Afternoon Dust

Forest, silence: Katie Paterson's Future Library

There’s two things I love about pine forests, more than anything else: the smell, and the sound. The smell is of a thousand Christmases rolled into one, or being locked in a warehouse full of pine-scented car fresheners — no, fresher, cleaner than that. The sound is of silence. Densely packed trees and meshes of needles make for a very effective acoustic dampening material. Any noises that are heard are clearer, nearer, and stop dead in their tracks, no reverberation time at all.

Katie Paterson’s new work is about time, among other things. Pine trees have been planted in a forest near Oslo; every year for the next hundred years, a text will be written by a different author to be held in trust until the hundred years are up, at which point the trees will be felled and turned into paper for publishing an anthology of the texts.

A hundred years = just out of our reach… (Paterson’s, and mine). So it is about death, then, about our pitifully limited lifespans in comparison to the growth rate of a pine tree? Perhaps, but for me this is not the work’s centre of gravity. The way the artist has guaranteed herself something to fret about annually for each of the remaining years of her life? This is closer to it.

What is breathtaking about Future Library is the chosen timeframe of a hundred years — not because it is so far, further than an average human lifespan, but because it is so soon. The project is due to be completed just after the IPCC predictions for the effects of climate change stop due to escalating uncertainties. The panel’s current estimate for this century’s close, assuming we continue living the way we do at the moment, is for an increase in global average temperatures of 4.5 degrees centigrade, which would be the biggest change since the end of the last Ice Age. When temperatures were last 4.5 degrees colder, most of Europe lay a mile under ice. The end of Future Library thus sits on the other side of the end of the world, or at least the world as we know it.

In theory, all that needs to happen for the project to succeed is for Western civilisation to keep rolling on in its current form for another hundred years. This is the provocativeness of the work: its precariousness is also that of our societies and institutions. It is also the work’s own special kind of silence: it lies beyond the point where all our predictions and expectations come to an end, where all we hear is in our immediate proximity, the sound of our own breathing.