Tuesday, 28 April 2015


Boats in a forest.

What are they doing there? What do they mean?

Last weekend I went to Leigh Woods, near my home town Bristol, UK, where the artist Luke Jerram has installed five fishing boats amongst the trees as part of a piece called ‘Withdrawn’.

photo by the author 2015

According to Luke Jerram:

“Miles from the sea, how did they get here? Were they left by a receding tidal surge or a changing coast line? Or is this the effect of over fishing, causing fish stocks to collapse and with it the industry? This thought-provoking and engaging installation raises discussion about climate change, extreme weather, falling fish stocks and our impact on the marine environment”.
[Text from http://www.lukejerram.com/

I like walking in Leigh Woods, and I like fishing boats, and I loved Luke Jerram’s Park and SlidePark and Slide last year, so this was perfect for me. It’s brilliant, and you should make the effort to go. You can walk there from central Bristol in 20 minutes.

The idea of the abandoned ship in a forest was tugging at something for a while until I remembered it is an idea I use when talking to students about the legacies of colonialism in South America. (Stay with me! I’ll explain). The image of an abandoned ship in a forest is used by the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez in his 1967 masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). The protagonists of the story are trekking through the dense forest seeking a place to settle down and make their own, when they come across a Spanish galleon.

Here is Gregory Rabassa’s translation from the original Spanish:

“It was a thick night, starless, but the darkness was becoming impregnated with a fresh and clear air. Exhausted by the long crossing, they hung up their hammocks and slept deeply for the first time in two weeks. When they woke up, with the sun already high in the sky, they were speechless with fascination. Before them, surrounded by ferns and palm trees, white and powdery in the silent morning light, was an enormous Spanish galleon. Tilted slightly to the starboard, it had hanging from its intact masts the dirty rags of its sails in the midst of its rigging, which was adorned with orchids. The hull, covered with an armour of petrified barnacles and soft moss, was firmly fastened into a surface of stones. The whole structure seemed to occupy its own space, one of solitude and oblivion, protected from the vices of time and the habits of the birds. Inside, where the expeditionaries explored with careful intent, there was nothing but a thick forest of flowers”. 
[Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, translated by Gregory Rabassa, Jonathan Cape, 1970], p.12.

Of course the existence of a Spanish galleon in the middle of the forest is a classic example of García Márquez’s style of ‘magical realism’, in which time is stretched, apparently magical events are presented as real and a lush, extraordinary marvellous world is evoked. Commentators on One Hundred Days of Solitude have gone further, arguing that the image of the galleon in the forest asks the reader to reflect on the fate of Spanish colonialism in the tropics. Colombia had been independent from Spanish colonial rule for over 150 years when García Márquez wrote the novel, but Spanish culture – from language and religion to gender norms and recreational practises – had shown remarkable resilience amongst the population. The galleon, covered in barnacles and adorned with orchids, persists in time and outside of time. Colonialism in the Americas – symbolised by the galleon -  had put down long-lasting roots which persisted long after the viceroys and their political systems had been overthrown by Simón Bolívar and his generation of Liberators.

While I was in Leigh Woods (my son was singing at a concert staged on the boats, which was brilliant) I bumped into Luke Jerram, who was taking some photos and filming videos like this one. Mulling over these ideas I asked him if he’d read One Hundred Years of Solitude. He said he’d loved the book when he read it ages ago, but didn’t remember the galleon, which is fair enough, as it's a small image in a big, amazing book. To my mind Withdrawn is a wonderful, meditative piece, and I'm grateful to all the people who have combined to dream it up and put it there. It asks us to reflect on universal themes about the nature of time and space, and what happens when we put things that shouldn’t be there – be they boats or empires – in places where they apparently don't belong.