All photographs by Joe Freeman
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Picture of a tree stump in Washington state
All photographs by Joe Freeman

Spooky Tree Stumps Remind Us Why We Need Earth Day

Earth Day is today, Friday, April 22, and Proof is celebrating all week. This is the fifth and final post in a five-day series about our planet. Help us honor the planet by sharing a photo on Instagram with #NatGeoEarthDay. The editor’s picks will appear on the site on Earth Day

How is human intervention affecting the health of our planet? This is a question many people are asking today, including fine art photographer Joe Freeman, who was inspired to look more closely at the issue after hearing National Geographic photographer James Balog speak at his university in 2014. What resulted is Freeman’s project “Clearcut,” an almost ghostly look at aging stumps in Washington State.

These stumps reside in the historical Snoqualmie Pass, which Freeman says was a former passage point for Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest. I corresponded with him over email and asked him what drew him to these stumps and what message they hold for the future.

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JOE FREEMAN: I discovered the site while driving back to Seattle after an arduous and emotional week on the road photographing the aftermath of wildfires east of the Cascades.

As I was approaching Snoqualmie Pass, I noticed a valley of stumps in the distance. At first, from the highway, they appeared quite unremarkable. I actually passed the off-ramp [that] leads to them thinking I’ll take a look next time I head east. But something inside me wouldn’t let it go, so at the next exit I turned around and headed back. I guess in that sense you could say that the location chose me.

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JANNA: To the best of your knowledge, what is the backstory of these trees?

JOE: The trees were likely removed from Snoqualmie Pass sometime around 1917, when Keechelus Lake was dammed to regulate water flow for irrigating eastern Washington. Once the dam was in place the water level would rise, drowning the trees. My best guess is that the trees were cut down so as not to let their economic value—likely in the millions—go to waste.

As the reservoir fills and empties, the stumps are periodically submerged. This submersion has helped to preserve them over the years. I was there when the lake was abnormally low.

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JANNA: What drew you to certain tree stumps and their shapes?

JOE: What struck me right away about the stumps was their highly anthropomorphic nature. Each one seemed to possess its own unique variations, just like people.

Three or four grouped together evoked a family; two, a pair of lovers or a parent and child. At times it appears as though the stumps are holding onto each other, huddled together in the face of a certain doom they could not prevent.

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JANNA: What was it like to be in this landscape?

JOE: The feeling is one of strangeness and solemnity. Its barrenness makes it feel like a place that human beings were never meant to see. This makes sense, considering that the area is underwater for much of the year. In some places the ground is riddled with a type of thick quicksand. It makes moving around a disorienting—and potentially treacherous—endeavor.

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The traffic from Interstate 90 in the distance is a constant source of ambient noise. It eliminates the absolute quiet one encounters when in deep wilderness. During the months I spent photographing this site, construction was taking place on a nearby stretch of the highway. In order to facilitate some particular aspect of this construction, one cloudy evening around six, I-90 was shut down completely. The sudden silence filled the valley more dramatically than any sound.

After a few moments, I heard the sound of an elk hollering on the western side of the valley. Its call was so loud that I thought maybe it had been shot. But then, a minute or two later, I heard the reply it was looking for on the eastern side. For half an hour the two elk sang back and forth to each other in the deepening dusk. It was an absolutely magical moment. It was primal.

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JANNA: What story do you want to tell with these images?

JOE: I think the haunting, sorrowful nature of these images is what makes the most impact. In other words, it’s not so much about a story, but more so an emotional state. This state communicates itself even without any awareness of the historical context, or of how clear-cutting affects the entire ecosystem. I feel that part of my duty is to tune into the emotional logic that is inherent within a landscape and to find a way to represent it visually. I can’t necessarily speak for the land, although I hope the land can speak through me.

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I hope that viewers come away with a sense of unresolved—and perhaps unresolvable—tensions. For instance, the tension between dark seductive beauty and outright devastation. Such a tension calls into play our culpability as agents of change and destruction. I hope that viewers respond with an increased awareness of the fact that the land is always communicating with us. Only by acknowledging this fact can we become more responsible environmental stewards.

View more of Joe Freeman’s work on his website and follow him on Instagram.