Make like a tree and leave

I never look forward to autumn, until it's too late. As the days shorten and the nights get colder, nature puts on a dazzling display of colour, but I'm all too aware of what happens next. Autumn is my last chance to enjoy good weather and the outdoors before it gets dark at 4 pm and the C-word starts being mentioned more often than the B-word currently saturating news headlines. Society will soon become preoccupied with cutting down small conifers and buying useless junk, briefly pausing on 25th December, before ordering more junk the following day in the sales.

I've just spent one month photographing two richly diverse and beautiful locations, but I cannot show you my imagery without repeating that the natural world and organised civilisation is under grave threat from climate change. Scientists are nearly unanimously predicting that average global temperatures will rise 4°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100, if society doesn't become carbon-neutral in the next two decades. That means governments using legislation to rapidly phase out fossil fuels, switching to renewable energy, planting forests to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and ending their love affair with unlimited economic growth. It means individuals driving electric cars, cycling to work, eating less meat and demanding that all products are low carbon. The benign Holocene climate of the last 15,000 years has allowed civilisation to flourish, but the planet is now seeing the beginning of something much less hospitable. We've missed many chances to curb climate change, but this could be our last.

Wakehurst Place

I was hoping to photograph mushrooms in the grounds of Wakehurst Place, but the specimens were in poor condition and I resigned myself to having wasted a day at the wrong site. It's quite difficult to achieve parity with the beautiful photos of the house and grounds currently on sale in the visitor centre. The photographer clearly worked outside of visitor times and benefited from the kind of golden hour lighting deprived of everyone else. On September 27th, however, the golden hour began at 5pm and the angelic little Cordelias and Tabithas were being taken home for supper. I suddenly had the unexpected pleasure of photographing empty grounds in warm, beautiful evening sunshine. The hot, dry summer and cold nights of late September transformed many trees into an early display of autumn colour. 

Wakehurst Place was a precursor to an adventure that would last 32 days. I chose a small woodland in Sussex as my project site. The acidic soil hosts a wide variety of fungi. Outcrops of sandstone support vast oak and beech trees. The ritual of travelling here, the landmarks en route, saying hello to local people, even the walk along a narrow country lane to the woods, became addictive. The musty scent of decaying leaves, Fallow deer calling in the rut, finding something new every time and a sense of freedom. I didn't want any of it to stop. 

Autumn on the Rocks

Autumn on the Rocks

Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria)

Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria)

Fly Agaric Mushrooms

In late September, dozens of Fly Agaric mushrooms begin appearing in the woodland. Their underground network of roots seem to prefer birch trees and in favourable spots, tens of mushrooms can cover a small area. These attractive fungi are hallucinogenic, but unlike magic mushrooms, not in a good way.  The psychoactive chemicals adversely affect the victim's object perception and spatial awareness and therefore anyone ingesting them unprepared will be somersaulting over leaves like an acrobat on Mars. You may live, but only with your digestive system in a glass jar.

The previous two fungi images, shot at ground level using a 300mm lens at maximum aperture, creates a dream-like effect. I employed no variation in the viewing angle, but subtle changes in lighting created  dramatically different results. For the third fungi image, I spent an hour, mostly on my knees, experimenting with different compositions, focal lengths and camera angles and shot 74 frames. An overhead vantage point made the fungi look like flat discs; low angles included distracting background elements. The scene worked best from an approximate 40 degree angle, using a 38mm focal length. Aching legs made walking uncomfortable for a few days.

