The Tree Canopy From The Highway

I thought I had seen it all. I was quite wrong.

A forest seen from up close and above is a revelation after years of hiking in the forest, or seeing trees from a normal roadside. The canopy is there but from my perspective invisible until one can look down on it. Then its beauty, with the right tree at the right time, is a revelation. Otherwise it is like an ant crawling beneath a rose bush. The ant is missing something.

In 1981 I had been hauling a view camera around for seven years from the national parks in Utah to Alaska to the highest mountain in Vermont and I was still hoping for a surprise. Well I got several of them and below the first and most important one, the view from what I call the Weston Overlook on Interstate-90 (The Mass. Pike) about 20 miles west of Boston on the eastbound side.

It exists because when they built the Pike they had 2 or 3 fairly deep valleys to cross that would have been a hazard on an Interstate Highway and so they filled them in.

What this meant for me was something quite rare: a chance to see the tree canopy from above and close, something that would normally require a chopper or a large hydraulic lift. I know of only one other such view outside Massachusetts (although there must be many) and that is the Ledges Trail at the northern entrance of Baxter State Park in Maine (see Fall Trees) caused by a vertical drop of a mountain side with a beautiful forest below.

And one spring day I saw something like the image below.

Spring Flowers

Interstate Highway 90, Weston, Massachusetts. May 1981
cat. JW 0013

These images suggest pointillism to me. To see them properly requires a big monitor or at least a 20" x 24" print. But to get a start click for a Slide Show, of images from the breakdown lane of Interstates 90, 495, 190.

I had seen maples coming into bud in a couple of places, one on my way to work at Bose, but they were nothing to look at, just small trees in a field some distance away. But when I saw these trees I went a little bananas. The buds of the maple trees were bright red and the branches silver and I knew I had to shoot them. But from a roaring Interstate, and right from the edge of the highway. I was accustomed to peace and quite when shooting and hear I could imagine someone loosing control of their car and...

JW 0331

Well I drove all around the area trying to find options and, of course, there weren’t any. So it was the breakdown lane (on the safe side of the guardrail) or nothing. But I got lucky.

There was a clearing without the guardrail about 200 feet away were I could get my car off the road. Shooting with a view camera would require a half hour minimum and I was not about to park in the breakdown lane. The place I shot from gave me about one foot of footing (and walking; sometimes I would hike on the unsafe side because it was much easier and faster) and fortunately I had a tripod with one leg that would extend far enough to hold the camera. The image below is a view of the camera location at the Weston Overlook taken from ground level. It illustrates how I was able to photograph the tree canopy.


Spring Sunrise I

Interstate Highway 90, Millbury, Massachusetts. May 1983, cat. JW 0037

Then I started shooting and dealing with the Pike police (more on that below).

I shot the Pike for ten years mostly in Weston and Millbury. I finally had to get permission from the Turnpike authority (troopers otherwise said they would arrest me) and so at the Turnpike Authority in Boston they had me sign a release that I would not sue them If something happened to me. I kept the release in my car trunk for the next 10 years and only got one question from the police. “Do you have permission?” Yes. And no one ever saw that paper. The police got accustomed to seeing me, I suppose because they talked to me only once (see below).

The best way to get an idea of what I was seeing is to watch the slide show. Click the two small arrows and you will get a full-screen view.

Oh, yes. One more story. Trooper pulls over and gets out of his car right next to where my camera is set up overlooking this magnificant valley. “What are you doing?” “Taking photographs.” Looks out over the valley. “Of what?” “The trees.” Looks out and down for a few seconds and doesn’t say a word and drives off. New England Monthly ran a story called “Pike Pictures” with several two-page spreads but I would guess this trooper never saw it.

Dreamed Brook

Beaver Brook, I-495, Littleton, Massachusetts. July 1987, cat. JW 0181

I owe Dreamed Brook to Michael Conrad my right-hand man for 25 years and to the editor of New England Monthly for an assignment to shoot the area where John Hanson Mitchell had built his carpenter gothic house. (See Ceremonial Time. The area included a small stream called Beaver Brook. I had been trying to shoot Beaver Brook from a side road and had the local police watching so I didn’t get run over. Mike came along to help and as we were leaving on the interstate Mike said “Did you see that?” and I looked out the window and saw this lovely small stream with large areas of Loosestrife, a beautiful invasive weed, now almost completely exterminated.

I returned the following 3 or 4 mornings and on the 2nd or 3rd a fog hid the maze of power lines that were spoiling the view. This was in the days before digital and retouching them out would have been impossible. But the fog made for a beautiful composition.

Click on the image Dreamed Brook for more on the story.

For Dreamed Brook the image below shooting was more dangerous than on the Mass Pike for there was no guard rail. But an image is an image and if you are doing what I was doing you have to get the shot.

The stream below is called the Quinipoxit River and shooting it meant timing exposures between 18 wheelers since they shook the bridge quite severely. Without a guard rail and under the black cloth focusing was an interesting experience.

Stream After Storm

Stream After Storm

Quinapoxet River, Interstate Highway 190, Holden, Massachusetts cat. JW 5851

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