Loving the Land and Why Some People Can’t See the Forest for the Trees

Today I write this post for many reasons including some very personal ones. While Pro Nature Photographer focuses on photographers and their images, techniques, the business, and pretty much anything related to outdoor photography, today I cant help but reflect on our connection to the land and about loss and a recent personal one for me.

My photography career has taken many turns and I always worked hard to make sure it was all an adventure. With a studio in the big city and another in a smaller city, I had 20 very busy years. Photography assignments paid for my true love: outdoor and adventure photography. But as the ‘photo economy’ began to change with the advent of digital technology and a slowing economy, my wife and I decided to make a big move. We closed the studios and bought a log cabin on 5 acres in the Central Oregon Mountains. Moving forward I was going to focus on shooting location assignments and outdoor stock photography and if I needed an indoor studio I would rent one. That was in 2002.

We moved onto the property in the fall and got busy decorating the log cabin, preparing for winter, collecting firewood, and settling in. I had not lived in the mountains since I was a small kid but it felt like a return long overdue. I had always wanted to be Jeremiah Johnson, the mountain man that Robert Redford played in the movie. My wife, a city girl, told me when she agreed to the move that she would ‘give it five years.’ We stayed 10!

Our cabin was on 5 acres of thick pine forest, cleared in the middle for a shop, garage, and the cabin. In 2 square miles we had three neighbors. That first winter, as expected, was quite challenging. It snowed a lot, got really cold, and we worried about having enough firewood. But we adapted very quickly and loved it. When summer came around we got busy again planting wildflowers, putting out bird feeders, and building bird houses I nailed up on the tall pine trees.

Then we got a dog: Jessie, who was a rescue dog that had about one week before making his final exit out the back door. Nobody touring the animal shelter wanted him. He looked like a spotted coyote. We however made an instant connection and took Jessie home to the mountains where he fit in immediately and we quickly knew, that he knew he had found his perfect home. He was free to roam and run without constraint and the best part was that he instinctively knew where the invisible boundaries of our 5 acres were. He also knew he had a job here and it was head of security. He would sit in front the cabin, nose raised to the wind and eyes scanning the perimeter, always on the lookout for invaders.  These might be rabbits or squirrels or the deer. While the wildlife was completely welcome on our ‘patch of paradise’, the deer believed our wildflower gardens were their salad bowl. So while Jessie was not allowed to chase the small critters he was allowed to tell the deer to return to the forest.

Life in the mountains

For 10 years this was home and there was an annual cycle of life that became routine. We learned when to expect the arrival of the swallows to begin nesting, when the Hummingbirds would make their return to our lush wildflower gardens, and unfortunately; when the mosquitoes arrived and when they left. In those years in these mountains, we saw black bear, plenty of deer, elk, bald eagles, a badger with two young ones, cougar tracks, and a rare Pine Marten. We built barriers to keep squirrels from raiding the bird houses for the chicks, kept a bird bath always filled during the dry summer months of no rain, and enjoyed our forest friends. Quite often and early in the morning, the coyotes would yap and sing and more times than I can count, it seemed they were right outside the bedroom window. By fall, like the forest animals, we got busy preparing for winter.

We ‘worked the land’ in many ways, planting a lot of aspens for their beauty, keeping the pine forests thinned for fire danger but also to let smaller trees thrive. It was a lot of hard work but we had a connection with the land and the forests. I often wondered if it was a little like being a farmer or rancher, those other hard working folks who have a love for the land they live and work. There were many nights, more than I can count, when I could walk outside on a cold winter night and have the clearest view of the Milky Way seemingly stretching from horizon to horizon.

The front yard

Then there were those winter blizzards that had snow swirling so fast you could not see your hand in front of your face. Sometimes it got so deep it seemed scary but in reality, I loved the challenge that nature presented us. One winter the snow was so deep I could walk up the snow drift and onto the cabin roof. There were the travelers who slid in the ditch out on the highway and you wondered what they were thinking driving on a night like that. Hearing about it on the scanner I would go out and reassure a few that even though they are in the middle of nowhere, they won’t freeze to death in their car waiting for AAA.  Many times the storms would pass leaving 3’ of fresh powder and by morning the sky was clear blue so the natural thing to do after coffee, was put on the snowshoes.

There were the simple times of just sitting on the porch talking and listening to the wind in the pine trees, watching the Hummingbirds at the Columbines, and the ground squirrels race from point A to point B. We occasionally fished, had many memorable 4th of July family gatherings, and simply enjoyed the quiet solitude of the mountains. There were many places to photograph, but honestly, the best photography I captured was on my own property.

Living with nature

This was definitely our 5 acre parcel in paradise! When you actually do some measuring you realize that 5 Acres is not very big but when it is a part of a larger forest where all the other owners have 5 acres, it feels like you own a national forest. While I would leave from time to time on an assignment or to teach a workshop, returning home was always refreshing. Behind was the city, the traffic, and the rat race. Many friends and family told us so many times how lucky we were. They were right!

