Weybridge photographer at home in the forest
Did you know that in the mid-1800s Vermont was nearly 80% deforested?
“There were no bear, no beavers, no turkeys… they were just gone because we had cut down all the trees,” said John Huddleston, a Weybridge photographer of 50 years who recently published his latest photography book, “At Home in the Northern Forest.”
Why did we cut down all the trees? Good question.
Huddleston’s book explains, “For the first half of the nineteenth century, the Northern Forest — stretching west from Maine to New Hampshire, Vermont and New York, extending north into Quebec and east to the Maritime Provinces of Canada — was the prime source of timber exports on the planet.”
“Now it’s exactly the reverse,” Huddleston said, thankfully. “It’s very positive; Vermont is a vigorous, moist place and the trees grew back.”
“The Northeast may be the single greatest example of ecological recovery on the planet — as humanity backed away, botany reasserted itself,” reads the introductory essay by environmental journalist Bill McKibben. “But, of course, even this blessing has its limits, and we are now testing them… So now is the time to notice — to pay witness to this sweet Northern Forest, with its dense and hobbled understory, its swamps and beaver-made meadows, its eskers and erratics, its ridge lines backlit by the early sunsets of November. John Huddleston has taken that notice — with great care he has composed the images that can help us see where we live, can help us understand the ongoing life of that woods that surrounds us.”
Huddleston centered his book on his very own backyard woods on Snake Mountain, where he’s been living and walking for 27 years.
“It’s so beautiful here,” he said. “There are just paths everywhere that lead to incredible land forms; it’s so varied with all kinds of canyons, valleys, rises and cliffs.”
Over mostly the past decade, Huddleston would go out with his camera, tripod and other equipment to capture the woods over time. The book is divided into four sections: Time Composites I; Among the Trees; Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn; and Time Composites II.
“The landscapes of the time composites were carefully photographed from the exact same location at different times,” Huddleston explains in a forward to the book. “Since these images are essentially presented as one view, they feel very close to being ‘straight’ photographs to me. At first, I marked the camera’s position with a stake, using a plumb bob suspended from a tripod. A set of exact tripod measurements and ribbon guides placed in the landscape at the sides the view would complete the initial set. This method worked, but it took at least an hour, sometimes two, to reset the tripod and camera precisely. Very frustrating.”
Huddleston suffered a heart attack in 2008 when re-setting one of his photos and that’s when he decided to change his procedure. From then on, he simply left tripods (maybe eight at a time, he guessed) out in the woods to return to later.
“That was way more efficient,” he said. “I was going back to these places maybe 20 times.”
Each time Huddleston returned to the woods, he went alone. Well, mostly alone, don’t forget the “whining mosquitoes,” “mad circling deer flies” and a variety of ticks.
“I walk in a really meditative way; always by myself,” said Huddleston, who taught visual art and mindfulness practice at Middlebury College from 1987-2017, and still teaches an intro to meditation course in the winter. “I think meditation has a really interesting relationship with photography. Before I understood meditation, I’d try to be quiet, open, not over think and be in touch with the environment. Meditation, now, feeds very actively into my photography.”
Huddleston pointed to the connection he felt when taking photos in the woods — a connection that goes beyond the lens and beyond himself as an individual.
“Sometimes we contextually dissolve into separateness,” he said. But walking through the woods for a decade — seeing how the seasons change — Huddleston gained a sense of connection through the consistency of change.
“I was really enthralled by the changes,” he said. “The changes here in the woods are so dramatic — you’ve got to notice them. When you look at something you think: this will change, it is changing, we will move beyond this in some way.”
For Huddleston, “This is life, and the forces of life.”
Throughout his beautiful, hardcover, glossy book, Huddleston softly captures our attentions with his photographs, welcoming us to “look a little more deeply at the conceptions of form, change, philosophy and psychology” in the woods.
“There is a real community of trees,” he said. “It’s a forest composed of lots of individuals. In a sort of intuitive and implicit sense, diversity is wonderful!”
“At Home in the Northern Forest” is available at The Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury.