With a net in one hand and a bucket in the other, my brother and I were full of anticipation as we walked the cobbled streets of a quaint seaside village to an attractive beach on the northeast coast of England. We were excited by the sense of adventure and discovery as we explored the many rock pools with their clear water glistening in the sunlight and the submerged pebbles, shells, and seaweeds alive with color. We carefully turned over rocks in the hope of spotting the orange armour of a hiding crab. Gently handling them, we’d take a closer look at their intricate details with that child-like wonder which paves the way for a life-long love of the natural world.
I consider myself very fortunate to have grown up in a place where our entertainment was running through streams, crawling through meadows, and building dens in the local forest. We also had a passion for freshwater angling, which was as much about the magic of dawn at the water’s edge, as it was about simply making contact with an elusive and often cunning carp. Having owned a camera since childhood, I often spent my time by a fishing lake photographing the sunrise, the shadow from a springtime leaf or a friendly robin who would soon become tame when offered a tasty breakfast of maggots on a cold winter’s morning.
My hobbies changed over the years but always involved an appreciation of the great outdoors. From adrenaline-fuelled mountain bike rides through the trees, to kayaking in the company of porpoises, or feeling the extremes of local nature as a biting blizzard blows across the North York Moors – it’s earth’s ever-changing and everyday offerings that makes my heart sing. But it wasn’t until becoming a woodland photographer in 2015 that I realized the significance of my past. Every interaction, each childhood day covered in mud, the cuts on my legs, the sighting of my first deer, climbing that big oak tree (and falling out of it), the quiet awe of a misty sunrise, and catching that big carp after years of trying. Each experience was a building block that shaped my view of the world, instilled empathy and ultimately helped to make me the photographer I am today.
Anyone who follows me on YouTube or has bought my book, Gathering Time, will have probably heard the story of how we welcomed a Labradoodle called Meg into our home to help me deal with chronic pain. Meg and I started a new journey together – one where I found solace, therapy, and creative fulfilment in woodlands close to home. It’s a story that I’ve told many times so let me skip forward to the present day where I’m able to fully appreciate how that twist of fate transformed my relationship with not only my local countryside, but the planet as a whole.
Desperate for my life to return to normal, I went through phases of confusion, anger, withdrawal and being socially disconnected. I sought solitude in the quietest of woodlands where I could process life’s challenges in a heightened state of introspection. With a camera over my shoulder and Meg by my side, I developed a profoundly strong connection to local woodlands where I embraced the complexity and immersed myself in small-scale exploration. Negative thoughts were hushed, and sadness almost forgotten as I wandered through atmospheric woodlands with soft fascination and reverence. Occasionally I would cross paths with deer or even fox cubs. I knew I’d found my happy place – a place of sanctuary and new purpose.
You could argue that photography requires you to be more outwardly observational rather than introspective, but my own experience is that looking deep within can guide your view and result in considered images which express something personally meaningful. Such was my love for the trees and their home, I strived for photographs that were more than a well-balanced aesthetic but could communicate something about how I see and experience the natural world. With time, my renditions evolved from struggling gnarled trees as reflections of myself to positive interpretations with feelings of nurture, community, and lifecycle. Personal challenges had made me more emotionally aware, and it was that sensitivity that helped me recognize a harmony between accomplishment in creativity and a developing connectedness to nature.
An acute awareness of the wellbeing benefits of practicing photography in woodland is what has fuelled my passion for years. Hand-in-hand with a sense of thankfulness is a desire to learn about the trees that have gifted me so much. It might not be a life-changing event, but a simple fascinating fact that captures your imagination and inspires you to look a little deeper. With each passing season, I’ve observed nature’s behavior and been beguiled by its frequent shifts in color, form, character, and mood. What started as spotting an attractive tree to photograph, quickly matured into a constant state of curiosity – what is that tree? How old is it? How does it change with the seasons? What’s its ecological significance? What habitats does it support? Why does any of this matter? An understanding not only enriches the experience of time with trees, but opens your eyes to the smallest of details, can inform creative choices, and add subtle layers of meaning and fulfilment.
Prior to 2012, I spent a lot of my time using the countryside as my playground, but a bolstered respect for nature through photography has led me to change what I eat, help to plant over 2,000 trees and make videos which aim to inspire others to be mindful of our individual impact on the environment and use photography as a force for good. Never has it been more important to align our outdoor pursuits and daily choices with the needs of our planet. Capturing the majesty of earth doesn’t have to involve an epic journey to the highest mountains, the tallest waterfalls, or the most remote forest. There’s awe and wonder in the most unlikely of places. The magic for me is in finding that little pocket of rarely trodden woodland that reverts you back to a state of child-like imagination and the age where it all began.