Landscapes in Transition

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the New England landscape is the dramatic way in which it is forever being transformed by seasonal rhythms. During the summertime, I find myself walking through thick forests that seem virtually tropical in their abundance of crowded greenery. Yet only months later, I revisit the same forest to find a drastically altered landscape. Lively greens have been replaced instead with an earthy mosaic of grey and brown tree trunks that emerge from a white blanket of snow and reach skywards with bare branches. In between these two extremes are myriad transitional states that blend into a seamless cycle of change. So although I am always seeking to imbue my landscape photography with what I call “a sense of place”, I am mindful of the fact that these places are in perpetual transition and can be surprisingly difficult to pin down.

In the spirit of seasonal transition, I will introduce you to my latest fine art prints in a chronology that follows the landscapes of Connecticut from the last days of Summer through the changing of the leaves during Autumn, culminating in the frozen landscapes of deep winter.

Early September on the Connecticut Coast
Westbrook, Connecticut

In Southern New England, the early days of September find summertime in its final throws, with temperatures still just about warm enough for a comfortable walk along the beach. My new piece, “Seaside at West Beach” (below), foreshadows the dynamic and temperamental side of nature, qualities which become even more evident as the days pass and early September transitions into early Autumn.

Seaside at West Beach (West Beach, Westbrook, Connecticut)

“Seaside at West Beach”
West Beach, Westbrook, CT
© 2012 J. G. Coleman

“Seaside at West Beach” brings us to the shores of Westbrook, Connecticut where gentle waves engulf the shell of a long-perished clam. The entire scene possesses a certain surreal quality, owing largely to the way in which sunlight had managed to momentarily struggle through the dark clouds of a passing thunderstorm.

The shell in the foreground is that of a soft-shell clam, known colloquially as the “steamer”. These are rather common mollusks in Westbrook Harbor, thriving in the silty intertidal zone beside razor clams and quahogs. Some of my fondest childhood memories of the Connecticut coast involve digging for these clams on the sandbars in the very place where I produced “Seaside at West Beach.

See more of West Beach and Westbrook Harbor at my online galleries…

Late September in the Farmington River Valley
Peoples State Forest, Barkhamsted, Connecticut

With late September comes the first days of Autumn, and while it may be too early for the leaves to have started showing their fall colors, there are other indicators of the changing season. Local agricultural fairs are in full-swing all over Connecticut, even though the agricultural way of life has all but disappeared from much of the state. Connecticut farms began to decline sharply in number during the later half of the 19th-century, but aerial photography of the state from the 1930s reveals a landscape that was still heavily quilted with angular cropland in all but the most developed areas. Today, only a tiny fraction of those farms remain. Over the course of the last 80 years, most of them were subdivided to build neighborhoods or abandoned to become forest. Agricultural fairs are one of the last lingering cultural influences from a time when farmland was still a common sight in just about any Connecticut town. Late September is also the time when I usually head to the local orchard for a taste of real apple cider, a drink which has always been part of my “autumn ritual”, for it seems that it embodies the quintessential character of New England.

Barkhamsted Rapids (Farmington River, Peoples State Forest, Barkhamsted, Connecticut)

“Barkhamsted Rapids”
Farmington River (west branch), Peoples State Forest, Barkhamsted, CT
© 2012 J. G. Coleman

Yet another sign of the changing seasons is evident while I’m out on photo shoots. During the months of July and August, for example, I can hike comfortably through the wilds of Connecticut with little more than a t-shirt and jeans. Late September is a different story altogether, for although daytime temperatures may still be fairly mild, there’s an unmistakeable chill in the air when I’m hiking out to my destinations in the pre-dawn hours. Such was the case when I scrambled down the banks of the Farmington River in Barkhamsted, Connecticut to compose “Barkhamsted Rapids” (above).

