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Amy Cutler – Nostalgia Forest

Oystercatcher Press, Old Hunstanton, 2013. Chapbook, 40pp, £6.

Reviewed by Holly Pester.

Cover of Amy Cutler - Nostalgia ForestA past meaning of the word ‘nostalgia’ describes a severe homesickness, a medical condition brought on by an acute longing for home. In Nostalgia Forest Amy Cutler brings the body back into the condition of nostalgia, connecting physical affliction and remembrance. However, in this enquiry into the bodily affects of memory, the physiology of trees, as single figures or collective forest-forms, replaces the human. 
     The conceptual structure of Cutler’s bookwork is to intersect lines of text from the English translation of Paul Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting (2000) with pictograms from dendrochronology (or tree ring reading) manuals. Such a line is "The happy memory of the young slave", which sits beneath a picture of tree rings seeming to describe the effects of weather on trees in exposed areas, compared to the fingerprints of sheltered tree-clusters on lower ground. We are left to decode the association of text to image and to imagine if there even is one. Here possibly the pain and joy of personal memory is framed against the social experience of memory. Another is" This gives an indication of burden", below an image showing root length of an established tree. Another, "We have nothing better than memory to guarantee that something has taken place", with a cross-section of a tree trunk showing a possible disease obscuring the rings. Another, "We have in our souls a block of wax, larger in one person, smaller in another", with a simplistic diagram showing a trunk cross-sections of variously wind-damaged trees. 
     Through these pages we are obscurely introduced to Ricoeur’s theories on the phenomenology of memory as recollection, the epistemology of collective memory as history, and the possibility of a ‘happy forgetting’ (as apposed to, or in conjunction with, a happy memory.) Ricoeur’s study on the burden of remembering and mnemonic phenomena is most concerned with the question of how the past is experienced in the present, and the damage done on or by collective memory. The marriage of these questions with images of time-damaged trees brings about further questions: teleologies of time, materialities of remembering, memorial and mourning.
     In a procedural composition like this, using entirely found material, the force of the work lays in the selection process and the chosen combinations. Reading the book is to negotiate how the different sets of material read each other. In this case the synthesis between text and image, is perfectly judged. The combinations leap between description, riddle, aphorism and diagrammatic pun. Cutler’s positioning of the images both illustrate and deviate from Ricoeur’s arguments (or the ghost of his argument). The diagrams have a distinctive, peculiar style. Somewhere between heritage engravings and picture book illustration – they have a scientific objectivity touched with sentimentality. How can we not feel affection at the image labelled ‘fire scars’ on intricate lines of a tree trunk?
Nostalgia Forest is part of a collection of works and research by Cutler that investigate the intuitive link between forests and memory. (Cutler also curated an exhibition this year at the belfry of St Johns church, Bethnal Green called Time, the Deer, is in the wood of Hallaig. The exhibition was a collection of  of artefacts, archival photographs, tree specimens, book-works, and wood sculpture related to the question of ‘forest memory’.) Without labouring on the ‘why’ of the connection, Cutler’s project is to gather literature, images, artefacts and specimens that map the arboreal embodiment of the experience of memory. Time illustrated by material marks. (I am at this point wondering where forgetting fits into this dynamic?) The act of absenting the human in Nostalgia Forest, substituting us with trees, gives this figure multiple roles in the investigation into memory. The tree is figured as an archive of Earth history, as a witness to our social narratives, a prosthesis for trauma, a symbol of mourning. 
     In general on memory an ambiguity can emerge on whether what is at stake is personal recollection and collective remembrance, or the vague and more emotive acts of memorial. In other words, when talking about memory we are often yoking together two, or more, different concepts and neural mechanisms; the memory of narratives, things and events, and the cerebral reflex to recall (phone numbers, directions, names). The first is both personal and societal, connected to nostalgia, reminiscing, trauma and emotional affect; the second is a kind of intellectual muscle that’s measureable and otherwise distinct from ‘emotion’. By describing the philosophy of memory through trees, via Ricouer’s text, Cutler turns this ambiguity of memory/recall terminology into a formalised intrication. She gathers together interconnections of neural networks and wood grain, history’s narrative routes, blood lines and bark forms. Human experience, biological constructs and social patterns are drawn into one merged diagrammatic poem.
15 March 2014