be secured vertically, in rows, allowing the viewer to compare the shanks and handles.

One xylotheque will represent a Lowland wood, the other a Highland wood, with species that are typical of those ecologies. Peter and I decided that the only crossover species would be oak.


The artwork is gently educative and experiential. Being suggestive of motion, the sticks remind us trees cast seeds, so they do move. The title, the moving wood, recalls the scene in Macbeth when “Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane”.


The names of the tree species will be added in English and Gaelic. 

The final artwork will be installed at the Paths for All Demonstration centre, Oatridge College, near Broxburn, where accessible seat designs and path surfaces are tested. I want to add the xylotheque there as a model for the creation of innovative small-scale public works of art, to encourage communities to commission similar projects, aligned with biodiversity and participation. To become more aware of tree species which belong together is bound to encourage people to create diverse woodlands.

The wooded glen at Oatridge contains most of the dozen species represented in the xylotheque and we will plant saplings for any that we can't locate.

the wood walks 


oak, beech, willow

hawthorn, elder, rowan




oak, Scots pine, holly

hazel, silver birch, alder




I've come to love the walking stick as a perfect poem-object – capable of holding a poem on it's shank while still being actively used, modestly sculptural, generously supportive, ambulatory, shyly performative, and rustically poetic. 

My work as artist in residence with with Paths for All has allowed me to gift poem-sticks to a number of walking groups, whether as playful talismans to share on their weekly outings, or a remembrance of a friend who has passed on. I like to think of them like a gentle revival of the Kibbo Kift movement.  

For my work on limit, pain and chronic illness I've created a series of imaginary demo-sticks with placards added, which you can see here, suggesting the ways in which gentle activities, such as walking, can have radical consequences, encouraging people to feel a sense of permission to care for the world.

This is an extract from an unpublished manifesto on the humble walking stick.

a walking stick has 

the vulnerability of the sapling

and the strength of the full-

grown tree trunk

walks ramble

sticks are straight 

and simple

a walking stick 

is an extension of the arm

and an imitation of the leg

sticks should be cut in the dead season

when no leaves are to be seen

a walking stick should meet your body

just above the palm

a friendly reminder –

in some cultures

walking sticks were traditionally 

decorated with the heads 

of politicians

not all sticks swagger

knobbles add character to a stick

as wrinkles do to the walker

Before these sticks become anchored in a static public artwork, we thought we should took them for a walk in the woodlands they're dedicated to. This May they were walked by groups around Scotland. Sam MacDiarmid took photos of two of the events, a walk up Barr Mor, Taynish NNR (with Argyll Live and Tamara Colchester of plant listening), and a walk with the Nethy Bridge Paths for All Health Walk, in Dell Wood, (also with Tamara as a guide).

Tamara noticed the subtle ways in which the sticks give people confidence and a settled stance, attuning them to nature.


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