The natural world has always drawn me in and never seems to disappoint. The rewards for me as a photographer have been more than a lifetime’s supply of subject matter and the unique personal enjoyment that comes with spending extended time in natural environments.
Like many landscape photographers, I longed to and have visited the famous parks and preserves – Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Canadian Rockies, Patagonia. They offer classic vistas, high mountains, dramatic waterfalls and wilderness trails. The lure is almost magnetic, even though these once-sacred areas have become increasingly overcrowded and over photographed.
Why then continue to travel to the well-known spots bypassing less-visited parks and urban green spaces? The answer I believe is that it is that we are drawn to the extremes – the largest, tallest, most exotic. Many photographers seem to believe that the major parks are more fascinating than an urban natural area close to home.
When I was given the opportunity to photograph Fernbank Forest, I, too, first thought I might have difficulty making compelling photographs of this in-town locale. It was fairly small at 65 acres and there didn’t seem to be any unique features to the forest other than its urban location. However, I soon learned that Fernbank was a special place. It just took a little time to reveal itself.
I started going to the forest early in the morning in late summer to capture the sunrise. Looking east, the leaves of the old-growth oaks, beech trees and tulip poplars shined in the backlight. By fall, the cool mornings, combined with yellow and orange leaves, created varied visual possibilities. Winter did not bring much snow but brought ice and beautiful stark qualities to the forest. On some winter mornings, the sunlight bouncing off the natural designs of the tree branches was magical.
Part way through the project, I started to use a drone to photograph the tree canopy. I became a big believer in the drone’s ability to find new perspectives of a forest. The drone also allowed me to photograph the forest with skyline of Atlanta in the background.
The great southern photographer William Eggleston said “You can take a good photograph of anything. A bad one, too.” He called this approach a democratic way of seeing, a notion that no subject matter was more or less important than any other. Eggleston’s philosophy was an influence that made me realize that Fernbank Forest was a worthy subject. For me, this forest showcases a world of urban nature that we can all appreciate on our own terms. That is the true meaning of a democratic forest.
excerpt from Janisse Ray’s essay, A Forest in the City
… Fernbank Museum’s ecologist and forest manager, Eli Dickerson, is a self-described “tree hugger who landed the incredible job of being the chief steward of Fernbank Forest.” One of his multitudinous successes is that he and the entire Museum team are helping to save Fernbank from an onslaught of invasive exotic (meaning non-native) plant species. Invasives can overwhelm a native forest, and some have been particularly egregious in the piedmont of Georgia.
By June 2019, 10,000 person-hours had been spent in ecological restoration, an herculean effort to rid the sixty-five acres of Chinese privet, English ivy, Japanese wisteria, and Oriental chocolate vine. Over 60,000 cubic feet of biomass was removed in three years. Removal of invasives helps restore native biodiversity.
To help prepare for my visit, Dickerson had sent nature stats:
- 64 native tree species in Fernbank Forest
- Some over 300 years old
- Tallest at 156 feet
- Biggest over 4 feet in diameter at breast height
- Topsoil exceeding 12 inches in many parts
- Nearly 200 bird species
- 17 amphibian species
Some years ago Fernbank Museum commissioned Peter Essick, nature photographer, to document this “urban oasis” throughout the seasons. The project was funded by Bob Yellowlees, owner of Lumière Gallery of Atlanta, which represents Essick’s work. Essick’s father had been a science teacher who loved nature; he would snap pictures of what he saw on his rambles to show to his class. That stuck with Essick. He trained as a photojournalist at the University of Missouri, and while there he was offered an internship at National Geographic. For the next three decades Essick traveled the world documenting the beauty of nature and also the horrors of environmental destruction. In the process, he produced two collections of photos,
Our Beautiful, Fragile World and The Ansel Adams Wilderness.
Essick spent countless hours in Fernbank Forest during different seasons, times of day, and weather. It became a personal refuge for him. From this immersion he produced a startling series of fine-art photographs that are part of the museum’s permanent collection, now collected in this volume. Small gondolas of leaves float on a golden pond. Thickets are rimed with hoarfrost. The tiny, hidden urns of wild ginger magnify chartreuse and pink. A blue jay is caught in flight, its wings like a cloak. Stream water turns to molten glass.
The images are otherworldly, sometimes ghostly. They show a place given the gift of an artist’s eye, the place revealing its secrets to the artist and the artist returning to the place a vision of holiness. They speak to the sacred. In one final iconic photograph, Essick captures Atlanta’s skyline, softened by sunrise, with the forest in the foreground, as if trees have always owned Atlanta and always will.
