The photographs in this book reflect a lifelong exploration. One of them in particular,
“Tree and Three Windows,” marks a turning point. It is an image I had walked or driven
past hundreds of times before I photographed it, but never at that time of day, when the
interplay of twilight and artificial light were so beautifully balanced.
Before making this image, my photographic wanderings through the streets of Santa
Barbara, where I lived at the time, had been in search of color abstractions—tiny
portions of the world that I could tightly compose into visual organizations that were easy
on the eye and gentle to the spirit. They had been exercises, but not much more, and I
was ready for a way out to a larger visual world. As often happens, a wise person had
passed through my life then and said, “Photograph what you know.” I’d been unsure
what that meant, until I saw and photographed “Tree and Three Windows.”
While in the darkroom printing the image, I began to perceive various threads of my life
weaving through it. There was a tension between the organic and the geometric.
Artificial light from within defined the windows’ shape; natural twilight defined the tree
trunk. For me, the image became a pathway from the minute abstractions I had been
seeing to a broader and more challenging vision. Looking at the print, I felt a deep
connection, and I wanted to find more images that revealed the boundaries where the
alive and the inert intersect.
The tension I speak of existed long before I became a photographer. Perhaps it really
began in early childhood, as I experienced the shifting balance between a creatively
organic mother and a father whose strengths emerged as everything was lined up—
straight, organized, predictable. My first recollection of trees was while my family drove
up Highway 101 through Camarillo on our annual visit to my grandmother. Huge
eucalyptus trees lined the road, and I remember the way their tops converged to form a
kind of tunnel. The sunlight flashing through their trunks mesmerized me as our car sped
past their blurring forms. But I have few other memories of trees from my years growing
up in the Los Angeles suburbs, playing sports on new, unshaded streets or bicycling to
vacant lots for games with my friends. It was only during summer vacations in the
mountains that trees were very much in evidence, and I grew absorbed in their presence
as we hiked or fished. When I got older and began hiking and backpacking alone, it was
always to the forested mountains.
After taking a photography course at junior college, I decided that was the career for me,
but I needed to save a lot of money to go to photography school. I considered fishing in
Alaska, but instead landed in the Sierra, where my sister’s fiancé, a lumberjack, offered
to help get me work in logging. He did, and I loved it. My first job was as a choker-setter
on a rigging crew, putting fifteen-foot steel cables around thirty-three-foot logs and
attaching them to the bulldozer that dragged them to the landing from which trucks
hauled them to the mill. I found a sort of peace in the strenuous ten- to eleven-hour days
we worked. What had begun as a six-month job turned into four years of logging—and a
very different view of trees than when I’d enjoyed them mainly as a backpacker and
Working in the woods, learning as much as I could from men whose fathers and
grandfathers had done so before them, I had time to really look at the trees and the
forest, and to think about them. I’d speculate as to why this tree was bent and crooked;
why that tree had limbs on only one side all the way to the top; why this tree had been
uprooted; why that one had broken at the base. My thoughts were unscientific, but they
were important to me because I was learning to see past the veneer of the forest. Trees
came alive for me, with their past, present, and future. The Sierra became my Eden. Of
course, I learned these things while cutting the trees to provide homes and products for
a society with an increasing hunger for wood. As part of a logging team, I could never
look at a tree, or at my life as a consumer of wood products, in the same way again. In a
sense, logging became my Apple.
After my first summer of working in the woods, I returned to Los Angeles, full of my
new world and wanting to measure the distance between it and my old one. When a
friend invited me to a party to celebrate somebody’s new redwood hot tub and sundeck, I
was eager to impress these flatlanders with my adventurous life. But as I answered the
usual question as to “what I did,” the deck full of partygoers suddenly turned quiet. Then
a volley of questions came, gaining momentum as a tree falls.
“Why are they raping our forests?”
“How can you be one of those people who cut down the trees?”
“Will there be any forests left for our grandchildren?”
I was young and busy then, and I didn’t think too much about the questions. I went on
working in the woods to save money for school, and I went on loving trees.
When I got into photography school several years later, it was in Santa Barbara, and I
spent eleven years living and developing my career in that beautiful city. Eventually, my
career and my love for trees came together, as trees became the subjects of my
photographs. I was drawn to images of harmony and beauty, and they brought me some
successes: sales of my prints, an exhibition, a published photo essay.
But troubling memories of my logging friends and that L.A. deck party began to surface.
Such tensions fuel photography, and my images began to shift from harmony and
beauty to irony and tragedy. In researching society’s relationship to trees in order to
write the text to accompany a photo exhibit, I learned that, while the average family has
shrunk somewhat since 1952, the year I was born, the average home size has grown
enormously. Today, a majority of Americans describes themselves as environmentalists,
but how many of them bother to recycle their newspapers? Society condemns loggers,
but it demands more and more lumber and paper. I had been a logger. How was it that I
had begun to think like an environmentalist?
My photographs are my tensions and confusions made real. They are our
inconsistencies made visual. Yet they are also a reminder that, no matter how many
trees we destroy, often for trivial purposes, no matter how much we fool ourselves about
our own delegated destruction of them, we can’t live without trees. I am lucky to live in a
community where trees have been a conscious part of urban planning. The beautiful
palms, oaks, cypresses, and cedars that grace our neighborhoods did not sprout at
random. Tree-lined streets and garden spaces have been woven into a living fabric that
shades and soothes our souls. In a real biological sense, trees are our home. That is the
deepest meaning of the urban forest.
—David Paul Bayles
March 2003