Private lives of the trees

September's Holiday Farm Fire decimated some areas of forest while others escaped relatively unscathed. Photographer David Paul Bayles lovingly documents the surviving trees.

by BLAKE ANDREWS

It’s a chilly December morning when I pull into the parking lot tucked along the McKenzie Highway. David Paul Bayles is already here, sorting camera equipment in his truck for our upcoming exploration. We are soon joined by Fred Swanson, who will be our guide and mentor today. A retired Forest Service scientist, Swanson has been working on local forest issues since the 1970s, as a field scientist and research leader in the Long-Term Ecological Reflections (LTER) program at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest near Blue River (where he and Bayles collaborated in 2018). He possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of Northwest ecosystems, and the McKenzie corridor in particular. Now in his mid-70s Swanson is as spry and curious as ever. As he begins tromping through the forest, Bayles and I must double our step to keep up. 

We are in the heart of the McKenzie valley, and nothing looks like it did earlier this year: September’s Holiday Farm Fire laid a path of destruction right down the valley’s gut, starting at the eponymous Holiday Farm Resort, then sweeping downwind to eventually incinerate over 170,000 acres. The damage was not uniform. Instead, the fire burned in patchwork fashion depending on forest type, density, grade, defensibility, and a degree of cruel luck. In the communities nestled along highway 126, intact homes sit adjacent to charred waste lots. From our meeting point along the river we can see huge swaths of blackened hillside. But there are also many nearby groves which appear largely intact, at least in their upper stories above the scorch line. 

David Paul Bayles. A burned bark abstraction from the Holiday Farm Fire (2020). Caption adapted from Instagram @davidpaulbayles

For a casual observer like myself, the fire damage is awful to look at. I think of the immeasurable habitat lost, vanished in a flash. But Swanson views the carnage with less alarm. For him this is merely the most recent in a series of major ecosystem disruptions he has witnessed firsthand. The immediate predecessors, by Swanson’s reckoning, were the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, the spotted owl/timber wars of the 1980s, and the flood of 1996. He’s been one of the first scientists on the scene at each one, and the Holiday Farm Fire is no exception. It’s a golden opportunity to examine the forest cycle from point zero. 

The fire’s aftermath is also a lure for Bayles, who eyes it as a potential source of photographic material. So he has teamed with Swanson to form a small study pod, a reprisal of their LTER partnership. Over the next few weeks, months, and years, they will systematically document the grove we are now standing in, which spans maybe fifty acres. Swanson will pick out points of scientific interest which Bayles will photograph. There will be perhaps forty survey points total, and they will form a baseline set of data. Bayles and Swanson will revisit the same locations at regular intervals, monthly at first while the changes are very rapid, then eventually biannually. When I ask Swanson how long the study will continue he gives me a wry grin, “two hundred years.” 

Bayles’ pictures will serve a few functions. On one level they are raw data. But Bayles is a skilled fine artist, and he is aiming for aesthetic value as well. His photos will document Swanson’s chosen sites, but if he sees something interesting along the way—which turns out to be a regular occurrence—he will photograph that too, for himself. Working together, Bayles and Swanson create a symbiotic team not dissimilar to some of the relationships in the surrounding ecosystem. Swanson gets Bayles’ photos as a scientific record, and Bayles gets Swanson’s expertise and entrée to the forest, and hopefully some images with lasting power.

David Paul Bayles. View on a ridge above what was the town of Blue River (2020). Caption adapted from Instagram @davidpaulbayles

The first photo site overlooks the McKenzie River. Swanson has marked it on a previous trip with a blue flag. From this vantage point the fire’s mottled impact comes into greater clarity. Looking downriver at a small wooded sandbar, the island’s leading edge is stacked with a large logjam. Trapped and exposed to the firestorm as it raced downriver, the pile is black and branchless. It comes into sharp visual relief against the seemingly healthy stand of trees just a few meters behind. Somehow it has miraculously escaped major damage. 

As Bayles sets up his tripod over the scene, Swanson muses on what might have happened here. Why did the fire stop at the logs? Perhaps the river created strange wind dynamics. Or the stand of trees may have been spaced just so. Or the logjam was a dry dense tinder pile, with less moisture the stand behind it. It’s hard to know for sure, and Swanson is in no rush to affirm any theory. He seems to enjoy speculation. 

We move on to the next site, a tangle of roots, rocks, and dirt at the base of a fallen tree. Swanson fixes a flagged PVC pipe to mark the spot and Bayles dutifully documents the scene from directly over it. After the task is done he pivots to a nearby stump for a few minutes of personal work. It has sustained heavy fire damage and its original tree form is barely recognizable. Instead its base has been seared and baked into something approaching a Henry Moore statue, with a dignified presence standing alone in a barren clearing. When I ask Bayles what attracts him to this grizzly scene, he explains patiently, “I want to treat these stumps as the elders that they are.” 

David Paul Bayles. “With the understory gone, it feels like the skeleton of the forest is revealed.” (2020). Caption quote from Instagram @davidpaulbayles

If Bayles’ description has a touchy-feely quality, his technique is anything but. He uses a late model dSLR with tilt-shift lens. Sometimes he employs a bluetooth signaling device to an iPad and a large battery powered strobe. The resulting raw files are enormous, and after tinkering they often exceed 750 MB, with incredibly detailed resolution. When I ask how just how much resolution, or how much is desirable, Bayles replies, “never enough.” He brackets varying exposures of each scene, which he layers together later in the final image. These are generally converted to monochrome. A single exposure can represent just one particular time space moment. But Bayles’ combinations present an alternate approach, one which encompasses the multiple perspectives and deep time frames inherent in a forested landscape.

