You might think that after 50 years of photographing plants and trees, photographer Robert Llewellyn has seen it all in the great outdoors. But when he talks about nature and spending time in the forest for his latest book, he does so with a youthful exuberance and a sense of awe.
"I’m a visitor on Earth, I’m very curious about the planet," he says. "It's like Dr. Suess says, 'Oh, the places you’ll go!'"
That sense of awe carries through in his newest work, "The Living Forest: A Visual Journey into the Heart of the Woods," for which Llewellyn shot the photos. The accompanying text was written by Joan Maloof, a scientist and founder of the Old-Growth Forest Network. The essays and images aim to place the reader in the center of the woods, encouraging them to get immersed in the living ecosystems both large and small all around.
"From the leaves and branches of the canopy to the roots and soil of the understory, the forest is a complex, interconnected ecosystem filled with plants, birds, mammals, insects and fungi. Some of it is easily discovered, but many parts remain difficult or impossible for the human eye to see," reads the book description from Timber Press.
The idea for this book started about a decade ago, Llewellyn says.
"Ten years ago I did a book called 'Remarkable Trees of Virginia.' I saw trees and forests as objects to arrange in photographs. Then I went out with the writer and realized trees were alive and plants were alive. They grow and compete for water and nutrition, they reproduce and have offspring, they’re born and they die. It’s another civilization that lives among us," he says.
You could say we live among it, and that's especially true in Llewellyn's case.
"I have a 60-acre farm on the edge of a huge deciduous forest, so a lot of what I photographed was out my back door. Everything in this book is hiding in plain sight, and most of the time most of the people do not see it," he says.
Book author Maloof and Llewellyn had an interesting working arrangement as they collaborated on "The Living Forest," given that she spends most of her time in Maryland and he in Virginia.
"Joan would call up and say, 'Turn over a dead log. What do you see?' She wouldn’t tell me what I was going to see. She wouldn't say that there’s this beautiful white lacy fungus that’s part of the digestive system of the forest. It’s not sterile, there’s a whole lot going on," he says.
Another time she called and told him to photograph a small piece of root. "So I cut off a few half-inch pieces of forest root. I rinsed it off, and the root has lots of little hairs on it to store moisture. At the end there’s a greenish knob without hair — Joan says that’s the brain. Roots are smart. They have a guidance system that looks for water and nutrition and avoids rocks," he says.
When asked what he hopes people will get out of his book, Llewellyn pounces on the word "hope."
"I do not like to use the word hope, because hope is not action. Get up, go out, look at things, smell things, touch things, look down, collect things. The action and movement from human looking to human seeing makes an enormous difference," he says. "Joan wanted this book to really get people up and out and into the forests. It’s not a hope; it’s a very strong invitation."
Llewellyn encourages people to explore the planet and see themselves as visitors. "We all have to leave at some point," he says. "What are you going to do with that time you are here? There’s so much we don’t know."
Llewellyn shares a parable of sorts to teach the difference between looking at something and really seeing it.
His first Vipassana meditation teacher was Jack Kornfield, founder of the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts. (Vipassana means roughly insight into the true reality of nature.) Kornfield was big on bare attention, he says, where you see things for what they really are. "He was in Burma walking down the road and saw a smelly pile of water buffalo dung on the road. He 'switched' to bare attention and saw a 3-D shape with many beautiful shades of brown," says Llewellyn.
This is the difference between what you label something versus what you see, he says. "Look at things without knowing their names. We’re so caught up with naming things that we fail to make them real. Just see things as they are. What do you see? Do you go 'wow,' the human word for seeing something new?"
"This has all been a great adventure. Photography is a wonderful thing to do because it’s always different. It’s always new, and I've never worked a day in my life," Llewellyn says.