I camped one evening in June in central Oregon, in the Ochoco Mountains east of Prineville, where I was surrounded by my favorite tree, the Ponderosa pine.
Darkness beat me to the campsite; the next morning, a crisp breeze was chasing clouds in an overcast sky when I rolled out of my sleeping bag. How long would the soft, even light last? I hurried to set up my tripod and camera, made sure I had shoes on, then wandered through the forest to visit with the trees.
It was a good morning for listening. As I moved the tripod from one tree to the next, each Ponderosa told a unique, individual story. I took notes with the camera for two hours, until the sun broke free of clouds and it was time to go.
I didn’t have time to hear their stories to the end, but I was entertained by the details they shared, and I’ll continue our conversations when I drive through those mountains again.
How dear the woods are! You beautiful trees! I love every one of you as a friend. —Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea
Ephemeral. A cloud’s shadow, the warmth of a rock in the afternoon sun, light frost covering a meadow at sunrise. Nature’s whispers. And this, too—in the high country of Utah a grove of aspens may lose its golden lustre to a single strong storm at the outset of autumn.
Summer isn’t usually prime time for poring over stacks of transparencies on a lightbox, feeding the survivors one-by-one through a Nikon Coolscan, and then painstakingly developing the resulting digital files before archiving them onto a hard disk, all-the-while wondering why am I doing this? Listening to Pandora® doesn’t help this effort very much, nor does the warm sunshine teasing behind the window shade. “Why are you sitting at a desk? Why don’t you come out and play?”
But that’s exactly the project I’ve started this week. Four deep drawers, crammed with plastic slide pages, the thumb drives of their day. Except for a road trip in late September, I’m happily planted at home this summer. And I enjoy revisiting the places and moments I collected on film between 1971 and 2004. Surprises are an inherent part of that.
I can tell you, though, nothing tops dusty, scratched slides for reminding you how fragile things are (never mind film emulsions). How quickly days and years disappear. Have disappeared.
Today’s picture came to me during a short hike in a forest east of town, where the Cascade foothills begin to take their elevation seriously. The day was bright, except for pockets of drifting fog. And there were remnants of that morning’s frost lingering in shadows the sunshine hadn’t touched. At the end of a short dotted line on my BLM map I got out of my truck, grabbed my gear, and wandered into the scene. Ferns drooped everywhere, heavy with moisture. The sun seemed very close, just out of reach behind a bright gauzy curtain. I had the impression of peering from a balcony onto a broad stage as the hillside dropped steeply away, invisible in the fog. In the short hushed moments I walked there I also sensed that this was a private rehearsal, for an audience of one.
In our mixed woods evergreens and oaks are predominant, but several Ponderosa pines have grown tall to accent it with their uniqueness. Unfortunately, the soil isn't sufficient for the pines' long-term needs, either nutritionally or to hold their root systems, and one-by-one they've begun to die and rot away.
This one provided a family of flickers with a cozy cavity for their nest (we watched the young fledge one afternoon, each coming close to the opening several times before finally jumping out and sailing into life), and as the hole continued to rot and enlarge a family of squirrels moved in, and then one winter the sodden weight of rain and snow, combined with thrusts from heavy wind storms, brought the tree down in pieces. Which is where I found it at sunrise yesterday, surrounded by fog and light and a chance for one last hurrah.
I’ve stood near my neighbor’s Ponderosa pine tens of thousands of times—it’s close to our mailbox, on the other side of his fence. Over the years I’ve taken photos of this mature tree in a variety of weather, but never—until the other day—been satisfied with my effort.
For one, the background is a clutter of falling-down fence, outbuildings, and (in another neighbor’s yard) a number of vehicles. And the pine itself is somewhat awkward, its fat limbs spaced irregularly and draped with moss in varying lengths. But on this day, to my eye, everything lined up—morning’s shadows hid any background flaws, the moss came alive in the first light of the day, and sun rays slanted through a thin fog hanging precariously in the distant fir trees. Whether that last aspect was my missing element or not, I’ve finally made my photographic peace with the Ponderosa.
“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity…and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.” —William Blake
Continuing my visual reminiscing from England’s Dales Way…we were a short ways outside Staveley when the footpath veered close to the River Kent for a half-mile, and in that quiet stretch we passed a magnificent oak tree at a bend in the path that continued to mesmerize me until it passed from sight. As you see in the picture, trees were thick in that location, but the oak alone had a palpable presence.