• January 27, 2016

Seeing the Trees Through the Forest: Vestiges of Ancient Woods

Photographer David Ellingsen’s family roots run deep. His relatives were some of the first European immigrants to settle Cortes Island, part of a small archipelago located a hundred miles north of Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1887.

“The forest really was our playground,” Ellingsen says of his childhood days. “We’d leave the house in the morning and be out in the landscape all day and come back for dinner. Growing up in a rural environment you foster a close relationship with the natural world.”

Picture of an old growth stump
Portrait #2

But though his youth sounds idyllic, there was a specter lurking in the old-growth forests—the barren stumps from decades of logging. “I remember walking to the school bus through this forest and these big stumps are just looming over you the whole time,” Ellingsen says. “The springboard notches cut into them [for logging] almost looked like big eyes. They became these skull-like creatures. I had three brothers, and the first time I had to walk that route myself—I must have been only six or seven at the time—it was quite scary. I have this feeling of the beauty and wonder of the forest but also this dark part of it.”

Picture of an old growth stump
Portrait #3

Ellingsen’s family was at the center of the logging tradition for many years. “My great-grandfather, my grandfather, my uncles, my father, and my brothers all played a part in the industry at various times. These trees are standing on the family property and they cut down most of these trees by hand themselves.”

Picture of an old growth stump
Portrait #4
Picture of two men felling a tree
“Wilf and George Freeman falling timber the hard way,” says the caption on this archival photograph of Ellingsen’s great uncle and great grandfather felling a tree.

Ellingsen says that it took him a while to come to the realization that he wanted to photograph the stumps and in turn memorialize the old forest. To him, the deep cuts on the stumps tell a story in themselves. “The springboard cut is the first cut—it was symbolic to me,” he says. “I thought the marks were very iconic, almost like a mouth, scream, or wound. A full forest of these stumps is incredibly powerful to witness and to be in. Now we only have tiny little groves of them left. Now, when you walk through the forest, all of the second growth covers up the stumps in the distance.”

Picture of an old growth stump
Portrait #6

He approached each stump as if it were the subject of a portrait, framing it in a clean, straightforward way while bringing to light its personality.

Ellingsen is an environmentalist, which makes his perspective on his family’s livelihood unique. He says that he sees the logging of past days as a normal part of life, but he hopes that as we look forward we can see the impact of our society on the environment.

Picture of an old growth stump
Portrait #5

“What each of us has to offer is our own personal story, and our personal perspective and background on the world. The older I get the more I realized this was a good story. I stopped running away from my family background like I did as a younger man. I realized that the upbringing I had on the island really formed my ideas and my perceptions of the natural world. I wanted to return to that,” he says.

Picture of an old growth stump
Portrait #8

“For me, it’s the old story of looking at the past to inform our future, and that is something important for us to do right now, with the scale of the climate change crisis. We need to find ways that we can modify our behavior as we move forward. Especially when these things are still going on, you think of the big forests of the world—the Pacific Northwest, the Amazon, the forests of Southeast Asia and Pacifica: It’s still happening, they are still logging these vast tracts of the very last remaining first forest of the world—the old growth. We haven’t learned our lesson yet. We refuse to recognize it and proceed to plunder on and focus on the money that can be made from these forests.”

Composite picture of many old growth stumps
Four Point Four Acres—This is the number of trees that would have occupied a 4.4-acre space when the old-growth forest was untouched.

Not only did Ellingsen want to teach future generations about respecting the natural world, but he also wanted to preserve the native forest in some way. “One thing that precipitated this project was watching these stumps decay … They are the very last remnants of these forests. In another lifetime, they will be completely rotted and gone,” he says.

“In a way, this series became an elegy to the forest.”

View more of David Ellingsen’s work, including art installations he created from old-growth stumps, on his website.