This brings us to how I got involved. The opportunity to collect the magical Fernbank images into a book was presented to Peter and, although these captivating photos need no introduction, he asked if I’d like to write one. I said that I would. I know what a forest like Fernbank means to Atlanta, a city mad with growth, growing like cancer to be exact, already among the most sprawling cities in the entire nation and sprawling more every day. Every single day trees go down. Some of them fall to age and some to construction and some to the drought and excessive rains of a warming climate.
Still—and this may surprise you—Atlanta is a city of trees. In 2019, almost forty-nine percent of Atlanta was covered with trees. For the most part, Atlantans love their trees. Trees Atlanta has planted over 120,000 shade trees and wants to get tree cover above fifty percent. The nonprofit group Concrete Jungle promotes food forests. Georgia Interfaith Power and Light says, “Let’s stop mowing and get growing.” Faith-based forestry initiatives lobby to turn church lawns into Gardens of Eden. Atlanta Audubon calls for habitat restoration. The Georgia Native Plant Society wants invasives controlled.
“Access and exposure to nature is important,” Bobbi Hohmann, Fernbank Museum’s Vice-President of Programming, told me. She had recently attended a conference where Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and an ardent proponent of spending time in nature had spoken. “We humans benefit so much from being out of doors,” Hohmann said. “Even twenty minutes a day in nature can improve our health and wellbeing. And everybody can benefit, whether they are five or fifty.” That’s why Fernbank Museum offers almost unlimited opportunities for getting out, including bird walks, forest bathing, ranger explorations for children, night yoga, and much more.
Fernbank Forest is an urban oasis. In the depths of it, surrounded by old-growth poplars and oaks, the madness of Atlanta is far away. The place on which Atlanta was built is manifest—a tiny but clear window into a history and a natural history almost obliterated in a rush to urbanize. As Ryan Myers told me, “Fernbank could easily be a golf course right now. But it’s not.” It could have been condos and lofts. It could have been a shopping center. It could have been a neighborhood.
Almost as soon as Myers walked away and left me among the tall trees of Fernbank that morning in June, I started yawning. I wasn’t sleepy. The forest was descending on me, slowing me down, making me want to sit still somewhere. I walked around among the big trees for a while. I kept yawning. I looked at the foliage of bloodroot and violets, at loblolly’s deeply grooved tree bark, at the scars left by yellow-bellied sapsuckers, at the grassy edges of Huntemann Pond where bull frogs bellow, at the rocky tumble of spring-fed creek where mayflies and salamanders can be found.
I finally sat down near Elephant Rock, Emily’s haunt, and meditated on it.
Far away I heard the traffic of Atlanta, including the rumble of airplanes. But green clouds of leaves shielded me from all that, out there, and here, in a green bubble, cicadas were fiddling and cardinals were calling and the stream was gurgling to the salamanders.
Out there everything changes, becoming more and more a constructed world. But this ferny oasis continues, thanks to the museum that oversees it, the foresters who care for it, the photographer who let it touch his heart, and one powerful woman who knew it needed to be saved.
Peter Essick BIO:
Peter Essick is a photographer, author, speaker, instructor, and drone pilot who specializes in nature and environmental themes. Named one of the 40 most influential nature photographers in the world by Outdoor Photography Magazine UK, Essick has been influenced by many noted American landscape photographers from Carleton Watkins to Robert Adams. His goal is to make photographs that move beyond mere documentation to reveal in careful compositions the human impact of development as well as the enduring power of the land.
Essick is the author of two books of his photographs, The Ansel Adams Wilderness, and Our Beautiful, Fragile World. He has photographed stories for National Geographic on many environmental issues including climate change, high-tech trash, nuclear waste and freshwater. Essick’s photographs are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia and the Booth Western Art Museum. He is represented by Spalding Nix Gallery in Atlanta, Georgia.
Currently, Essick is happy to announce that a book of his photographs about Fernbank Forest, an urban old-growth forest in Atlanta has just been published by Fall Line Press.
Peter Essick with an essay by Janisse Ray
86 pages, 35 color plates, 9” x 12” Guidebook: 20 pages, 14 illustrations, 4.5” x 6”
Edition Size: 500
Retail Price: $75
1200 Foster Street NW, Studio LMR-3 Atlanta, GA 30318