I grew up in the 1980s in a very normal neighborhood in the middle of the pine belt of southern Mississippi. The sounds and smells of the tall longleaf pines (Pinus palustris) are familiar, prominent in all the play spaces of my youth.

One of my annual childhood chores was to rake longleaf pine needles into neat rows, collect them in the wheelbarrow, and move them to the landscaping beds around the yard. For years I rode my dirt bike into the woods at the fringes of the neighborhood, across trails through what I’d now guess to be second-growth longleaf forest.

I’d ride out to the gravel pits to watch my friends ramp and race ATVs and motocross bikes. The imprint of this landscape on my identity was such that 25 years later, as a kind of courtship rite, I dragged my then-fiancée, Jessica, on a hike up the dirt path to the “pits.”

In recent years, I started spending time in the woods photographing with a view camera—equipment I love for its leanings toward slowness and the potential subtlety in the images it can make. While wandering and exploring a bit, waiting for light, I began to make what I considered portraits of individual trees with a more responsive medium-format camera.

I gave these pictures the working title or pet name Elder Portraits, and to me that implied the respect for wisdom as well as the visually interesting and often odd or off-putting qualities associated with age.

In general, I find humility a casualty of the Internet age. Now that so many people are empowered with a voice, it seems there are too few willing to listen. Our culture displaces the fullness of wisdom and grace with empty, greedy individualism. I know I’m not immune either. Visiting these places and their potential for approaching the mythical and sacred helps me step outside myself to begin to see this.

Because I’m a lifelong resident of this region, on some level the camera is a pretext to have authentic connections (physical, psychological, emotional, intellectual) to these personally significant landscapes. It is a search for a visual sense of the momentous. Slowing down, attempting to be attentive to these places with a relatively long history, time seems to become more present and nearly tangible.

I begin to position myself as a human in a much larger narrative of life on this planet and within the culture of this country and region. At some point, humans became part of the earth’s narrative.

I begin to position myself as a human in a much larger narrative of life on this planet and within the culture of this country and region. At some point, humans became part of the earth’s narrative. I think at an earlier time in our development we may have better understood and more respectfully considered our role in that narrative by being better listeners and proceeding with humility.

I believe we may have seen ourselves as part of nature with a less aggressive need for short-term control or progress. I like to be reminded of this.

The images in this book survey vestiges of old-growth longleaf pinelands once dominant across the Coastal Plain of the southeastern United States. They consider history and time, loss, culture, beauty, and change. These themes contribute to our current sense of place in the larger culture regionally and beyond, as well as to my own sense of personal identity.

In part, the images reflect (or lament) a somewhat romanticized past as well as attempt to accurately describe this particular landscape today and current thinking about its ecology. These surviving traces of old pine forests that predate the region’s settlement currently exist in various conditions, what forestry might consider states of management or mismanagement. Regardless of each site’s current ecological health, some of these sites are home to individual trees that are well over 400 years old.

These photographs represent places that have stood the test of time, including lightning, hurricanes, tornadoes, and the exponentially more damaging threat of human intervention. I approach these places with a sense of respect, that they might teach us new things if we can slow down and tune in.

I hope that collectively these images are useful as we look forward and consider or possibly reconsider our motivations and decisions. I hope they might provoke us to ask questions about our role in all this.

You can read the entire preface in Chuck’s new book The Pines: Southern Forests

Chuck Hemard

Chuck Hemard’s photographs are in public collections and have been exhibited widely throughout the southeast United States. He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Auburn University.