There are 40 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Robert Meyer
    March 6, 2016

    All of the perspectives above reflect our views of the natural world, and the environment around us. The comment by Bill Madison reflects much of my own view (” But at the same time I understood that killing natural creatures was necessary for almost every other creature’s survival”). It also brings to mind the concept of “Creative Destruction”. New life cannot be created without the passing of the old. It’s the intervention of mankind that then becomes the issue. That also presents a conundrum. The intervention of mankind can and will damage our world, but without mankind’s intervention, mankind will not survive. I don’t pretend to be able to resolve that.

  2. Jennie
    February 8, 2016

    Mother Earth can and will destroy whatdever man has made. She will win in the end no matter how badly we treat her.

  3. mlchaelmills
    February 2, 2016

    The face of the father and mother still dwell here. Thank you Shawnee national forest for reminding us to look upon that face. The scars are present but she loves us abundantly. I encourage all humans to go look at the beautiful thing we may loose.

  4. Dianna Smith
    February 1, 2016

    There is always beauty in nature. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Geraldine worsley
    February 1, 2016

    Many years ago, I visited Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island. The grandeur and spirituality of this place will stay in my heart forever.

  6. Ramesh babu
    February 1, 2016

    Why is it that we humans have mutated into cancerous beings? Like the cancer that afflicts us, devouring our body, we are devouring Mother Earth, our celestial host,consuming or destroying everything that Mother Earth needs to sustain herself- while we research ways to combat cancer, we humans are the worst Cancer to afflict Mother Earth. ALAS.

  7. miles hodgkiss
    February 1, 2016

    We have forgotten how to live to a great old age. We kill everything before it reaches maturity. Without maturity around us we become more and more immature ourselves. This is the result of capitalism. It’s time to take away their destructive toys – The derivatives markets and stop the trend to bet on failure, replace the regulations removed by Regan and Thatcher…..

  8. Jim
    February 1, 2016

    Beautiful photos but also sad to see. As you state we haven’t learned our lesson but if human population numbers continue to increase our forests will continue to be victimized.

  9. James M. King, Jr.
    February 1, 2016

    The Tree-Stump photos called up Mind’s-Eye images of ancient Norwegian Troll legend lore experienced during a 1969 2 week sojourn in the Kainuu wilderness. During subsequent 2013 visit with Finnish History Professor I related my spectral images of the 1939-Winter War, a’ sleep 30 years and more dredged up out of genetic memory’s door opened for a moment. He told that there was historical basis for that imagery.

  10. Barbara
    January 31, 2016

    In Calaveras Big Trees State Park here in California there is a picture next to a giant redwood stump of gigantic diameter of the stump being used as a dance floor years ago. How could anyone dance at a scene of such devastation?

  11. Fred Bates
    January 31, 2016

    We had stumps like this when I was a boy. One time I found a large whiskey bottle by an old stump. I told my mother and said “those guys must have loved to drink” My mom said ” no,they carried kerosine to lubricate the saw,as it would get pitch on it and would stick in the cut” Fred 82

  12. Michael a. Cic one
    January 31, 2016

    It’s like looking into the spirit of the forest!

  13. Ray Madison
    January 31, 2016

    I was a logger in the Redwood forests of Northern California in the 1950s. I used to look at the great redwood stumps after we had just “killed” the main parts of these living trees,and to feel so guilty that after one season I had to leave those woods. But at the same time I understood that killing natural creatures was necessary for almost every other creature’s survival, so my life went on, and formerly living things have continued to be what I’ve in one way or another survived on.
    Except for redwood.

  14. Lisa Hart Willis
    January 31, 2016

    Your talent is beautifully portrayed in these priceless photographs. Thank you for sharing your work with us. ~ LHW

  15. Kat.
    January 31, 2016

    These are so ethereal I have long love the forest due to many camping trips while growing up but there is something so inviting about a tree that has begun to day sad as well but also intriguing my most memorable vacation and hike was in the humbling Redwood forest with all manner of trees alive a decaying.
    These are so intrinsic to my psyche.

