In 2010, photographer Chuck Hemard began documenting what remains of the longleaf pinelands in the Coastal Plain of the southeastern United States. “It is one of the most significant, yet under-appreciated, American landscapes,” Hemard told Hyperallergic. “It’s also one of the most impressive ecosystems. On the small scale, its biodiversity can rival the tropical rainforests.”
The Pines: Southern Forests, out February 13 from Daylight Books, chronicles Hemard’s seven years of photographing these trees. After over a century of industrial removal, a fraction of the old-growth longleaf pinelands survive. And these have often been improperly managed, as the longleaf pine has a regenerative cycle that relies on fire.
“Considering how pine trees are still so common in today’s landscape throughout the Deep South, and the fact that what I was searching for only exists in tiny glimpses, it’s nearly an impossible task — searching for something that almost doesn’t really exist,” Hemard said. He grew up in the Pine Belt of southern Mississippi, and is now an associate professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Auburn University, so the project was also a reconnection with the landscapes of home.
In an essay for the monograph, Dr. Rebecca Barlow, an associate professor in Auburn’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, writes that it “is estimated that at one time, longleaf pine could be found on just over 50 percent of southern uplands, or about 56 million acres.” Their prolific presence was due to their unique adaptation to the area, including to its frequent natural fires. As seedlings, the trees appear more like grass, with long needles and fire-resistant scales, a state they can stay in for years while their competitor trees are burned.
Decades of forest policy and management ignored these adaptations. Combined with short rotation tree farming, this significantly reduced these ecosystems. In The Pines, Hemard notes that he used a survey by John Kush and Morgan Varner in his research. Although it was published in 2004, at least one of its sites is gone, its timber cut and sold. “If we want to keep the longleaf pine ecosystem functioning in the long term, we need to remember and understand the past,” Barlow adds.
A poem by Nick Norwood in The Pines, called “The Southern Forest,” juxtaposes “the old guard towering / stands watch” as “the fire is a moldering / underfoot.” Hemard captured the charred ground following a burn in Okaloosa County, Florida. Other photographs frame the moon over a pair of swaying pines in Appling County, Georgia; spindly trees rising above long grass in Craven County, North Carolina; and the flat crown of a gnarled trunk in Talladega County, Alabama. “I love the long form of the photobook, and how they are best experienced by viewers, individually and over time,” Hemard said. “That fits well with the longleaf pine story in the South — one that is complicated and subtle.”
During his seven-year survey of the pinelands, Hemard was certified as a prescribed burn manager in the state of Alabama, thus deepening his understanding of how a seemingly destructive force is part of the forest’s natural process. As Hemard stated, “Landscape-scale changes to the environment take time, so the least I can do is slow down and try to listen.”