"This unintentional and mostly unnoticed renewal of the rural and mountainous east-not the spotted owl, not the salvation of Alaska's pristine ranges represents the great environmental story of the United States, and in some ways of the whole world." -Bill McKibben, 1995, from Foster, D.R. Forests in Time, p.vi
Vermont's woods are my home. I walk with the camera every day along the logging roads and deer runs in this second-growth forest. I work to keep the photographs straightforward, specific, and unromantic—just recorded moments from the lives of the trees.
Our core sense of beauty arises from our deep connection to this world. We humans are of these forests, and our urbanity rests upon them. Trees produce oxygen, paper, building materials, and fuel. They retain rainfall, reducing floods and droughts. They provide clean watersheds, prevent erosion, moderate the climate, recycle nutrients, store carbon, and are home to insects and animals. But these forested landscapes are provisional for they are managed, working timberlands—under private, state and national care. Most of this productive forest in Vermont was farmland; all of it has been logged repeatedly.
With the decline and demise of the Vermont hill farms during the late nineteenth century, the forest reasserted its presence on the land. In 1870, forest covered about a quarter of the state; today, more than three-quarters is woodland. This remarkable turnaround has taken place on what is overwhelmingly private property. Timber harvesting takes place on a regular basis in a long agricultural-like cycle, which is not to say these lands are unsightly or provide impoverished habitat. The vigorous conditions of the Northeast naturally produce a diverse and lush forest.
Although the so-called “natural world” is not any more real or true than is the human-made environment, it may give us more space to consider our own nature. The human world is so intentional and manipulated that we easily become reactive and discursive; some distance from society may allow us to see and contemplate with more clarity. The forest offers an interconnected complexity and vastness that give us perspective and balance. Our psyche needs the forest, in the immediate sense of connecting with the sights and sounds of an unfolding walk, and in the abstract way we imagine into the deeply mythical space of the forest. The former sensations can be paradoxically relaxing and exciting, resulting in a calm, but precise, hunter's awareness. The latter archetypes may be spiritually ascendant or physically terrifying but they are all revealing of ancient foundations of human experience.
Trees give a proportion to our human life. Like us, they are suspended vertically between heaven and earth. The trees are not there without the space around them. Likewise, the photograph is not there without the frame around it and the space around the frame. The components of the photograph are lost in their relation to one another and in relation to all that they are not. One of the appeals of photography is that it unifies and puts everything into relation within the frame. The underlying reality of the photograph is the unity of the parts.
Analytical thinking often discourages a perspective of the whole. We tend to constantly compare and we do so through isolating subjects with thought. Contents are identified and separated from their context by thought. Subject and ground can be seen as one only without comparison and identification. Beauty is holistic, connected, and experienced without thought. Our existence is no different. We may be able to think we are on our own, but our reality is highly relational, contextual and dependent upon all aspects of our environment.
Philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes that, despite physical facts, the space of the forest extends infinitely in our minds. This immensity is within us. 2 We respond with a visceral poetry to the soaring, variable, interdependent forms of trees. The complexity of the forest encourages a realization of process, of ourselves in the process, and of the direct quality of our experience in the present.
The root of romanticism is the accurate realization that we humans are not separate from the world. In the romantic moment, we discover a joy in shared existence. But our conceptual minds quickly follow to form an idea of that event that we can hang onto. This mental construct is abstracted and isolated from the original, free-flowing touch with reality. The concept is not the experience. This difference makes the mental formulation of romantic ideals and standards rather deadly.
At the 1975 exhibition at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, the New Topographics photographers broke from the idealized, God-is-here imagery of American landscape photography (as artfully rendered by Ansel Adams). This jump-started a movement with photographers' insistent inclusion of human presence, and it opened our eyes to what we were ignoring and what we as a society were doing to the earth. The low-key, ordinary aspect of the New Topographics pictures was a valuable corrective to the nostalgic vision of blessed America’s glorious, untrammeled natural beauty. That artistic change parallels the tempering of early, purist forms of environmentalism into our contemporary acceptance of human society as part of the workings of our planet.
My photographs do not always include direct signs of human presence but the underlying truth of the Northern Forest and my images is that all we see has been shaped by human activities and agendas. For me, this forest is a socially constructed landscape, but hopefully my perspective allows you to take joy in the natural setting even as we both realize the past damage, and the current threat, of economic forces. As photographer Robert Adams writes: “Edward Thomas, a country poet, observed that people and trees are “imperfect friends," citing the tragic nature of people and the silence of trees.” 3
Any romantic qualities in these photographs should also be tempered by the whining of mosquitoes and the mad circling of deer flies; I was being bitten during most of the fair-weather exposures. During the years that I worked on this book, the tick population in the local forest surged. While I was exploring the woods, a variety of ticks, some no doubt carrying Lyme disease, explored me. In one month of tick season, I found 245 ticks on my body. The one-day high was 27. But few were attached because of obsessive self-inspections.
