Investigating the life of things across space and time

The Burning (2011)

The Burning (2008)

Video; 12.15 minutes by Sarah Gillett
Click the PLAY symbol to watch

Text; 12 minute read by Sarah Gillett

          Once upon a time there was a tree growing in a beautiful garden. Every morning, a mist rose from the earth and watered every plant and herb in the garden, and the air became full of birds. The tree was alive with their sounds. The sun shone across the garden and the leaves on the tree opened new and fresh to the light. Every night, as darkness fell, the flowers in the garden closed their fragrant blossoms and the birds flew to the tree to roost. The tree rustled with wings and wind and the sky was full of stars.

          For many seasons a woman had worked in the beautiful garden. She tilled and seeded the ground and watched over the strange and ordinary creatures that lived there. Pink flamingos stood for hours in the clear water of the lake, and fish swam to and fro between their feet like liquid jewels. Lions grunted in their sleep in the long grasses of the garden; butterflies fluttered over the lilac bushes and lilies. In the shimmering golden sun, a fat brown snake sunned itself on the flat smooth rocks by the gurgling stream. On every branch of the tree a bird sat, fluffing out its feathers and singing in the haze all day.  The woman lay against the tree at night and looked up at the twinkling stars. The garden was quiet and peaceful and all its creatures were contented.

          The tree grew strong and tall in the beautiful garden. Rivers ran round about its plants and its roots reached past the pink worms in the rich soil and drank up a multitude of water. Its leaves and branches spread out thick and glossy, and all the birds made nests in its boughs. Its knobbly trunk drummed with a thousand millipedes creeping under its bark. Monkeys swung through its dappled dark yellow light with babies cocooned in their bellies. The woman walked barefoot in the cool of the day and admired its beauty. The tree was majestic and enchanting: more and more birds flocked to its safe green cloak and many animals brought their young to rest in its shade.

          Every day, the sun rose in the east and travelled across the sky. The garden was an orchard of pomegranates, camphire, spikenard and saffron. Calamus and cinnamon bloomed alongside myrrh, thyme and spices. Green figs and black grapes smelled pungent and sweet. The tree’s leaves turned from green to gold and the woman stood on tiptoe in its great shadow to reach for its plump ripe fruit. The fruit was juicy, sticky and delicious. The woman threaded its large smooth seeds together and tied them around her neck as she gathered and dried a mountain of spices. The tree’s branches bent lower and lower. The heavy fruit fell onto the soft springy grass to rot and was eaten or buried by ponderous elephants and curious hogs and dodos.

          A shifting breeze scattered the copper leaves of the tree across the garden, where they floated on the lake above the passing fish and beneath the beady eyes of the hissing flamingos. The wind blew southwards and turned about to the north. It whirled about the garden and returned again to the tree to lift the last of the fruit from the branches and bowl along the long grasses and the rocky slopes. The wind passed over the earth and whistled through the boughs of the tree until it stood bare and black against the enormous sky. The woman sewed the dry leaves together with reeds from the lake to cover herself. She lay among the lions to sleep. The pink flamingos flew by silently overhead and out of sight of the beautiful garden. The tree shook and the birds bobbed up and down in its waving branches.

          In the years after those days, the tree became a forest, covering the garden and surrounding the lake. The forest was dark and gloomy.  Every night, rain dripped down the wood in long icicles and the forest became full of frost. The air was brittle with freezing fog. Huddled together, the birds slept in the trees. From behind the clouds, the moon cast a grey light over the forest, and everything was still and cold as stone. In the morning, dew welled up from the earth and lay like tears on the hard ground. The woman gathered brushwood to build a fire and as it burned, the twigs crackled and spat in the damp air. The forest stirred with the sighing of wind and wings and thawing rime.

          The forest spread across the hills and valleys beyond the garden. It became wild and dense and overgrown. Huge bears shuffled through the trees at night, sniffing the air hungrily. A colony of hairy spiders spun invisible webs between branches to catch bats and moths. The woman watched the spiders and set traps for small animals in the wet bracken and ferns. In the darkest shadows of the forest, terrible creatures fought constantly. The forest echoed with the sound of their growls and screams. In the treetops, the birds screeched as drooling tigers padded through the undergrowth, their breath white and hot. From the depths of the forest, unblinking yellow eyes watched the flames of the fire as the woman charred meat and stitched together a fur cloak. The woman slept in a cave on a bed of feathers and heard the creatures crying and wailing in the night. The earth and the air were full of fear and sadness.

