Wood-noun. plural noun: woods
an area of land, smaller than a forest, that is covered with growing trees.
Scene 6- The mist creeps in over the woods as the camera zooms in on a group of tents. Nearby figures are gathered around a campfire. A sound not too far off in the distance startles the assembled group. “What was that?” asks one of the group. “Ah probably just an animal” says another. The camera zooms out rapidly to a lone figure seen from behind observing the campers nearby in silence. The music becomes ominous as the figure starts walking towards the campfire…Cut scene.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Having spent much of February locked away working on the Lord Franklin series I decided I wanted to go in a vastly different direction for a new post. For starters, writing about the frozen Arctic in the actual winter here in the Northeast was maybe an odd move on my part. Nevertheless, I was so happy with the results of this collection that you will see it now immortalized at the top of this page as a menu choice in case you missed it the first time around.
I decided on a theme of the woods and forest as a change of pace for a few reasons. First, I have long wanted to feature the handful of photographs I have taken in the woods over the years. It isn’t a normal subject matter for me to be honest. Typically I feel more connected to the water. Second there is something by equal turns fascinating, mysterious and ominous about the woods. I’m sure everyone has seen a horror movie with a scene in the woods such as the fictional one I created above. Third, it is of course spring now, and the trees and flowers are bursting out in full force with each passing day conjuring up the poetical language employed by writers such as Thoreau.
One thing I find fascinating is the ability of the woods and forest to regenerate. From earthworms churning the ground underneath to birds flitting about or the tiniest sapling sprouting from the ground that may one day turn into a mighty tree, the forest is all about regeneration and renewal year after year. Amazingly after fires and natural catastrophes, recovery often starts at a microscopic level yet gradually takes hold and flourishes. Renewal is a big word for me right now as a result of the broader themes I wrote about in the Lord Franklin series and its short followup piece. But lets leave my own story there and consider some of the other thoughts and images of the woods brought up through the lyrics of the wonderful Dar Williams song ‘Go To The Woods’ instead.
‘It’s the woods! What do you see?
In all the spooky shadows, in the forest of green
Is there a windy path, angry ass woman who will eat you?
Sad-eyed lumberjack, savior who will greet you?
It’s a different story for you and for me
Go to the woods and see’
I have been familiar with the songs of Dar Williams for some time now, but just after Christmas I went with some friends to see her perform in Brooklyn. As a result I have been exploring her work more directly. When I came across this one, I knew I had my song for this post. Like other great songwriters, Dar conveys the broad themes of the woods within just a couple of lines. She skillfully weaves the narrative of spookiness, fear, mystery and desire of the woods within just a handful of lines. Even more effectively she goes backwards and forwards in time, reminding us of the very real fragility of our increasingly disappearing woods.
‘If I was your memory, what would you do?
‘Cause you know if you go back in time there’s something waiting for you.’
Listening to the song I started thinking back to some of my own memories of the woods. Call it the ‘storybook’ version of the woods Dar Williams describes. In my suburban childhood, there was a small patch of woods we used to go to. There was a rope swing someone had put on a sturdy branch which made you feel as if you were hurtling off a cliff. There was not much else there to be honest, but in my child’s eye the area was a vast wilderness even though in reality it was just an overgrown area yet to be developed. Also in the larger surrounding area were a variety of trails we often hiked on. The sounds of the highway may have punctuated the feeling of stillness, but to walk on those trails always felt like an epic journey even if it only lasted a few hours. Eventually I finally witnessed what truly large woods looked like when in the summer of 1979 my family drove across the U.S. and I saw places that really did have woods like the Black Hills, Yellowstone, and the Redwoods.
As I got older my interactions with the woods were resigned mostly to hiking and camping in various places in the northeast. At first photography was not part of the equation, but gradually it took hold and allowed me to experience the woods in different ways. The deeper my interest in photography, the more understanding I feel and think towards a subject matter. Cliche though it may sound, you really have to become one with the scene in front of you and being in tune with your surroundings. Photography is visual, but by listening to the sounds around you or feeling the breeze on your skin it can benefit the end result.
What being in the woods specifically taught me as a photographer is that there is an interplay of light and shadows throughout the day. There are the sounds of unseen birds in the trees or acorns suddenly plummeting to the ground. There is both motion and stillness. Each season of the year accelerates or slows down the process and adds to the sensory experience. As I sit here writing this piece I suddenly realized there is something magical or fairy tale like about setting off into the woods. There seems to be an imaginary line of demarcation between life inside and outside of the woods. We use phrases such as ‘out of the woods’ to imply foreboding. But if you dare cross that line a world of wonder, mystery and discovery await. If you avoid it altogether you are missing out on potential treasures contained within, be you adventurer, botanist, photographer or even songwriter.
Writing this piece has reminded me that perhaps I do have a deeper connection to the woods than when I started. Though I may consider being near the water to be where my heart lies, the woods have provided me with a lot of good memories over the years too. Perhaps I need to ‘go to the woods’ to witness the renewal and mystery of the woods for myself again.
Go To The Woods-Written By Dar Williams
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Photographs By Robert P. Doyle