Bayles has been immersed in trees most of his adult life. He first began working in the woods as a choker setter in the 1970s. When he shifted to photography a few years later, trees stayed in his blood. His website contains several extensive photo projects reaching back decades. Almost all of them revolve around forestry in one way or another. There are portraits of loggers, timber in mid-fall, grafted orchards, industrial tree farms, photos from LTER, and more. He is the author of the book Urban Forest, which documents various trees in the human landscape. His current home on the outskirts of Corvallis, is on rural acreage surrounded by thick stands of Doug Fir. 

At this point trees are second nature for Bayles. Making an arboreal portrait is like having a friend sit for a photo session. His subjects may be inanimate, but he pays close attention to their mood, expression, and posture, just as he would if shooting a human. His Instagram bio:  “In trees I trust… Aspiring tree whisperer.”

When the Henry Moore stump appears on Instagram a few weeks later its caption illuminates Bayles’ thinking: “With the understory gone, it feels like the skeleton of the forest is revealed. The remnant of an old growth stump is almost six feet tall and still anchored to the ground in two places. Before the fire it could’ve been hidden from casual view. Now it is revealed, sculpted by time and fire.”

Another Instagram picture shows a dead red cedar snag on the riverbank. It is almost entirely surrounded by dead limbs, and the scene across the river seems desolate. But Bayles is careful to include a sign of hope. Several living branches descend from the trunk. They appear to have escaped total destruction, but only time will tell. “I am approaching this typology by making portraits,” reads Bayles’ caption, “trying to give each one its due respect and honor for the hundreds of years it survived. We will not know until spring whether this one survived the recent fire.”

David Paul Bayles. Several tall snags, mostly Western Red Cedar, along the McKenzie. (2020). Caption adapted from Instagram @davidpaulbayles

As we walk to the next site, Swanson stops to point out the branches of a Western Hemlock. It’s a tree he and Bayles noticed on a previous visit, and they’ve been speculating on its appearance ever since. Whereas a hemlock’s branches typically droop downward toward the ground, these branches curl inward and upward. Perhaps the branches were reacting away from intense heat below? Perhaps the structure of the branches trained the heat in a certain direction, like an airplane wing? Or perhaps the differing cell structures of the branch reacted differently to fire, twisting their morphology? As with the logjam, piecing together the exact story is an uncertain process. If the answers are not immediately clear, that’s fine with Swanson, again showing his preference hypothesizing over certitude. 

For Bayles, the many possible stories are a blank canvas onto which he can sketch ideas. When the hemlock appears later on his carefully captioned Instagram feed, it is one of several trees huddled together against the sky. The branches of each tree are huddled inward into ”a protective, self embracing gesture.” It’s no great leap to anthropomorphize the limbs into great tree hugs. With this photo, Bayles finds an inflection point where scientific inquiry carries emotional resonance.  

David Paul Bayles. Western hemlock branches in a protective, self-embracing gesture. (2020). Caption adapted from Instagram @davidpaulbayles

We walk deeper into the forest, stopping every few minutes for Swanson to wonder openly about various burn artifacts. Originally trained as a geologist, he reads the forest as an archaeological dig. It tells a story but the history is layered and the timeline is deep. The information is jumbled and needs untangling. 

A large clearing of downed firs presents a puzzle. It appears to be the result of wind damage, but why it is so localized is a mystery. Nearby, a number of Doug Firs seem to have sprung a leak, dripping a stream of white exudate down their charcoaled trunks. As Swanson speculates on the origin—perhaps the result of fluids no longer needed for needles, seeping down through damaged openings?— Bayles takes a few minutes to photograph one of them. Set against a blackened backdrop, then translated into monochrome, the white trail offers alluring natural chiaroscuro.  

David Paul Bayles. Scarred and charred trunk. (2020). Caption adapted from Instagram @davidpaulbayles

For Bayles the fire is an allegory for wider social changes. The last year has been a chain of dismal paroxysms, with pandemic, economic disruption, civil unrest, and national elections. “Our culture’s been stripped, the forest too. What will grow back? What will die?” he asks. Before I can formulate an answer, he expands the metaphor: “The same with our national rhetoric. What will come back after Trump?” It’s a question that might take a long time to answer. For now I’m stumped, literally. 

David Paul Bayles. Red cedar roots clinging to a large old Douglas Fir stump (2020). Caption adapted from Instagram @davidpaulbayles

The human angle is a thread that has always run through Bayles’ work. He has never been a pure nature photographer in the style of Eliot Porter or Christopher Burkett. Instead he portrays forests in relation to their human counterparts. He describes his images as “pictures of trees that say more about humans.” This has always been the case, but in recent years —whether sparked by impending eco-collapse or Trump insanity — the human element seems more outsized than before. 

Perhaps Bayles is onto something. In the midst of unsettled times, one can learn a lot about humanity traipsing among fire scars. This is where I leave Swanson and Bayles eventually, deep in the woods a half mile from our cars. Swanson stands calmly in an open clearing. Bayles is setting up his tripod near a twisted knot of cedar and hemlock roots. It’s a visual jigsaw puzzle, with a convoluted form that resists decoding. Which parts connect to which tree? Bayles’ picture will reveal some parts of the scene clearly but its precise history will remain tough to untangle.


Blake Andrews, 52, is a photographer and writer based in Eugene, where he lives with his wife and sons near Spencer Butte.


This article was made possible with support from The Ford Family Foundation’s Visual Arts Program.

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