Healing Trees: A Road to Recovery Through Woodland Photography
I can recall an evening in the winter of 2012 when I was slowly walking the streets of our housing estate in an effort to keep moving and ease some of the pain throughout my legs.
Passing a narrow, dark footpath lined with overhanging trees, I stared into the darkness and wanted to walk into it and to the forest beyond to see how it made me feel.
I was angry, so angry with myself. Why was my body letting me down and robbing me of the freedom to ride bikes, snowboard, and do silly things that made my adrenaline and exhilaration surge?
The irrational idea of walking into the dark forest was to feel some fear, to feel alive again.
Being a self-employed web developer at the time, a desk job was less than ideal for someone with chronic pain as a result of a ruptured spinal disc.
Working from home alone, it’s all too easy to become hyper-aware and trapped in a cycle of negative thoughts that emphasized pain. I was struggling to see a way forward.
Knowing that I’ve always loved dogs, my partner was looking for a way to help and suggested the company of a four-legged friend to offer fun distraction and positive focus.
So, in the spring of 2014, my life was changed by a beautiful labradoodle called Meg.
Once she was fully grown, my capacity for movement had also improved, so our wanders became more adventurous.
We explored the local countryside to see what it offered the curious photographer as opposed to the speed-obsessed mountain biker.
Looking close to home on an Ordnance Survey map I picked out a woodland to investigate. With a camera over my shoulder, tripod in one hand and Meg’s lead in the other, we set off for an evening’s exploration.
The complexity of the woodland was visually compelling, the earthy smells were soothing, and the sounds were soft and relaxing.
Every step forward and turn of the head presented something new; a shift in stimulus, encouragement to delve deeper, to be fully immersed, and I almost forgot that I was also there to make photographs.
It’s easy to lose all sense of time when absorbed in a world of trees, but I guess that I’d been roaming for an hour until realising that negative thoughts of chronic pain had been hushed.
That moment hit me quite profoundly – the simple act of walking through unfamiliar woodland with Meg made me forget myself. Instead, my thoughts became occupied by nature and the anticipation of what I might discover or witness.
After three years of a chaotic mind, I found solace in the chaos of the woodland.
In the years that followed, I’ve devoted as much time as I can spare to being with trees and attempting to show my gratitude through photographic interpretation.
The more I explored my local countryside, the more fascinating, enriching, and addictive the sense of discovery became. Having biked across nearby moorland for many years I had appreciated the easily accessed scenery.
But I never imagined that tucked away in the quietest corners would be oak trees that first emerged in the Middle Ages, damp valleys with babbling becks and squirming mossy branches, painterly birch that wept delicately over beds of heather, and ancient woods carpeted with blooms of wildflowers disturbed only by deer.
The image Distant Dale is from a location I found in 2014 and is one of my first photographs of trees in which I saw something beyond the subject and atmosphere.
I received numerous compliments from photographers I admired, but as nice as that was, I felt frustrated as there was a quality within it that I struggled to put my finger on.
Being a location which I was regularly visiting at the time, I returned to methodically dissect the scene to understand why it appealed so much.
On a superficial level, I knew local woodlands were positively impacting my well-being, but seeing how it was influencing my photography was a revelation that continues to inspire me.
Dead trees, broken branches, obscured views, a sombre atmosphere, and scenes of decay that suffer in silence; trees and woodlands were presenting scenes in which I saw something of myself.
Perhaps that all sounds a touch dramatic, but I fully embraced ‘biophilia’ – the theory of the biologist E. O. Wilson. It means an innate and genetically determined affinity of human beings with the natural world.
What I have realised is that allowing this sense of connectedness to guide your creativity can ensure that your photography is an extension of who you are.
It can become the consistent thread through your work which protects the things I feel we should hold most dear – authenticity, personal fulfilment, and passion.
Being connected to nature isn’t simply about expressing your feelings, but using photography to showcase how you see the world.
For me, it has become about celebrating trees, as well as making images to express the emotion and unique character of trees in harmony with the many elements which make up their home.
According to Lucy Jones in my book Gathering Time:
“Attention Restoration Theory, one of the leading theories about why spending time in nature is so good for our mental health, suggests that natural settings are ideal for restoring attention and giving our minds a break from cognitive fatigue….
“One of the components of the theory is ‘extent’ – the scope to feel immersed in an environment.
“Another component is ‘soft fascination’ which refers to elements – such as leaves moving in a breeze or clouds across the sky – which are easy, automatic, and pleasant to look at and can thus encourage a reflective state of mind.”
Particularly interesting to me is the importance of immersion, soft fascination, and also a sense of awe. I find that I see more when I don’t look too hard but relax in the space, admiring its many facets, and am receptive to new ideas.
Notice the texture of the bark, the gesture of the bracken fronds, the glisten on the damp leaves, the shapes, colours, interactions, movement, and perhaps even human-like faces.
I liken it to a two-way conversation with nature – rather than shoehorn our preconceived ideas into a woodland, we should listen, understand it, and make images which capture its essence.
As children, we’re naturally curious. The power of being truly immersed in nature is that it can revert us to that child-like state of imagination, wonder, and curiosity, and curiosity is one of the best tools we can take into woodland as photographers!
Touch things, investigate, look around your feet, gaze into the canopy, and learn about the tree species and the habitats that rely upon them.
There’s so much to take in that it leaves little room for the negative thoughts around life’s stresses that so often race through our minds. Time moves much more slowly in the woods compared to our typical working and family lives.
It often feels like it’s standing still in a peaceful and calm woodland, but I think it collects. Stories are wrapped up in these important living documents, which I think are easier to see and capture when we slow down and take it all in.
Being primarily motivated by the freely available therapeutic benefits of nature has helped me to eradicate feelings of frustration in photography and appreciate the natural world and our reliance upon it.
In that process of learning through curiosity, I’ve started to better understand the ecological significance of what I love to photograph.
Interestingly, I no longer view broken trees as a reflection of myself but as a natural and positive stage of their enriching life cycle.
That view feeds into how I interpret woodland in the frame and post-processing – continuing the thread that keeps photography very much a part of me, and I’m very much a part of nature.
I’ve since had numerous walks in a dark forest and it turns out it’s not so scary after all.