After many years of living in Vermont, I still find the forest’s seasonal changes startling. These dynamic transformations are integrated in the “time composite” photomontages. Past, present and future coexist in a time cycle incarnate. These photographs attempt to materialize that notion of past and future existing in the present moment in the present form. Our fascination with photography is grounded in such accords: the unity of time—the photograph presents a moment of the past right now; the unity of space—the photograph places all its contents onto the same surface and into relationship; the unity of time and space—the photograph shows that these elements are not separate. The time composites are embodiments of change. They arise from the brutalist instinct of throwing things together, the Hadron Collider impulse. I have worked on variations of this change-in-the-landscape theme for more than twenty years. I think this current approach works well because both continuity and change are immediately evident.
The landscapes of the time composites were carefully photographed from the exact same location at different times. Since these images are essentially one view, they feel very close to being “straight” photographs to me. At first, I marked the camera's position with a stake, using a plumb bob suspended from the tripod. A set of exact tripod measurements and ribbon guides placed in the landscape at the sides of the view would complete the initial set. This method worked, but it took at least an hour, sometimes two, to reset the tripod and camera precisely. Very frustrating. After suffering a heart attack during one particularly exasperating reset (the upper segment on page 126), I changed my procedure. I now attach a camera mount to a tree, or I leave a tripod in place, weighted down with bricks, for a full year. (I am happy to say I have lost no tripods to theft.) These time composites, and all the other images in the book, have not been digitally manipulated. Computer tools have been used to piece together the different images, but nothing else has been created or altered.
Our conceptions of time and seasonal change may be challenged by the specificities of the year-long chronology of straight, single-exposure photographs. In particular, ideas of spring and autumn are often simplistic. Vermont gives these preconceptions a good shake. The northern locale, combined with the mountainous terrain produces a highly variable weather cycle. The elevations of the pictures vary by as much as 2,500 feet, which can effect a two-week difference in climatic conditions. As writer John Elder has said: “The weather extremes demand a constant reorientation from New Englanders.” 4 I'm sure he would include wearing a warmer coat in this adjustment, but he points to more encompassing changes of attitudes.
1 from Foster, D.R., Forests in Time, 1995, vi.
2 Poetics of Space, p. 184-5
3 Turning Back, p. 128-9
4 talk on May 15, 2014 (paraphrase)
A Brief History of the Northern Forest
“…nature can only be understood through an awareness of its history…New England is a cultural landscape, shaped by the interaction of human history and the natural environment. Nearly every acre of the countryside has been directly affected by past land use; in fact, most of the modern forest is located on former agricultural land that was grazed by cattle, tilled for crops, or cut regularly to provide a farmer with wood for fuel. The New England landscape is continuing to change as it recovers slowly from these earlier impacts and becomes afflicted with new ones.”
—David R. Foster1
Four great ice ages covered large parts of the upper northern hemisphere under solid ice as thick as one mile. The last glacier began to retreat from the future northeastern United States around 10,000 B.C.E., leaving a changed landscape with deeper valleys and huge inland seas. The residual glacial till, gravel, sand, and clay gradually broke down to create soil that allowed creeping, cold-tolerant plants to form a cover of tundra. The climate slowly warmed, and trees took root; a boreal forest of spruce and fir grew first. Pine and hemlock followed, joined later by hardwoods— maple, beech, and birch, then hickory, oak, and ash. This forest would continually change in response to climate, fire, new species, wind, disease, and human activity.
With the increasing vegetation, including nutritious plants that supported a variety of animals, predecessors of the Algonquin and Iroquois arrived. They lived here for thousands of years as hunter-gatherers, moving periodically to take advantage of changing food sources. The rivers and coastal waters were their trade routes. They used fire to open up sections of the forest. The Abenaki of Vermont started growing corn around 1000 C.E. and with the additional cultivation of beans and squash, the tribe established permanent settlements. Twenty thousand native peoples are thought to have inhabited the Northern Forest in 1600. This population would soon be devastated by diseases contracted from European immigrants.