          The winter passed away and another came. The slanting rain pattered through the tangled trees. It echoed and whispered against the wood, and the forest became full of ghosts. The air was haunted with their sounds. The lake was frozen in large sheets of ice, shiny and black in the places cracked by the woman as she fished there.  The reeds were petrified with frost and speared the air. Underneath the ice, the fish swam quick and fast up and down the rivers that led underground and out of the forest to the valleys and oceans beyond. The woman’s feet were cold from the snow so she melted chunks of ice in a large gourde above her fire, and washed herself in the steaming water. A pale sun warmed the air and a ringing crack warbled through the forest as the lake began to thaw. The ice fractured and warped, groaning and bowing until it dissolved in the rising water. The forest was loud with trickling, dripping water and spongy green moss.

          And so the tree died, being old and full of days. Its long branches fell onto the ground and its boughs were broken and washed away in the rivers and streams, until only its great trunk was left, hollow and empty from woodworm. The woman stood in its ancient space and through the gap in the trees, she saw wondrous birds circling and cawing far above her head. The forest was an aviary of parakeets, toucans, macaws and pelicans. Storks and buzzards built their nests in the crowns of the tallest trees, and tiny hummingbirds drank thirstily from the fragile cherry blossoms that suddenly danced in the spring light.  In the hollow of the tree, the woman removed her necklace and planted its seeds there, and a new tree pushed and split its hard casing wide open until it broke the surface of the soil and met the sweet air for the first time. Woodpeckers and wrens flitted through the forest, and blackbirds welcomed the morning in a burst of bright song. The sun shone across the sky and all through the forest there was calm, constant calm, continuing calm. 

The story behind The Burning

I filmed this fire on a wet February night in a stone cottage half way down a cliff in Devon, the sea battering the rocks below and the rain battering the roof above.
Copper plaque showing the angel expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden
Hung in my hallway keeping an eye on all who enter...

Perhaps because my shelter felt a little precarious, I was thinking about the origins of telling stories around a fire, and fire as an essential element for early humanoids’ survival and development. Fire has played a powerful role in our history, in our stories and in its associations so I wanted to write an origin story that was visual, giving the listener image prompts as they stare into the flickering flames.

I chose to write a text based on the images painted and written into in our collective consciousness about the garden of Eden.

Looking back through the battered King James Bible that always sat on top of all the other books on the shelves of my parents’ house, I found that there is scant description of the garden itself, enabling it to become the ultimate fantasy world with myriad flora, fauna and meteorological possibilities. 

In Chapter 2 of Genesis, after the recording of God creating all things in six days, and resting on the seventh, are these verses:

And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.

And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.

A bit later, after Adam and Eve have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge is this verse from Chapter 3:

And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden.

I particularly like this verse from Joel:

A fire devoureth before them; and behind them a flame burneth: the land [is] as the garden of Eden before them, and behind them a desolate wilderness; yea, and nothing shall escape them.

The garden began to take shape over the years, filled out with specific trees, plants and precious stones. It was used as a comparison for beauty in Ezekiel:

The cedars in the garden of God could not hide him: the fir trees were not like his boughs, and the chestnut trees were not like his branches; nor any tree in the garden of God was like unto him in his beauty.

I have made him fair by the multitude of his branches: so that all the trees of Eden, that were in the garden of God, envied him.

Thou hast been in Eden the garden of God; every precious stone [was] thy covering, the sardius, topaz, and the diamond, the beryl, the onyx, and the jasper, the sapphire, the emerald, and the carbuncle, and gold

And they shall say, This land that was desolate is become like the garden of Eden; and the waste and desolate and ruined cities [are become] fenced, [and] are inhabited.

In the Song of Songs, these passages convey a lush wetness, heady perfume and erotic charge. This description turns the Garden of Eden from a chaste, non-descriptive order into an altogether more tempting offer, reminiscent of the feasts enjoyed by the gods of Olympia:

A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.

Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; camphire, with spikenard,

Spikenard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices:

A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon.

Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.

In the Bible the death of Eve is never recorded (Adam lived to be 930 years old). 

In my story, a woman tends to the garden and in the autumn she eats the fruit of the tree of knowledge, as do all the animals and birds. The rest of the fruit rots away into the ground and a forest grows – a forest where the woman learns new survival skills. As the forest spreads, so does knowledge.

The Burning was first shown in the exhibition Headland at Standpoint Gallery / Cremer Street Gallery, London, 2008

I think you might like...

British Sign Language letter I: Radar Beach

Radar Beach

Joseph reaches down and picks up a shell. He hands it to the boy, who is dragging a red plastic bucket across the sand. “Here. What about this one?”
Bill assesses the offering intently. “No Daddy,” he says firmly, “It’s broken here, see.”

Read more »