I’ve recently joined Twitter in an effort to air out my latest obsession: white pine stumps. This may seem strange, but during last summer’s Michigan camping trip, they called out to me. Obsessions are reciprocal. As Nietzsche said, “If you gaze into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” As I gazed into the field of white pine stumps, the white pine stumps gazed back.
Although the forests of Hartwick Pines are lovely, I took no photographs. I was content to take in their endlessness, the pine’s serene spacing, the blue glimpsed through branches. Birds darted through the boughs and into the ferns in vast arcs. Ebony Jewelwings acted as guides as I walked across the creeks and marshes. The pines seemed to stretch forever across the flat land.
Of course, it wasn’t endless. Hartwick Pines State Park contains one of the last stands of first growth white pine in the lower peninsula: 50 acres. One afternoon I wandered from my campsite to discover a trail through what looked like a meadow. There were hundreds of stumps. The grey wood had been decaying for a hundred years or so, and nothing would grow there except grass. Unlike the forest, it was sweltering, golden and burnt. The crunchy ground gave way a little with each step. The inside of the stumps were hollow and crawling with spiders. I had come upon what I’ve come to term The Stumpfield, and I was transfixed. I took at least 50 photographs, and I never take photos. Besides a few snapshots of Lake Superior, these were the only ones I took during the trip.
The white pine stumps’ dense network of roots makes them particularly difficult to eradicate. Once these forests are clear-cut, there’s not much you can do with the land. Over the past year, I’ve returned to these photographs again and again, wondering: why am I so moved by a field of stumps? What is the source of the obsession?
For me, the Stumpfield has become a metaphor for the destruction of Michigan’s ecosystems, particularly during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To look at them is to enter into a deep process of grieving. The stumps haunt me. They haunt me, and the only way I know how to deal with ghosts is to honor them. #whitepinestumps