Once the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts in 1620, change was rapid. The colonists cut the woods to farm fields, for firewood, to build houses and furniture, and to export lumber back to a continent that had already cut most of its own large forests. The British Royal Navy was especially excited by the towering pines they could use for ships’ masts and the large oaks for hulls. (The English warships had masts 120 feet high, weighing twenty tons. The hulls were 2,600 tons of oak, about 700 large trees.) Aside from these practical reasons for logging, the Puritans viewed the forests as morally offensive, dark, and gloomy. God’s blessings were upon the farmers' open fields.
As the English settlers moved inland from the coast, a water-powered sawmill was always one of the first construction projects—the first in Maine was built in 1634. The colonists reached Vermont in the mid-1700s where settlement increased with the 1762 English victory in the French and Indian War. Early Vermont’s leading product was potash, which produces lye for use in washing textiles. Potash is leached from the ashes of burnt hardwood.
For the first half of the nineteenth century, the Northern Forest, stretching across Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York, extending north into Quebec and east to the Maritime Provinces of Canada, was the prime source of timber exports on the planet. Vermont was the fastest-growing state in the Union. Burlington, Vermont and Bangor, Maine, alternated as the largest lumber ports in the world. Big timber companies based in New York City and Boston controlled huge tracts of land. Soon after the Civil War almost all of the original forest had been cut, and the wood businesses collapsed. Only the paper companies, which did not require the big saw logs available in old-growth stands, stayed in business. They could use trees of any dimension and bought up more and more land to feed their pulp mills. At this same time, Vermont's hill farms, which could not compete with Midwestern agriculture, were abandoned, and for the next hundred years, Vermont would be the slowest-growing state.
By the mid-1800s, Vermont was described as a disaster, a wasteland. Eighty percent of the state was deforested, and the deer, turkeys, beavers, and bears were all gone. Out of this catastrophe came protests against environmental abuse and calls for conservation. The ideas of Henry David Thoreau and others were starting to change negative cultural ideas of wilderness. America’s first advocate for sustainable forestry was George Perkins Marsh, a Vermonter who had witnessed the destruction of the forest and soils. His writings inspired the creation of the largest state park in the contiguous United States, New York’s Adirondack Park, at the western end of the Northern Forest. The widespread support for this protection came from recognition of the disastrous end to much of Europe's forests and from fears that logging induced erosion and silt would threaten New York's commercial waterways. Marsh also helped spawn the Forest Reserve Act of 1891, which led to the formation of the United States Forest Service in the early twentieth century.
Trees began to fill in the clear-cut land of the Northern Forest, and by 1900 another major wood harvest was possible. Support for conservation and scientific forestry had grown, but the forest was logged hard once again, mainly due to the increased demand for paper. The modern paper industry was being created by large, innovative, northeastern companies. In 1911, growing desire to safeguard watersheds led the U.S. Congress to pass the Weeks Act, providing for the establishment of the national forests. Soon afterwards, New Hampshire's White Mountain National Forest and Vermont's Green Mountain National Forest were formed, together protecting 1,200,000 acres. On the Maine coast, Acadia National Park was created through private donations, adding another major preserved area to the forest. The Great Depression slowed all wood related enterprises; with economic recovery came increased timber competition from other areas of the country. Cutting for paper and lumber was still the major industry in the Northern Forest, but the woods were allowed to regenerate and most of the forest was open for the recreational uses of hunting, fishing, camping, and hiking.
Logging resumed in earnest during the 1960s. Large international conglomerates bought the land of smaller companies and, armed with new cutting and milling technologies, became the controlling forces. As the bottom line came to dominate all other concerns, the corporations often used clear-cutting methods and they also began to sell land to real estate developers for vacation homes. Viewing the land as a liquid asset, instead of a renewable timber resource, alarmed both the wood products work force and conservationists. Residents realized that global economic forces could initiate big changes from far away.
In 1988, a hostile corporate takeover and international financial intrigue resulted in nearly a million acres of the Northern Forest being sold in smaller sections. Much of this auctioned real estate, known as the Diamond Lands after the original landowner, was sold specifically as vacation property. In response, the Forest Service and a Congressional commission produced exhaustive studies of the region that dealt with long-term logging, biodiversity, tax effects on land use, public access to privately owned land, and local control. The Congressional Report of 1994 called for continuing the traditional pattern of land use and ownership to preserve the economy and culture of the area. Both committees suggested financial incentives for sustainable forestry, tax reforms, and zoning changes to encourage keeping the land wooded and to increase public land acquisition and conservation easements. Many predict that the region’s economic future will be increasingly determined by small businesses and local, civic organizations.
