Only One Little Tree

Woodland light

Woodland Light – 50mm; ISO 100; 1/125 sec; f/1.8; -1 EV (click image to view larger size)

For the last couple of years I’ve been making a series of images of a single tree. It’s a rather photogenic little beech tree set in a small but thick pine wood, with a lovely curved shape to the branches and foliage. It was certain contrasts that struck me when I first saw it. Firstly in scale, with the tall pines towering above it helping to emphasise it’s small stature. Then secondly in colour, with the muted browns of the pine trunks and woodland floor being outshone by the vibrant orange beech leaves as they held on through autumn and winter. Also, from certain viewpoints, it appeared very isolated being surrounded on all sides by tall trunks, almost penned in.

Over time, as I returned more often, I started to think of it as “my” tree – hoping to record it as it grew and matured. Some trees in iconic locations become so well known among photographers that almost everyone has their own version of an image, but I felt certain that no one else was creating images of “my” tree. I’d never seen anyone else around with a camera and had not come across images of it being shared on-line. The location is not well known, certainly not a tourist spot or common walking route, being more popular with local dog walkers than photographers. It’s not even that peaceful, being located alongside the A3 the noise from traffic is constant. But to me it has a certain charm, with infrequent visitors and those keeping mainly to the tracks, not venturing through the thickest wooded parts as I do.

In building up the series I tried to capture images across the seasons and in differing weather and lighting conditions. The leaf colour is always attractive, from fresh green in spring and through summer, turning yellow at the start of autumn then a vibrant orange as winter takes hold. I’m always amazed that these lovely orange leaves, even though dry and curling up, still manage to stay attached right through winter.

I hadn’t yet managed to catch it with snow on the ground, so last year as autumn was fading and winter not too far away I was hopeful conditions would be favourable.

Around the end of October I read a worrying headline posted by Get Surrey on Twitter:


It transpired that as well as creating a safety zone alongside the A3, the pine wood containing “my” tree had been targeted for thinning of “mature” trees, the work being planned to complete in December. Being only 4 to 5 feet high and obviously a young tree, surely it would be OK?

Being away on holiday in November and December, it wasn’t until January that I ventured back there. Having read further negative reports about the work carried out, I decided to leave my camera behind, being apprehensive about what I would find. As I walked the half mile from the car park, I saw signs of the work carried out – trees felled; branches and trunks left lying about; the woodland floor now strewn with foliage and debris hiding the usual covering of pine needles.

Approaching the pine wood, I saw no sign of “my” tree but clumps of orange leaves near the edge told the story. Several of the small beech trees had been felled and discarded in a pile, including mine. There was so much debris left behind covering the ground that I could not even locate the spot where the tree had been growing. I sensed a feeling of loss building inside me followed by anger. I just couldn’t understand why the contractors had chosen to do this! They were meant to be thinning MATURE trees and these beech were no more than a few years old. Being unable to do anything and feeling saddened and at a loss, I wandered away for a long walk through the woods.

I finally returned with my camera two days ago, wanting to document the impact on the wood (and perhaps myself?), and maybe find other subjects to continue the series.

A lot of felled branches and trunks have been left lying on the ground and I know the woodland management team would say this is normal, helping the wood to regenerate and flourish and I also understand that they don’t manage the wood for the needs of photographers, but it felt like the wood had been vandalised.

As I progressed through the wood taking images, I noticed many of the small beech still standing had been damaged, probably by falling pine branches as trees were felled nearby, or maybe by contractors vehicles. I just wish the people tasked with this had shown more care for the younger trees.

From the surviving beech, I have some hopeful subjects but none as photogenic as “my” tree. The positions they are in do not provide a favourable setting, with cluttered backgrounds and other trees encroaching into the frame. However, I will persevere as the wood recovers and hopefully things will improve.

If I was able to speak to someone who had carried out this work I would say this – you may have looked at that beech tree and thought it’s “only one little tree” but someone loved it!

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