That Tree

January 19, 2013. Day 302. Photo by Mark Hirsch.

January 19, 2013. Day 302. Photo by Mark Hirsch. See more photos (and larger versions) at Hirsch’s Facebook page:

How many different ways can you look at the same tree? Photographer Mark Hirsch decided to find out.

He told NBC News, “I drove by that tree for 19 years and never took a single frame of it.”

“That tree” is a massive bur oak — more than 150 years old — which stands in a Wisconsin cornfield. Hirsch has been taking daily photos of the tree since March 24, 2012, when he challenged himself to photograph the tree every day for a year.

In an earlier post I talked about the benefits of getting to know a particular piece of land over time, seeing it in all seasons. This project is a wonderful example of that, especially because photography prods you to look closely at your subject and see it in new ways. One small photo is probably all I can reasonably claim “fair use” for, but I encourage you to visit Hirsch’s Facebook page to see the tree in all its moods and colors in the changing seasons.

The Des Moines Register explains how he does it:

Some days he ran to the tree inspired by the sky or weather. Other days he kicked the field dirt and wandered underneath the tree’s towering crown. Sometimes he waited on the ground for inspiration. He challenged himself to see the tree anew every day, of slowing down enough in a culture of speed and technical whiz-bangery to relax and and make a picture.

“I remember day 165. I thought ‘how am I going to do this for 200 more days?’ I had shoehorned myself into a lofty challenge,” he said.

He slowed himself down and waited. A ground fog at dusk created a soft mist of purple light. And another day in the life of the oak was beautifully recorded.

Though it grows on valuable farmland, the tree is still standing thanks to landowner Tim Clare, who (quoting the Register again), “stopped a bulldozer operator one day this year who thought he’d probably want it just pushed over for more valuable corn rows.”

Hard to believe — to some people, such a tree just a weed, something that’s stealing your profits. I’ll never understand people like that.

Growing up in Iowa, I have a special feeling for bur oaks. The bur oak is the quintessential prairie tree, slow-growing, drought-tolerant, and known for its thick, fire-resistant bark and large, bur-like acorns. Native Americans used to systematically burn the prairies; the charred areas would come back absolutely lush with new growth nourished by the ash, attracting herds of bison to graze there.

(I’ve actually seen the result of prairie fires at Homestead National Monument near Beatrice, Nebraska. Not that they have bison there, but they do controlled burns. I’ve walked through the charred grass while the ranger pointed to the area of the previous year’s burn. It was easy to identify, being richer and greener than the grass that hadn’t burned as recently. As at Homestead, many of today’s remaining prairies are managed with controlled burns; the fire kills invasive species but doesn’t harm the deep-rooted prairie grasses and forbs… or bur oaks.)

And so in places like Iowa and Wisconsin, to this day you’ll find occasional lone bur oaks just standing out in a field, while other trees hug the creeks and rivers. Sometimes you see oak savannahs, park-like and well-spaced. The bur oak isn’t an especially tall tree; it’s a massive tree. It isn’t a tree of the deep forest; it’s a tree of open spaces, where it can grow out and not just up.

In all, it’s a worthy tree for a photographer’s sustained attention. Isn’t it amazing that it took him nineteen years to realize that this great subject (soon to be a photo book) was there all the time, hiding in plain sight?

What changed? Not the tree. What changed was the awareness.

(Next time… a song about a tree.)


5 thoughts on “That Tree

  1. Mark Hirsch

    I can tell you that photographing That Tree was a transformative experience for me. I now see things in a different perspective and light. In the simple things in and around That Tree, I’ve discovered complex beauty that I’ve overlooked since my childhood. Others perceptions may be what is he doing but mine is they don’t know what they are missing. We all need to slow down and take a closer look at the grass beneath our feet. What we will recognize if we only take the time to look is incredible beauty. Thank you for your nice article about my photography project. All the best,
    Mark HIrsch

    1. thecuriouspeople Post author

      It’s great to hear from you, Mark! Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. Great work on this project – in addition to enjoying your photos I think we can all learn something important from this. Best wishes on your forthcoming book!

  2. Pingback: “I paid many a visit to particular trees….” (Walden 144) | The Curious People

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