Big land sales have continued, however—most between timber companies but some to housing developers. The value of the land is often higher for human dwellings than for growing timber. Such development negatively affects the forest economy by removing those parcels from ever being harvested, degrading the environment, and blocking public access for recreation. Unlike farmland, which has readily reforested during the last century and a half, modern development, with its concrete and steel structures, will be much slower to return to forest, if ever given the chance. Eighty-five percent of this land is owned privately, with most of these holdings controlled by large paper corporations. Individuals own forty percent of the private real estate. (The opposite is true in the western United States, where the large forests are government property.) For more than 200 years, these woodlands have supplied the material for the region’s main industry, making wood products. Global economics and business consolidation have recently put this industry under great pressure, and many jobs have been lost. During the last twenty-five years, two-thirds of the Northern Forest lands have changed ownership, destabilizing land-use patterns and local economies. Still, the large land sales have provided some unique opportunities to protect the forest. Environmental groups have thus managed to protect some 3,000,000 acres by conservation easements, public trusts, or outright purchases, but, for the first time in two centuries, forest cover is now decreasing in all of the New England states. Local land trusts are numerous, but less than a fifth of the Northern Forest is protected from development. The fragmentation of the forest into discontinuous parcels, airborne pollutants, suburban developments, destructive logging practices, busy roads, and invasive plants and pests are ongoing problems.
Alien species have wreaked terrible damage on the trees of the Northern Forest. The American chestnut and the elm have been pushed close to extinction by the inadvertent importation of Asian fungi. Other non-native fungi are causing harm to birches and beeches. The latter are also suffering and dying from a European bark disease caused by insects that open the tree to a damaging fungus. Scientists do not fully understand the recent die outs of hemlocks and dogwoods but an introduced pathogen is suspected. The white pine blister rust fungus, which came here from Asia via Europe, causes weakness or death. A foreign beetle has been killing maples in New York state. The Asian emerald ash borer has killed great numbers of trees. European gypsy moth caterpillars cause massive defoliation each year. Only the diversity of the forest mitigates the spread of these diseases and pests.
Some forms of forest management can be very problematic, such as the tree plantation, where the forest is clear-cut and one species is planted. All other growth is suppressed by spraying herbicides. This method is very similar to industrial farming and is rife with similar problems. The herbicides cause widespread collateral damage. The homogeneous “crop” is an invitation for disease and pests that will require the application of more spray. Other plants and animals have no support in these plantations. The diverse, intricate ecology of the forest is totally supplanted by an enterprise that will generate only short-term financial gains. The end result of repeated tree plantation farming is sterilized land.
From a global perspective, the “Northern Forest is linked to other major biomes. It is part of the Atlantic flyway for migratory waterfowl moving between their breeding grounds in northeastern Canada and their wintering grounds in the south. Even more critical is the connection between the Northern Forest and tropical forests. Forest-dwelling, insect feeding birds that breed during the summer in North American forests, including numerous species of warblers and vireos, spend their winters in tropical forests of the Caribbean, Central America, and northern South America. Anything that affects the birds in one of these area will be felt in the other.” 2
The Northern Forest has for centuries been at the forefront of national forestry issues, from the collapse of farms and the return of the forest, to clear-cuts that exhausted lumber and necessitated the move to pulp, and now, to attempts to create balance between the local and global economies. Throughout these travails, and perhaps because of them, New England has led in conservation advocacy.
The Northern Forest is the largest in the eastern United States3, an extraordinary natural resource for the one quarter of the US population who live within a day’s drive. Today, only 2,000,000 people live in the 30,000,000 acres of the Northern Forest—the communities are small and some areas of the forest are virtually uninhabited. This is a rugged land with more than 100 mountains higher than 4,000 feet in elevation. New England is the nation’s most forested region with seventy-eight percent now wooded. Great efforts are being made to formulate and achieve a balance that will allow sustainable forestry and conservation into the foreseeable future. The area has been fortunate in receiving this second opportunity to care for its expanse of trees. In many ways, the forest is New England.
1 Thoreau’s Country, p.xii,10
2 Stephen Trombulak from Klyza, Christopher and Trombulak, Stephen, The Future of the Northern Forest. (Hanover, NH and London, UK: University Press of New England, 1994, p.18-9).
3 Northern Forest Center, Northern Forest Wealth Index: Exploring a Deeper Meaning of Wealth. (Concord, NH: Northern Forest Center Publications, 2000, p.3).