Perspectives

Art professor chronicles photos to increase awareness of south's diminishing longleaf pines

Photo of long leaf pine trees by Chuck Hemard

The longleaf pine was an integral part of Chuck Hemard’s childhood.

 “I grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, which is smack dab in the middle of the pine belt,” said Hernard, an associate professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Auburn University. “These were the trees in my backyard. I raked their pine needles every year (and not very happily.) But they were also the play spaces of my youth.”
 
Today, such forests are disappearing at an alarming rate due to over exploitation, radically changing the southern landscape. But through the lens of a camera, Hernard’s mission is to record and preserve all he can of what remains of the longleaf pine and spread awareness of its inherent cultural and aesthetic value.
 
“Even in the Deep South, most people seem unaware of how their landscape has undergone significant change,” said Hemard, whose collection of photos was recently published in his first monograph, The Pines: Southern Forests (Daylight Books). “It is my hope this book might shed some light on what might be regained, and even ask us to reconsider the notion of progress.”
 
Prior to European settlement, the longleaf pine stretched from southeastern Virginia to northern Florida and over to East Texas, covering as much as 90 million acres. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, original longleaf pinelands were all but wiped away by human action at an industrial scale, and today less than three million acres remain. It is this far-reaching decline described in a book by Janisse Ray, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, which piqued Hemard’s interest in chronicling this iconic image of the Deep South and reignited Hemard’s personal connection to his childhood memories.
 
It was in 2010 when Hemard began documenting the remnants of the old-growth longleaf forests across the Deep South. Around that time, Hemard discovered a forestry survey from 2004 which identified 16 remaining longleaf pine forests throughout the region. The survey was authored by Dr. John Kush from the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences (SFWS) and Hemard began working with Kush and with Dr. Becky Barlow (also of SFWS). Over time, Hemard contacted the “gatekeepers” of the lands, both public and privately-held, and gained access to the forests, one of which was already gone. Hemard spent the past seven years exploring the sites and capturing extraordinary images of this endangered ecosystem. From smoldering charred ground to lush green canopies, many of his images have been reproduced as large scale prints and exhibited in regional art museums and non-profit centers in the past few years. His work has also been featured online in Smithsonian Magazine, Hyperallergic, and Garden and Gun.
 
Hemard’s book adds a creative voice to the ongoing conversation about longleaf ecosystem restoration, a restoration that largely depends on fire to stimulate growth and achieve and maintain the forests’ biological diversity. It is because of this, Hemard received his prescribed burn manager certification from the State of Alabama, furthering his understanding of this diverse and significant ecosystem.
 
“Historically this was one of America’s most significant landscapes,” Hemard explains. “These images are my experience in the present that gives a tiny glimpse of insight into both past and future. It’s pretty bleak, but where it gets really interesting is how biodiverse the ecosystem is. The natural resources that the longleaf pineland forests provide are incredible – its biodiversity rivals the tropical rain forest.” 
 
To learn more about Hemard’s work, visit his website. 
To order The Pines: Southern Forests, visit: www.chuckhemard.com/shop/the-pines-southern-forests
 

Written by Vicky Santos, director of news and media in the College of Liberal Arts at Auburn University. Image used with permission from Chuck Hemard (www.chuckhemard.com) 

 

Last Updated: May 14, 2018