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On Trees – And the Challenges of Trying to Photograph Them

If you’re reading my blog you probably appreciate trees.  The image above is that of the Lancer Oak.  It is very difficult to do justice to such a magnificent creature.  The Lancer Oak is on the grounds of Worcester State College, home of “The Lancers” of course.  It is reputed to be one of the oldest trees in Worcester.  In the summer, I think it’s harder to get a sense of this tree’s personality.  In the winter, you can really see what it’s been through.

I’m sometimes surprised by just how fond I’ve become of trees over the years.  When we moved to Worcester the front yard of our condo was sans trees. Somewhere along the way the condo association decided to put one in, and we raised that thing like it was our own child.  Now it provides this wonderful shade in the summer months and it’s nearly as tall as the house.  Trees tell us something about life, and about vulnerability.  Central Massachusetts is a favorite place for our photography, and we’ve come to understand that in many of those locations, the Great Hurricane of 1938 destroyed nearly all the pine and many of the hardwood trees, at a distance of nearly 100 miles from the ocean.  Now that is a mighty storm.

Massachusetts is one of the most forested states in the country.  Mother nature reclaimed the farmland.  So what now?  Nature also has the perfect forest management tool:  fire.  Forest fires are now rare of course and just as we find in the western part of the U.S., answers to questions about effective forest management are elusive.  There is a significant and important controversy now underway about the vision for our forests, forest management, clear cutting and the role of biomass plants.  (The later are considered sources of alternative energy, but it’s increasingly clear that they are not carbon neutral, no surprise there of course.)  How should we care for our forests, this incredible resource?  Here are a few links regarding the issues under debate:

The Massachusetts Forest Watch site will inform you about  some of the more serious issues raised by our haphazard approach to forest management and some of the actions that citizens can take to promote forest protection.  There is some pretty tough stuff here about clear cutting in particular.  They raise lots of issues about who is minding the store, and as “Deep Throat” in All the President’s Men reminded us, the need to “follow the money.” In whose interest is appropriate, or inappropriate, forest management?   For something quite different, visit the  The New England Forestry Foundation .  They work with private landowners to promote sustainable forestry stewardship that both preserves existing forests and supports economic development.  My sense is that rather than running from the complexity of matters like this, they roll up their sleeves and try to help.  But the scope of their mission, attending to issues of private landand forest management, is quite different from that of dealing with “protected” forests.

The State’s position in this area is unclear.  The Division of Conservation and Recreation is largely responsible for state-owned lands: State Forests, State Parks and the area around Quabbin Reservoir for example.  In the face of some fairly significant criticism, the Division of Conservation and Recreation’s Forestry Bureau has recently been engaged in a serious visioning project, in an effort to develop an overarching strategy and set of values for managing our (as citizens) forests.   I’m still trying to understand the issues and as such, withholding judgement, for now.  This coming year,  I hope to learn much more.  One does see signs of forest management efforts from time to time.  Throughout the region you can see the occasional “man-made” forest.  There is a certain uniform beauty to them:

A stand of planted trees at the south end of the Quabbin Reservoir

I would stress that I deeply appreciate these stands of timber and those who took the time (or provided the funding) to plant them.  There is a long tradition in Massachusetts of the cultivation of forests. But wild forests on the other hand are very messy, an obsessive compulsive’s nightmare.  It’s hard to get a good image in the forest without a branch getting in the way. But of course, I’m the outsider. The branch lives in forest.  I’m a visitor, hopefully a polite one. So one does the best one can do.  Get down on the ground.  Look for weird and sometimes dangerous angles in the interest of a “clean” shot.  Or, one can just embrace the fact that forests are messy. (Check out Joel Meyerowitz’s new book on New York City Parks for a lesson in how to embrace the mess that is a forest.)  Increasingly I find myself drawn to the later.  (The first image below was taken at Fever Brook in the Federated Women’s Club State Forest, New Salem, Massachusetts, just before Gate 30.  The second from the bridge at Gate 30.)

But I have no right to complain.  If you really want to see how tough it can be to photograph a tree, take a look at this video of Nick Nichol’s efforts to create a portrait of one of the great Redwood’s in California.  This gentleman is one of National Geographic‘s finest, and most fearless, photographers. He’s done it all.  He’s been heard to say that this was his toughest assignment:

We share this space with trees.  They tell us a great deal about what is happening in our ecosystem, and about the threats to our natural world. They may well be our saviors.  They also tell us something about who we are.