As a photographer I have been blessed at all the opportunities I have had, the places I went, the people I met. It could not have been better! But like life in general things change and like many professional photographers hit hard by changing times, the same happened to us. After 10 years it felt like it was time for a new adventure, time to seek new opportunity. We’d had enough of plowing snow, the massive task of cutting firewood, and we wanted a warm winter for once. So we put the cabin up for sale and it was not a hard decision.  It was time!

To our total surprise, the place sold in 60 days and we had to scramble. Not expecting that to happen in a poor real estate market, we had not made plans of where we would go next and what we would do. Always needing an adventure, we decided to store our possessions and bought a bigger RV and headed south to think about what was next. Behind us was the land, a tiny patch in these huge mountains that we shared with friends, human and critter, and a place that gave us a lifetime of memories. We were happy for the buyer and truly hoped he would learn quickly to love the land and connect with nature in his own way.

We spent the last three months in Arizona and Nevada photographing, writing, and teaching online while enjoying our first snow free winter. We traded fleece, coveralls, and gloves for weather requiring only shorts and t-shirts.  About 2-weeks ago it began to get hot, too hot for us Pacific Northwesters used to cooler climes, so we started back. 5 days ago I called a friend near our former ‘patch of paradise’ to see how he was doing and plan a visit. During the chat he told me that the buyer of our home clear-cut the forest on the property. My heart stopped! I told my wife and she as well could not believe it. We had to go see.

The meadow in back of the property was a carpet of shooting stars every June

We returned to the area yesterday and parked the RV nearby in the forest along the river. That had been our plan anyway so we could visit friends, but upon arrival we immediately needed to do a drive-by and sure enough, 98% of the forest is gone. We are stunned. Why? If you want to see how small 5 acres can be just take out the trees. This log cabin once nestled in the trees, thriving with wildlife and nature, now looks like a logging camp. This land that we worked so hard to live alongside nature is…..nothing of its former glory. While I realize that it is now his property and he can do as he wishes, I cannot help but ask “why”? Does he hate nature? Did he see only the monetary value of the trees? He did come from the city but so did we and most of the others in this neighborhood. We all came for the forest and the nature and the quiet. We came for fresh air, the wildlife, and to be outside. Why would the new owner come and choose to make this forest paradise look like an urban city park under construction?

He paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

I will not go ask him, but will always wonder the bigger question? Why do some people have a true love for the land and all it represents while others ‘love’ is more about total control and taming of nature? How could he feel he lives in a better place now devoid of all that nature that surrounded him? For us it was the perfect place that was in perfect balance when he arrived. He killed the tree that had the bird house that delivered 2-3 baby chicks every single year we were there.  The grey squirrel’s forest playground is gone. I can’t answer the ‘why’ and never will be able to, but can only reflect on my own values. He has his own values and he has a right to have his own. He does not have to answer the ‘why?’

We nature photographers take photographs of the natural world because we appreciate it and want to share our imagery with others so they too can appreciate the land. Photography truly is the vehicle to express that love. We want to be out in nature to smell its fragrance, feels its moods, and capture its visual bounty. I doubt many nature photographers would lose their love for the land if they could not photograph.  We have an insatiable need to be there! Obviously not everybody feels the same way but connecting with nature is a human need for most. We are of nature!

Only 1 of every 10-20 trees remain. The forest in the rear is the neighbors.

We are of nature

So why are some people’s connections to the land so different than others?  Why do some see so little value in a forest full of life?  Could it be fear? He came from the city full of lights on every street and this mountain retreat only had moonlight. The coyotes were always around, and rarely a bear and cougar as well. Was he afraid and thus felt a treeless landscape brought a sense of security? Why do nature photographers see the forest as a place of joy, rejuvenation, solace, worthy of photographing and sharing and preserving?

I have tried to ‘let it go’ and satisfy my anguish with thoughts of “it is his and not mine now” or “the trees will grow back” and all that is so true. But those thoughts just don’t lessen my sense of loss and only reinforce how much I truly loved a small 5 acre patch of trees.

I harbor no bad feelings towards the buyer of our home. I can’t! He allowed us to start our next journey.  I will always wonder why he did not see what the forest is truly about and only the trees as a lifetime worth of firewood he now has stacked.

For us, the journey will continue and wherever our feet are planted next, we will continue to love our next ‘patch of paradise,’ plant trees and flowers, garden for wildlife, coexist with the critters whose home is also there. And I will always photograph and share! We don’t know where ‘next’ will be: maybe near or maybe far, but we don’t have to decide now.

Today, camped along the river barely a mile from the cabin, we feel at home. The wind is ‘wisping’ through the trees, the air is warm, and Jessie, the head of security, is sitting on the edge of camp surveying the forest perimeter for invaders as he did for 10 years. He knows that he to, loves the forest.

If you have any thoughts please leave a comment.

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