  16. Cecilie Davidson
    January 31, 2016

    This is how the firests should remain, natural,

  17. Norma Goldberg
    January 31, 2016

    Trees can teach us how to live generously, and how to die gracefully. Beautiful photos!

  18. Sue Jarrett
    January 31, 2016

    Interesting! Portraits 4, 6 and 8 look like faces.

  19. Peggy S
    January 31, 2016

    Beautiful and Poignant. Thank you. I wish everyone saw them this way.

  20. Milly
    January 31, 2016

    Isn’t there anything else we can use for paper, like bamboo, that can be grown in great quantities quickly so that we don’t have to destroy so much of our forests?

  21. John Peiffer
    January 31, 2016

    While riding our horses in the coastal mountain range forest here in Oregon, we came upon 7 stumps in a circle near the trail we were riding on. We doubled back on the trail and on closer observation we realized that they were actually part of what had been the stump of a single huge tree. Although the forest we were in had what seemed like tall trees with a beautiful canopy, we were left wondering how tall and old that towering giant must have been when people cut it down.

  22. Bob
    January 31, 2016

    Looks to an enchanting wook. I love the forest.

  23. Kenneth Hargens
    January 31, 2016

    In 1997 I was employed by the BLM in North Bend, Oregon as a Natural Resource Specialist. As such, I spent my days alone in the forest on various projects. Most often I recorded snag trees on proposed timber sales. In the thick forest I would often discover huge, ancient cut stumps. Some a large as 10 feet in diameter. Complete with the springboard notches. I would pause in my tasks and speculate on the lives and hopes of the men who cut those trees so long ago. I could almost hear their voices as they worked and the sound of the huge tree falling in the forest. Kenneth Hargens

  24. Janet Woods
    January 31, 2016

    Beautiful. Haunting. Evocative. Meaningful.

  25. lori conley
    January 31, 2016

    Lovely photos!

  26. Debbi Trudeau
    January 31, 2016

    The faces of trees are real. You have captured their souls, the essence of the trees. Hauntingly beautiful, Thank you!

  27. Bess
    January 31, 2016

    A wonderful photographic tribute. Thanks !!!

  28. Sheryl
    January 31, 2016

    Very powerful and incredibly beautiful photographs

  29. john beazley
    January 31, 2016

    this is all we are left with photos, the real beauty has gone its like a graveyard

  30. Archie
    January 31, 2016

    Beautiful photography. Sad that in our quest for profit and progression there was no thought to rebuild for the immediate future.

  31. Maria Boogert
    January 31, 2016

    Lara, I don’t think it’s a metaphor! 🙂

  32. gary
    January 31, 2016

    Every beautiful pic is one filled with beautiful regeneration. Every forest on the planet has arisen from a previous perturbation.

  33. Paddy Wacker
    January 31, 2016

    The size of these stumps makes me think this forest was 350 years old. A great hidden gem is the size of the new growth compared to the old growth. So far North trees grow slowly. Beautiful photos. Thanks

  34. Paul Warren
    January 31, 2016

    The same phenomena apply here on southern Vancouver Island. There is one tiny pocket of old growth west of Shawnigan lake; the story goes that the loggers refused to touch it. I don’t know if that’s true but if you stand on the creek and gaze across to the second growth then you realize that the old forest isn’t just old big trees: it is qualitatively different and unique.

  35. Jennifer Bull
    January 31, 2016

    Very moving….the places where I used to do fieldwork looked like this. A ‘living’ cemetery with stumps 10m in circumference…..

  36. Zabadak
    January 31, 2016

    If you go down to the woods today…


  37. Johnny Guido
    January 31, 2016

    Loved your photos and the timely story. The earth reborns eventually in spite of our presence.

  38. Karla
    January 28, 2016

    Beautiful. Very moving.

  39. Lara
    January 28, 2016

    I love the metaphor you use of the cuts in the trees as wounds. Honest beautiful work.

  40. Catharine Bushe
    January 27, 2016

    wonderful photos, David – Congratulations

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