Ancient Oak in Autumn

Mature Oak in Autumn

Autumn Woodland in Transition

Autumn Woodland Path

The journey to this woodland lasts nearly 2 hours, but despite the travel, it feels like a home from home. I belong here and feel safe. Being a man means taking certain things for granted. I can walk alone in the countryside, use public transport at night, drink in a pub, take lifts from strangers and start-up conversations with anyone I like without fear of harassment or sexual violence. Research shows that 70% of British women take measures in their everyday lives to guard against harassment. It's standard practice to advise women on how to avoid becoming victims of sexual violence, but rarely does anyone tell men stop to making women and girls feel vulnerable. The good news is that many men and boys feel deeply uncomfortable about toxic masculinity and want to break free from societal pressure to act tough, dominate others and avoid having feelings. Feminism is succeeding in helping women fulfil their potential, but the ball is now in our court, as men, to make the great outdoors a safe space for everyone.

Autumn Colours

Red Oak Leaves

The Red Oak is not common in the UK, but it can be seen at this site, alongside the English Oak, European Beech, Silver Birch, Horse Chestnut and Common Holly. I've been visiting the woodland on every day off and booked 11 days leave to come here in late October. It was a privilege to enjoy the surroundings in temperatures ranging from 18 - 22°C, but I had to award myself a pyjama day to recover from fatigue. Each visit, including travel, lasts 8 hours and carrying 15kg of equipment all adds up.

Autumn Ferns

Autumn on the Rocks II

Unsettled Autumn Day on High Weald

Autumn Woodland at Sunset

It can be argued that photography objectifies real life experiences, replacing the here and now with a series of abstractions. The invention of smartphones in particular has changed norms around attending concerts and sporting events. Instead of simply enjoying the performance, it's the norm to channel the performance via the intermediary of a smartphone camera and for friends to photograph each other and their food, using the event as a backdrop. When I look back at my work, it's very easy to allow the impression of my photos and the "reaction" of social media followers to supplant the memory of my original experiences. Spending an entire afternoon looking at mushrooms without a care in the world, while inhaling the musty scent of decaying leaves is not something that can be "shared" and "live streamed". The quality of interaction on social media is also highly superficial and it's probably just as well I've accepted that there's always going to be a gulf between my enthusiasm and the attention span of internet users. I am becoming much better at recalling original experiences, even long after everyone has moved onto something else. My photos can only convey so much. If you want to live out my experiences, you must go there yourselves. 

Beech Woodland at Sunset

Autumn Sunset

My final two visits to the woods saw much colder weather and heavy showers. On 26th October, a torrential squall passed overhead shortly after I arrived to reshoot a scene I had rushed on the 24th, due to a combination of late discovery and fading light. It was even colder on Sunday 28th. I stood under the tree canopy, trying to keep warm and dry in temperatures of 5°C. The sun came out for 10 minutes before an early sunset, as the clocks had gone back earlier in the day. The 32 day project came to an end, with a beautiful sunset view of beech trees overlooking the valley below. I hope you enjoyed my photos as much as I enjoyed taking them and please leave a comment if you like.


Mark Nicolaides said…
Your work - written and photographed by from the heart. I concur with much of what you have said in this piece, Alan. I, too, share your frustration with the seemingly inexorable march to destroy much of the what is real and meaningful in this world. However, all we can do (the many people like you and I) is to keep on doing what we're doing and supporting others who likewise have the same mindset. I believe the 'message' starting to get through to the general public, but we're still a long way short of reaching the tipping point, which will meaningfully influence the people who have the leverage to make things happen. Really like your work, Alan.
Alan MacKenzie said…
Thank you for your thoughtful and substantive comment, Mark. I read a news report with sadness today about how humans have wiped out 83% of animal and plant life since civilisation began. The majority of this mass extinction has occurred in the last 100 years. It's almost unheard of for the media to link this with our addiction to unlimited economic growth and mass consumption. I hope my work reaches out to people and encourages others to spend more of their free time outdoors, rather than engaging in the mass consumption of throwaway goods. It's so easy to enjoy great natural beauty on one's doorstep. I considered flying over to the USA earlier this year, but would I really have enjoyed it any better than visiting a woodland a dozen times over four weeks? My work shows you can have a great time and produce beautiful things without having a large carbon footprint.

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