This is the tree I see from my study window. It’s huge, and it belongs to the garden two doors along, but its branches span the width of three of these narrow Victorian plots, including our own. I’ve learned from heartbreaking experience that where there’s a wonderful tree growing in an urban area, it’s more than likely to be felled at some point, so when the tree surgeons moved in earlier this summer I was alarmed. I watched from my window as they worked their way up the trunk, lopping off huge branches from the lower part of the tree. I wasn’t sure if it was simply being trimmed or actually taken down, and I was terrified it was going to be the latter. I could hardly bear to watch.
I’ve loved this tree since we moved in here – I’ve photographed it repeatedly, watched it change with every season, looked out at it through rain, sun, mist and hail, stood under its cool umbrella of leaves on hot days, raked up its leaves in autumn, and pulled out the hundreds of tiny seedlings that grow from its seeds in spring. I was desperately trying to be alright with losing it and I kept thinking of the haiku by Mizuta Hasahide:
Barn’s burnt down – now I can see the moon.
It was helping, but only a little. However, just when I thought things were going too far for it to be just a pruning operation, they stopped, and I felt the tension drain away. The tree isn’t quite as lovely a shape as it was before, but it’s still stunningly beautiful, and the bonus is that there’s now so much more light in that part of the garden than there was before. My tree wasn’t chopped down in the end, but I can see the moon a little better now.
As a birthday treat a while back, we took a day trip to Stamford, which I had heard was one of the loveliest small towns in the UK. True, it was a beautiful place in many ways, all the buildings built from mellow old limestone and the town largely in its unspoiled, elegant Georgian state, but I couldn’t take to it. Something about it felt sterile and unwelcoming and I had to think for a while before it came to me what it was – there were no trees. In fact, there was virtually nothing green in the town centre at all, no plants, no flowers, no hanging baskets or window boxes or anything at all that was green and growing.
The cities, towns and villages I like best have a lot of trees growing in the streets and are broken up by green spaces and gardens full of plants and flowers. One of the things I like about Newark is that it’s very leafy and the main road close to us is lined with beautiful trees. There’s a cemetery full of wonderful old trees close by, and there are trees growing in the churchyard, the castle grounds, down by the river, and in many private gardens. There might not be much actual woodland near at hand, but there are a lot of trees here.
More and more evidence is coming to light that the presence of trees makes a positive difference to human health, both physical and mental. One well-known example is the study showing that hospital patients with a view of trees from the window made speedier and better recoveries than those who looked out on a blank wall. (For a personal account of this, see Brain Pickings for the story of how Eve Ensler’s life was saved – in more ways than one – by trees.) And when large numbers of trees in North America died because of the invasion of the emerald ash borer, there was a significant increase in deaths from cardiovascular and lower respiratory disease. Many more studies have shown that trees reduce stress and improve human health in a multitude of ways.
All of this makes perfect sense to me. For the last few years trees have acted as metaphors and healing symbols for me during the difficult changes we’ve been going through. At one point we were living in Cheshire, in a rented house. Neither of us had work, we had made no friends there, our home didn’t belong to us, and Geoff was applying for jobs all over the country. We had no idea where we might end up, and no support structure where we were. That’s when I began to photograph roots.
And not just roots themselves, but trees rooting themselves in difficult places. A walker’s and cyclist’s path ran along an old railway track, with vertical rock walls where cuttings had been made for the track. Trees clung and grew in the most precarious of places, their roots knotted and tangled on and through the rock. There was this little tree standing tall and seemingly stable, on a small shelf of rock.
If these trees could make a home for themselves and grow wherever they found themselves, then it seemed I could, too. I needed to photograph the putting down of roots – it was a salve for something in me that needed stability.
Around the same time, I came across this broken down pine tree. It’s not a good picture, but I identified with this tree – I felt broken, battered by circumstances, unbalanced, worn and tired, isolated, but still standing, still alive, still growing. Looking at it now brings back vivid memories of those feelings.
More recently I’ve been obsessed with the intricate tracery of tree branches against the sky. I thought at first it was only because it was winter and there wasn’t a great deal else to photograph, but once spring came along and the leaves appeared I didn’t feel the same urge to take tree photos any more. It’s not so obvious what meaning these have for me, but I think it’s something to do with patterns and choices – eg, the branching pattern representing choices in life – and also something to do with reaching out. But there’s also a darkness – a heaviness – about these trees that reflects the darkness inside caused by being yet again in a situation where we don’t know what will happen but we know it’s not looking good. We’re a little more stable this time because we have a house of our own and have put down some metaphorical roots, but we’re having a financial winter that makes it difficult to believe that we’ll flourish once again, and the trees reflect that.
In the shot above, the two birds symbolise to me how we’re feeling right now – side by side on barren branches, hoping we’ll survive to see the spring arrive once again. Many of the trees in other images seem to be reaching upwards towards something better, as in this one where the tree reaches for a brighter, lighter, happier space.
My tree photographs before all of this happened were quite different. They were much lighter, less serious, more concerned with greenness and flourishing, and they often involved spring blossom and dappled sunlight. I was in a more optimistic place at that time. Trees were simply something to enjoy, to breathe under, to dream beneath. I’d go for walks in the wood, and lie on my back on a wooden bench set right in its centre, looking up through the branches to the sky and letting my mind drift away, “annihilating all that’s made, to a green thought in a green shade”, to quote Marvell.
The photographs we take are all self-portraits of a sort. One on its own may not say a lot, but looking at our images – perhaps of the same subject matter – over a period of time and linking it to what was going on in our lives at that point, can be an enlightening exercise.
Very soon I’ll be posting one tree photograph a week for a year, and it will be called 52 Trees. Although I still have a few Miksang Monday posts lined up, it will take the place of these eventually although I’ll be posting it on a Wednesday instead. The plan is to take a new photograph each week, but I know myself well enough to know that this might not always happen. If it doesn’t, then I’ll pull out something from my archives for that week instead. But really, I want to spend some time over the next year exploring trees photographically and seeing where it takes me.
This is a very personal selection which won’t reflect everyone’s tastes. Everyone on the 200+ list is worth looking at and many of the photographers not featured here are masters of their craft. I had to sift through them somehow, however, so I dismissed most of the more traditional approaches to photography because they don’t interest me greatly, although I did include a small number that I felt really stood out. I also left out all the nature photographers because, although I love watching wildlife, I don’t particularly enjoy photographs of it. On the whole, I was looking for something different and something with a very individual voice – images with which I felt I’d like to spend some time. Over the next weeks I’ll link to a small number of photographers each time and hope you’ll enjoy following the links and having a look round.
Ruth Fairbrother – Ruth’s images have a very light, soft quality about them. There are quite a number of more traditional images here, but mixed in with many that move towards the abstract. I particularly liked the Sylvania Trees and Hebridean Abstract galleries.
Caroline Fraser – I’ve been a fan of Caroline’s photography for quite a while now. The gallery that made me fall in love with it is called Light on Water, but I love all her work – she has a very distinctive and unusual style.
Charlotte Gibb – A mix of intimate landscape shots and grander views. Many of them are characterised by a misty, diffused light that creates a glow that seems to emanate from the landscape itself.