• April 22, 2016

Spooky Tree Stumps Remind Us Why We Need Earth Day

Earth Day is today, Friday, April 22, and Proof is celebrating all week. This is the fifth and final post in a five-day series about our planet. Help us honor the planet by sharing a photo on Instagram with #NatGeoEarthDay. The editor’s picks will appear on the site on Earth Day

How is human intervention affecting the health of our planet? This is a question many people are asking today, including fine art photographer Joe Freeman, who was inspired to look more closely at the issue after hearing National Geographic photographer James Balog speak at his university in 2014. What resulted is Freeman’s project “Clearcut,” an almost ghostly look at aging stumps in Washington State.

These stumps reside in the historical Snoqualmie Pass, which Freeman says was a former passage point for Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest. I corresponded with him over email and asked him what drew him to these stumps and what message they hold for the future.

Picture of a tree stump in Washington state
JANNA DOTSCHKAL: How did you find these stumps?

JOE FREEMAN: I discovered the site while driving back to Seattle after an arduous and emotional week on the road photographing the aftermath of wildfires east of the Cascades.

As I was approaching Snoqualmie Pass, I noticed a valley of stumps in the distance. At first, from the highway, they appeared quite unremarkable. I actually passed the off-ramp [that] leads to them thinking I’ll take a look next time I head east. But something inside me wouldn’t let it go, so at the next exit I turned around and headed back. I guess in that sense you could say that the location chose me.

Picture of a tree stump in Washington state

JANNA: To the best of your knowledge, what is the backstory of these trees?

JOE: The trees were likely removed from Snoqualmie Pass sometime around 1917, when Keechelus Lake was dammed to regulate water flow for irrigating eastern Washington. Once the dam was in place the water level would rise, drowning the trees. My best guess is that the trees were cut down so as not to let their economic value—likely in the millions—go to waste.

As the reservoir fills and empties, the stumps are periodically submerged. This submersion has helped to preserve them over the years. I was there when the lake was abnormally low.

Picture of a tree stump in Washington state

JANNA: What drew you to certain tree stumps and their shapes?

JOE: What struck me right away about the stumps was their highly anthropomorphic nature. Each one seemed to possess its own unique variations, just like people.

Three or four grouped together evoked a family; two, a pair of lovers or a parent and child. At times it appears as though the stumps are holding onto each other, huddled together in the face of a certain doom they could not prevent.

Picture of a tree stump in Washington state

JANNA: What was it like to be in this landscape?

JOE: The feeling is one of strangeness and solemnity. Its barrenness makes it feel like a place that human beings were never meant to see. This makes sense, considering that the area is underwater for much of the year. In some places the ground is riddled with a type of thick quicksand. It makes moving around a disorienting—and potentially treacherous—endeavor.

Picture of a tree stump in Washington state

The traffic from Interstate 90 in the distance is a constant source of ambient noise. It eliminates the absolute quiet one encounters when in deep wilderness. During the months I spent photographing this site, construction was taking place on a nearby stretch of the highway. In order to facilitate some particular aspect of this construction, one cloudy evening around six, I-90 was shut down completely. The sudden silence filled the valley more dramatically than any sound.

After a few moments, I heard the sound of an elk hollering on the western side of the valley. Its call was so loud that I thought maybe it had been shot. But then, a minute or two later, I heard the reply it was looking for on the eastern side. For half an hour the two elk sang back and forth to each other in the deepening dusk. It was an absolutely magical moment. It was primal.

Picture of a tree stump in Washington state

JANNA: What story do you want to tell with these images?

JOE: I think the haunting, sorrowful nature of these images is what makes the most impact. In other words, it’s not so much about a story, but more so an emotional state. This state communicates itself even without any awareness of the historical context, or of how clear-cutting affects the entire ecosystem. I feel that part of my duty is to tune into the emotional logic that is inherent within a landscape and to find a way to represent it visually. I can’t necessarily speak for the land, although I hope the land can speak through me.

Picture of a tree stump in Washington state

I hope that viewers come away with a sense of unresolved—and perhaps unresolvable—tensions. For instance, the tension between dark seductive beauty and outright devastation. Such a tension calls into play our culpability as agents of change and destruction. I hope that viewers respond with an increased awareness of the fact that the land is always communicating with us. Only by acknowledging this fact can we become more responsible environmental stewards.

View more of Joe Freeman’s work on his website and follow him on Instagram.

There are 11 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Dick Eger
    June 18, 2016

    The environmental impact of what we do to our planet is pitiful. The story of reclamation, i.e. Joe’s memorializing this (and other) tragedies in sublime black and white photographs is a kind of alchemy. The beauty overcomes the tragedy and the tree “lives on” forever in the photograph.

  2. Manuel Perez
    May 3, 2016

    These shots are amazing. I am a huge fan of Black and White photos and an even bigger fan of nature. To see the details of such tragedy of this is amazing. How can we get involved?

  3. Rene Roberta Haynes
    April 28, 2016

    They look like they were cedar trees. Old growth? I’d rather see them living, but the dead wood is eerily beautiful, as well.

  4. Michael O’Rourke
    April 24, 2016

    I worked as cultural education coordinator for Headwaters located in Ashland, OR during the timber wars over the spotted owl in the late ’90s. Seeing a clear cut first hand is a game changer. Thank you for taking these and sharing them. Very evocative, brings back the activist in me. Hoka hey.

  5. Andrea jones
    April 23, 2016

    Really interesting and thought provoking article – fascinatingly haunting images.

  6. Don Turriaga
    April 23, 2016

    I love this area in the pass. It’s only accessible from lare July until Nov/Dec when the snow blocks the road and in the sping it fills with water and covers most the area. I love the mood that joe Freeman captured in BW. And BTW they were cut diwn 1817 to salvage the wood that would have been lost when the area was first flooded. And those cutout that look like eyes are springboard cuts so the lumberjack could get above the thick base of the tree so they had less wood to chop through. But a great place to explore late summer early fall.

  7. M.S.Lakshmi Priya
    April 22, 2016

    The various shades of grey and the trees..as though they are trying to extend their withered appendages for help and finally realising the futility, shrivel back to themselves..It’s almost like from a Tim Burton movie..

  8. Philip Wong
    April 22, 2016

    Hauntingly beautiful, absolutely stunning! Nothing expresses more than in black and white.

  9. Michelle Dunn Marsh
    April 22, 2016

    I have followed Joe Freeman’s work for some time, and am blown away once again. The edit and presentation do justice to his painful and powerful photographs. Thank you for highlighting them here.

  10. Connie Hartviksen
    April 22, 2016

    The photographs here are stunning and sobering. So so sad to see this, and no apparent regeneration. This forest will never come back like it once was. We really need to think hard about our forestry practices. This is unforgivable. Thank you for taking the time to so thoughtfully document this. We all need to reflect long and hard on this – especially today “Earth Day”

  11. Silas S
    April 22, 2016

    The majority of people seem to be environmentally conscious. They do not want to harm their planet. So, where does the actual problem lie? When water resources were segregated based on territorial fervor, huge dams also came into existence. Some studies prove the fact that dams have increased the risk of earthquakes and seismic phenomena.

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