|THE KING OF LIMBS by Joe Wright|
There is something very sensual about this photograph and I am not talking about my body but the fact that my naked body is lying on this huge branch of this incredible oak tree, aptly named "The King of Limbs" and which has been growing for 1,000 years. You can see the path of that growth in the lines of the bark interrupted by the knots and burls. When I first set eyes on that tree that day, it looked from a distance as if it had expired. The branches were splayed out on the ground like the legs of a spider but as I moved towards it, I saw the new growth, sprouting buds of bright green and then realised that the sap was still rising in those flaccid limbs. This spider was very much still alive.
I first heard of Joe on Twitter - he was one of a quartet of Landscape photographers the others being Rob Hudson, Steve Segasby and Al Brydon, all of whom I had worked with before (the four of them have now formed a collective called "Inside the Outside") However, I had not yet made Joe's acquaintance and neither had I had a chance of looking at his work online although he regularly joined in conversations on Twitter with his comrades. I announced the end of my project and posted a tweet about it and Joe sent me a direct message asking if there was any possibility of working with me. I had loved working with Rob, Steve and Al and so I was immediately inclined to say yes but took a peek at his work online and swooned. His love of history and of nature was obvious in his succulent photography and so I replied "Let's do it!" I arranged to meet him at Swindon station and there I was approached by a man with a friendly smile. He seemed much shorter than I had imagined from Al Brydon's description but, when he walked straight past me, I realised that it wasn't Joe. I came out of the exit and saw someone wave from inside his car across the forecourt. I thought I am not going to be fooled again but, this time, the guy uncoiled himself from his car and a very tall Joe Wright appeared and greeted me.
We drove for some time out of Swindon and Joe talked of his life in the country, his day job and where we were going. I talked of my life by the sea and the ending of my project and the time passed by very pleasantly until we arrived at Severnake Forest. It was enormous and apparently full of incredibly ancient oaks and other trees. We parked and Joe put on his multi pocketed ex-army belt which led into a brief story of his military career. At first, we set off on foot along established paths but then, in between breathless (me) chats about this and that, last year's growth of dark orange leaves of fern fizzed and dead wood cracked as we stepped into more overgrown areas and Joe led the way towards the tree by which he intended to photograph me. I cannot remember the name of the tree but its original trunk had been huge - I guess about five foot in diameter, maybe more - although there were only now two large wings of bark jutting up out of the earth but thick branches were lying around the decimated trunk and had new growth unfurling on more healthy dark brown shoots. The tree was in a clearing made especially to enable the tree to suck as much light as it could into its aged body. At first I stood as directed by Joe in my jeans and trainers and shirt but I thought that I could not be in a place like this and be photographed in my clothes. We had not discussed this beforehand but Joe knew that some of his friends had photographed me unclothed before and so I thought he would not be fazed by this suggestion and he wasn't. I stood behind the trunk and then offered to curl up on the ground in the nest formed by the remains of the trunk not realising what dangers lurked in its squishy floor.
At this point, Joe produced two bars of chocolate from one of the many pockets in his belt and we had a break as Joe told me something of the past history of the forest as well as his ongoing project about the Lost Forest of Bradon which involved an investigation of Bradon Forest by retracing and walking its ancient boundaries now straddled by more recent residential and commercial development as well as parts of the M4 Motorway all of which seemed a far cry from where we were standing at that moment. I was fascinated and quite moved because Joe told his story in a very modest manner but with justifiable pride. He was becoming another very enjoyable companion in a long line of such in my project.
Eventually, we made our way towards The King of Limbs. It stood or rather lay at the end of a broad stretch of grass like an exhibit at the end of a long corridor in a museum. It was beautiful and, as soon as I saw the long undulating branch which pointed back towards the aisle of green, I wanted to lie on it and stretch out and do you know what? I did! And here is the proof. When I saw the photograph, I loved it for its simple sensual beauty. I hesitated about choosing it because, as my wife pointed out, I have been photographed stretched out before but this is different. I am dwarfed by the enormity of the branch and the contrast between my pale skin and the dark brown of the bark accentuates my smallness. I used to resent the fact that trees would outlive me but no more. After we finished this shot, I agreed merrily to curl up in the tree's core again oblivious of the hidden dangers.
Joe took me back to Swindon Station and, as the train made its way eastwards and I watched the houses slowly disappear I thought of a time one thousand years ago when Canute became the King of all England and a small green shoot appeared in the corner of a vast forest in Wiltshire and another king was born. The next day I noticed a small speck on my left foot. I picked it off and looked at it under a magnifying glass and saw a tick waving at me. I found two more and removed them. As a precaution, I made an appointment with my GP who shivered when I told her. "Ooh" she said with a curled lip, "I don't like ticks" as she looked at my back and in my hair for more. She prescribed a single dose of antibiotic as a precautionary measure and so far (touch wood or maybe not), there is no evidence of infection but maybe it is a good thing that my days of lying naked on trees are coming to an end. But then, look at this great photograph.