" ... Bayles' images of trees avoid the trap of propaganda; these are not cute or angry or tragic surrogates for human politics. Instead, they seem weirdly like visitors from another world, perhaps another dimension -- and, in a real sense, they are. Trees, no less than epoch-layerd rock canyons, remind us that there are different ways of computing time; that within the frantic rush of man-made cities are eddies and rills of slowness, sureness; that there are cycles as profound as the procession of the stars..."
--- Richard Cheverton, Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine
In the mid-1970’s I worked as a logger on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to earn money for photography school. A decade later while photographing loggers in northern California for a museum show, I saw the felling of a tree in ways I had not seen as a logger. There is a point when the opposing forces of energy were held in suspension. Those few seconds, between life and death, seemed simultaneously ephemeral and eternal.
At first the motion is slight and distinct. A vibration moves quickly up the tree, its top shakes and quivers, resisting the moment when gravity takes hold. The sounds are individual and clear. There is a creak, a screech, a crackle as the fibers slowly rip apart, separating the tree into stump and log.
As the falling tree gains momentum, sound and motion begin to blur. The surrounding trees, still standing, sway back and forth in the wake of the falling tree. The veiled retorts of breaking limbs ricochet like gunshot or backfire.
When the tree hits the ground, the sound is indistinguishable from the sensation. It is deep and thunderous. It pounds your eardrums and sends a shock wave up your legs. You see, hear, and feel the moment simultaneously.
Eventually the last limb falls, the ground stops shaking and the dust settles on a new and forever altered landscape.
-- David Paul Bayles, Orion Magazine
Two years after a neighbor clear cut their portion of the forest my wife and I live in, a fierce windstorm ripped apart, uprooted and toppled 120 of our trees. A few of them hit our house. Foresters call this Catastrophic Windthrow.
It was catastrophic for us. At first we wanted to sell and move away. We decided to stay and heal the land we love.
After carefully lifting the logs over the fragile stream, we milled the logs into lumber and transformed our rusted steel pole barn into a beautiful studio and workshop space. Working with the crews through each step in the process was catharsis through sweat for me.
After the last workers left I laced up my boots again, but this time I headed up the hill and into the clear cut with camera and tripod. I’ve always opposed clear cutting and view them as assaults to the eye, but now I wanted to really look at what comes after the clear cut.
Working forests have three distinct phases, and from some vantage points all three are layered in a rolling mosaic. Phase one is the clear cut, which has been well documented before. The burn phase comes next and it begins after the clear cut when the limbs are piled into cone shapes and burned in the fall and early winter. When spring comes the Doug Fir seedlings are planted and that is phase three. In forty years or so they will be clear cut again.
There is a fourth phase but it does not happen in the landscape. It is the sell phase.
Sap In Their Veins
In the early seventies I decided to become a photographer. The school I wanted to attend was very expensive so I looked for legal ways to make a lot of money in a short period of time. My sister's boyfriend invited me to leave Los Angeles and come to the mountains and work in the woods. One season turned into four years of setting chokers, bumping knots and skinning cat.
On my last day working in the woods, my rigging crew and I shared beers and farewells at the local bar. Jack Hannah, our siderod, said, “You moved here from the city and became the best choker setter I’ve ever worked with. When you’re done with photography school, I hope you don’t forget us dirty old loggers.”
Ten years later at the height of the Pacific Northwest battle between the logging industry and the environmental movement, I worked with the Mendocino County Museum to create a portrait exhibit of loggers. Along with the portraits were excerpts from the oral histories I recorded. The exhibit traveled to four museums. The last was the World Forestry Center in Portland, Oregon.
Cut / Grow / Sell
These images are conceptual versions of the three phases represented in The Working Forest.
These images are a sub-theme of the Working Forest project.
The old growth stumps pictured in this series have witnessed two complete Cut/Burn/Grow cycles of tree farming, and some of them will witness one or two more. I affectionately refer to these old-growth stumps as The Elders because they exude eldership qualities of presence, dignity and grace.
The notches that appear to be eyes or mouths, were chopped out with axes by loggers who fell the large timber by hand – pre 1930. The feller chopped out a notch in the tree and inserted a hardwood plank called a springboard. He stood on the springboard in order to work above the large swell at the base of the tree. This reduced the time required to chop out the undercut and saw by hand through the backcut.
As the tree stumps decompose the notches start looking like eyes or mouths and the stumps themselves become characters with a story to tell. Early in the process of making these pictures, I was wondering if I would ever use them. They seemed beautiful but without an edge to them.
And then one day after picking my way through the poison oak to have a look at the far side of a newly discovered stump, I stopped and looked up.
Two large powerful eyes looked directly at me. I was stunned into a kind of quiet, motionless submission. I held the gaze until in a mysteriously spiritual way, I was filled with the words, ‘Just make our portraits. We are enough.’
There is a fascinating microcosm in my woodpile, usually hidden from view. It’s a world of insects and fungi thriving in the inner layer between bark and wood. Certain beetles create precisely etched lines as they eat their way through the wood, leaving marks referred to by entomologists as beetle galleries. They chew, digest, poop, make babies and turn a giant tree into compost. These are works of art by creatures living their primal impulse.
I built a library of these images while splitting the firewood to heat my studio. Simultaneously I was making photographs of primal mark making by human beings on the outside of tree bark.
The oldest human-made marks are found in Sulawesi, Indonesia and were created 39,900 years ago. They placed their hands on the cave wall and blew pigmented dust to create a stenciled image. Of the many hundreds of photographs I have made of human mark-making on tree bark, the two most common are some form of ‘I was here’, or an expression of love.
One day while napping in the hammock by my creek I woke suddenly with a complete image in my mind. It was a collage made up of two separate images. One was a heart shaped scar from a carving on a Mimosa tree and the other was a beetle gallery from my woodpile.
My first reaction was I don’t do collage work like that. The I went straight to my studio and created the image I saw as I awoke. Each of the images in DeCompose is made by layering and blending one image from the beetle or fungi collection and one human made mark.