Finding myself woefully under-dressed for the cool air of the river valley, I was shivering as I set up my tripod in the morning twilight. When the Sun finally began to rise behind me, illuminating the trees on the opposite side of the river, I could almost immediately feel a reassuring warmth permeate my body. I shot “Barkhamsted Rapids” only 15 or 20 minutes later, just as the sun had risen high enough to completely set the trees aglow, but while it was still low enough in the sky that the river itself remained bathed in cold shadows. The result is a piece that exhibits a strong contrast between light and dark… between warm and cool… between the summer months that are being left behind, and autumn months that lie in wait.

You can see more of Connecticut’s Farmington Valley at my online galleries, including places like Canton’s Roaring Brook Nature Center, the vast McLean Game Refuge and Enders State Forest in Granby…

October Arrives in the Naugatuck Valley
Black Rock State Park, Watertown, Connecticut

Even if September doesn’t show many signs of the changing season, October is sure to usher in the full momentum of autumn. Perhaps the most ubiquitous indicator of fall is the changing colors of the woodlands, when summertime forests transform into a brilliant display of reds, purples, oranges and yellows. Each year, Connecticut’s fall colors arrive at their own pace, governed by a mysterious blend of shortened days and varying patterns of temperature, humidity and precipitation. In many cases, these factors can differ starkly from one location to the next, so that the leaves in one forest may have started changing by mid-September, while the leaves in a forest only a few miles away might be held over until early October.

But by mid-October, about the time I ventured to Black Rock Pond in Watertown, Connecticut to produce “Mattatuck Mist” (below), the color change had hit nearly every region of the Nutmeg State. In many places, leaves were already beginning to drop from their branches by the millions.

Mattatuck Mist (Black Rock State Park, Watertown, Connecticut)

“Mattatuck Mist”
Black Rock State Pork, Watertown, CT
© 2012 J. G. Coleman

In “Mattatuck Mist”, we find subtle cues that plant us firmly in the later days of October, such as the strands of reeds that delicately poke through a vivid mosaic of fallen maple and oak leaves which have settled in the shallows of Black Rock Pond. As our eyes travel through this piece, however, we enter an ethereal waterscape bathed in lingering mist, where the forms of towering evergreens crowd the pond and fade to hazy outlines in the distance.

Historically, the name Mattatuck was of Native American origin and referred to a vast swath of land in western Connecticut that we know today as the Central Naugatuck River Valley. When the English settled the region in the mid-1670s, they were content to continue using the term. But when the settlement of Mattatuck was officially incorporated as a town of the Connecticut Colony in 1686, it was decided that the place would be renamed “Waterbury” in light of the many streams and brooks that ran through the territory and emptied into the Naugatuck River.

Be sure to check out my other pieces from Black Rock State Park at my online galleries…

November in the Connecticut Valley
River Highlands State Park, Cromwell, Connecticut

As we move into November, the landscapes of Southern New England have already largely been transformed by progressively cooler temperatures and noticeably shortened days. The dramatic colors of autumn have run their course, and even though the season doesn’t technically give way to winter until the later half of December, the bare trees seem to have already thrown in the towel.

But when I stepped out upon the muddy banks of the Connecticut River on a brisk November morning, I found skies washed over with soft colors and broad, glowing clouds stretching from the horizon. My piece from that morning, “A Cold Day on the Connecticut”, is a testament to the inspiring displays of color that can be had even after the blazes of autumn have come and gone.

A Cold Day on the Connecticut (Connecticut River, River Highlands State Park, Cromwell, Connecticut)

“A Cold Day on the Connecticut”
Connecticut River, River Highlands State Park,Cromwell, CT
© 2012 J. G. Coleman

This particular stretch of the Connecticut is flanked to the west by River Highlands State Park, a swath of forested bluffs encompassing over 170 acres in Cromwell, Connecticut and rising as high as 150 feet above the river below. Incorporated into the state park system in 2001, “River Highlands” seemed a fitting title given the geography of the area. But if officials had been guided by historical precedent, we might know it today by a much different name!

