Ghost Forest

This project has been a major reason for any sanity I have maintained throughout this past year. Focusing on the individual trees that are so important to the insect, avian, and animal communities, has enabled me to temporarily overcome my larger anxieties for our planet. A large component of this project will be a photographic representation of a ghost forest. While I have been working for many months on the tree photographs with my daughter, who possesses superior photoshop skills, I have come to realize that most of the images I have taken simply won’t work to convey the ghost forest that I had visualized. The trees with all of their leaves simply weren’t ghost-like. I needed to return to the deciduous trees on my list, and take new photographs of the trees with bare limbs. With my chestnut locations refurnished by Jon Taylor of the American Chestnut Foundation, we set out for another visit to the Appalachian trail chestnuts.

The day was clear and cold, giving me hope for strong photos. Driving up the forest road, there was a stark difference in the lack of foliage on the majority of the trees. The rhododendrons just provided the occasional patch of green. After parking and walking a short way, the first of the chestnuts stood tall. This particular tree had a fair amount of branches and foliage obstructing it’s roots and lower stem, so it was difficult to get a clear and steady panoramic image from any angle. Nevertheless, I took a number of photos, in the hopes that one of them will capture this tree’s particular essence. Moving to the next location involved traversing a fairly steep hillside again. Reaching for slender tree trunks was the only way to keep myself from sliding downhill on the decomposing leaves and mud. The leafless chestnuts rose majestic and tall, and provided a lovely bare-bones image. After working my way carefully around the trees, capturing it from a variety of different angels, I reluctantly moved on.

The following day was reserved for a visit to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, to photograph some old growth Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). This beautiful pyramid-shaped tree is threatened by an invasive insect known as the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid.

The way to the forest is through the mountains, with plentiful curves and switchbacks. The drive is a bit like a roller coaster, but with the driver in charge of the speed and maintaining control on the curves. The sun was already somewhat low in the sky when we arrived, but the air was clear and cool. Beams of sunlight illuminated the lower branches of the trees. With very few people on the trail, it was a lovely and serene late afternoon hike. A number of beautiful hemlocks presented themselves as I wandered over small streams and waterfalls. This forest has the feel of a cathedral, with the lovely old Tulip Poplars standing sentinel. As the light began to fail, we hit the road, with a bit of trepidation due to navigating the twists and turns in the dark. The people I shared the roads with had a looser understanding of the space allotted to them on the road than I. We had a few harrowing moments as they veered over into our lane on the narrow switchbacks. Thankfully, we made it back unscathed.

On the last available day to capture the trees, I reached out to Josh Kelley, the public lands biologist for Mountain True, a nonprofit environmental conservation organization. I was hoping he could provide me with the location of a few mature ash trees. He came through in a big way. He directed me to a grove of White Ash north of Asheville that he had treated for the Emerald Ash Borer. We found the spot with ease. After scrambling up the icy bank, there was an awe-inspiring grove of White Ash. The ground sparkled with ice crystals, and the glorious trees reached their bare limbs to the sky. Just breathing in the frosty air, surrounded by the giant trunks, transported me. There was no undergrowth to speak of, so I managed to capture a number of beautiful panoramic shots of these magnificent trees. Thanks to the work of people like Josh Kelley, these trees will continue to stand tall.

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