In January 2012, “that tree” was just another big bur oak in southwestern Wisconsin, standing regal and pretty whether naked in winter or clothed in summer.
And then Mark Hirsch, 52, drove south from Platteville through a snowstorm about 16 months ago, turned off County Highway D onto Airport Road, and stopped two miles short of home. He just had to try the camera on his new iPhone. A friend had predicted–one pro photographer to another–that he would be impressed.
Hirsch found the iPhone’s camera app, scanned the arctic-like landscape, and spotted an old oak guarding a draw to the south. Yep, right where it had stood without a second glance from Hirsch the previous 20 years. He skidded and shuffled toward the tree in his street shoes. He then framed some tree scenes and repeatedly tapped the iPhone’s screen, triggering the camera shutter.
After reaching home and figuring out how to transfer the images to his computer, the veteran photojournalist laughed in disbelief at his photos. “I had just pulled a camera from my shirt pocket, it’s no bigger than a thin wallet, and it’s making great photos,” Hirsch said. “I posted one on Facebook. I hadn’t felt that inspired since I was in college.”
Hirsch’s accidental inspirations were just beginning, but he remained more captivated by his new toy than the tree. Over the next few weeks he photographed whatever inspired him, and posted photos daily to Facebook. Then, as he headed home near sunset on March 13, 2012, he realized he’d forgotten his daily photo.
He again stopped his pickup along Airport Road and looked for a photo. Again he headed for the old bur oak. And again that night he posted its photo to Facebook.
Ten days later, his friend Greg Guenther, a marketing professional, responded: “Dude, what’s with you and that tree? You should make a picture a day of it.”
Hirsch agreed. The idea was as simple, yet as awesome as a Buddy Holly song.
But it required commitment and sacrifices, like canceling a family vacation and an annual ski trip with friends. For the next 365 days it was just Hirsch, “that tree,” the iPhone, and a tripod. Meanwhile, he had to maintain his editorial and commercial photography business.
If that sounds easy, you don’t know middle-aged professional photographers. They don’t do point-and-shoot photos for fun and pleasure. Their craft requires artistic labor and technical obsessions that few possess. Or envy.
From March 24, 2012, through March 23, 2013, Hirsch became a slave to the tree, and to the weather–dictator of all outdoor lighting. He often skipped or delayed home meals and obligations while chasing the perfect sunrise, sunset, cloud pattern, or moon phase to benefit his tree photos.
How could Hirsch make unique, well-lighted, and well-composed tree photos for 365 straight days? The challenge almost beat him August 30.
“I hit a roadblock on Day 160,” he said. “I remember the day because I thought, ‘My god, how can I do this for 205 more days?’ Then I slowed down, looked more closely, gave things more consideration, and found the picture.”
That day’s photo shows the oak in the background, with golden sunlight bathing grass and a wooden fencepost in the foreground, and a steel post with a loose barbwire strand beside it.
Hirsch often conceived photos while driving from home to his daily shoot, but just as often the light didn’t cooperate. That sometimes proved a blessing. As he circled the oak, studied it from snowdrifts or framed it between cornrows, he started seeing it as the center of a small universe.
Squirrels gathered its acorns by day, deer foraged and passed by at night, redwing blackbirds sang from its branches at dawn, and wild turkeys built nests and hatched poults beneath it in spring.
Although Hirsch didn’t realize it at the time, that world would have died a week into his project if the landowner, Tim Clare, didn’t admire the oak. In early April 2012, Clare hired a bulldozer to clean some field edges and fencerows. While discussing the job, the ’dozer operator casually asked if he should knock the tree aside. Clare declined: “That tree has been here 200 years. I’m not the guy who’s going to push it over.”
Hirsch nearly turned white when hearing the story weeks later. “That ruffled the hair on the back of my neck,” he said. “Bur oaks in the middle of farmers’ fields get bulldozed all the time to maximize corn and soybean yields.”
The scare inspired Hirsch to assess the tree. Core samples revealed a hollow trunk but a healthy 163-year-old tree. It took root about 1850 as settlers plowed the region’s prairies and vanquished its wildfires, just as Aldo Leopold described in A Sand County Almanac.
Meanwhile, Hirsch’s daily Facebook posts built a devoted community he never sought, and inspired a book he never imagined. His “That Tree” project has been featured on NBC News, and in the Chicago Tribune, Wisconsin State Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, Daily Mail (United Kingdom), Woodlands and Prairies magazine, and by the Sierra Club.
When Hirsch concluded his year of photos March 23, nearly 300 followers showed up from Chicago to northern Minnesota, along with TV crews, reporters, and photojournalists. His followers posed for photos with the tree, with Hirsch and the tree, and with ornaments and family portraits hung from the tree.
“I never imagined this taking on a life of its own,” Hirsch said. “It was totally spontaneous. Maybe the tree and I inspired them somehow, but my only goal was to do quality work every day for a year with a fairly basic camera.”
Hirsch also thinks the project resonates because it wasn’t inspired by politics.
“This wasn’t an environmental statement,” he said. “I’m big on sustainability and the environment, but I’m not a vocal environmentalist. Maybe people realize this tree has value just standing here, despite economic pressures to remove it. If that helps others re-evaluate these old bur oaks, that’s a great thing.”
First image by Patrick Durkin, other images by Mark Hirsch