Back when sailing ships were still a common sight along the Connecticut, this section of the river was termed “the Blow Hole”, owing to the unusually swift winds that pushed through the bluffs and gave passing vessels a brief boost of speed. But traditional lore, perhaps dating back as far as the 17th-century, suggests that the unusual name originated with some of the first generations of Connecticut settlers. Colonial-era Puritans are said to have named the area “The Devil’s Blowhole” on account of the ominous howls that were occasionally heard emanating from the bluffs. In all likelihood, they were simply hearing the wind whistle as it whipped through the terrain.

Despite centuries of precedent, state officials felt that “Blow Hole State Park” would sound downright silly and they ultimately decided against it. Thus, River Highlands State Park was born.

Visit my galleries and see my other works from Cromwell’s River Highlands State Park

Early January on the Shepaug River
Hidden Valley Preserve, Washington, Connecticut

By the time New Englanders find themselves in the thick of winter, the warm and lively landscapes of summertime seem impossibly distant. In Connecticut, daytime highs average in the 30s for a full three months, with cold nights oftentimes bringing single digits. The days are several hours shorter than they were in times of warmth and, in heavily-wooded areas, it seems as if the Sun struggles just to crest over the treetops. Yet, despite the ever-present cold and darkness, there’s a subtle beauty to be found in snow-covered landscapes and a certain introspective quiet engulfs the wildlands. My new piece, “Winter Bliss and River Ice”, is an intimate expression of these unique wintertime qualities.

Winter Bliss and River Ice (Shepaug River, Hidden Valley Preserve, Washington, Connecticut)

“Winter Bliss and River Ice”
Shepaug River, Hidden Valley Preserve, Washington, CT
© 2013 J. G. Coleman

“Grand landscapes” -that is, photographs that present a wide, sweeping view of nature- figure prominently in my work, but occasionally the most poignant image is to be had by focusing instead upon smaller details. In the case of “Winter Bliss and River Ice”, taken in January, I found these intricate expressions of winter along the banks of the Shepaug River in Washington, Connecticut. During prior cold spells, sheets of thick ice had formed on small boulders in the shallows. The rushing waters of the river carved these icy crowns into marvelously organic shapes and a light dusting of snow transformed them into soft, white sculptures. But what really breathes life into these otherwise monochrome patterns of snow and ice is the vivid yellow reflection of the morning Sun as it kissed the cold waters of the Shepaug in the first few minutes of dawn.

Visit my online galleries to see more landscapes of Washington, Connecticut, including Macricostas Preserve, Steep Rock Preserve and other pieces from Hidden Valley Preserve

Photographing Connecticut’s wildlands in the dead of winter is no easy task. “Winter Bliss and River Ice”, for example, demanded a slow, laborious trek along the Shepaug on snowshoes. Three layers of clothing shielded me from the frigid air that pooled in the valley overnight. Dim morning twilight did little to illuminate the snow-covered trails, cloaked as they were in the cold shadows of hemlocks.

And yet, when a shot comes together just right, the challenges of the terrain and the hardships of the climate are effortlessly forgotten. For a brief moment in time, it’s as if all of the world is being channeled through the viewfinder. In these moments, it makes little difference if I’m at the summit of a mountain, in the crowded forests of a river valley, knee-deep in a bog or surrounded by sprawling meadows. My mind doesn’t wander to the rain or the heat or the snow. These moments somehow seem to swallow me up entirely, so that when the shutter slaps shut on the final exposure and I step back from the camera, it’s as if I’ve all of the sudden returned to my body from someplace else entirely. A true “sense of place” is born of these moments; they are nourished by every season, they are the fruit that nature bears year-round.

Tolstoy wrote that “one of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between Man and Nature shall not be broken”. It is my hope that the visions of the American Northeast that I create might strengthen, if not renew, that link. I wish all of my viewers a bountiful new year in 2013 and I look forward to bringing you fresh, new work from the field in the coming months.

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