When I return from Torridon after my family’s autumn holiday, I put the smoothed piece of driftwood found on the shore of Loch Gairloch on a bookshelf above my desk. In the twist of its shape and the flow of its grain I see an otter and it will remind me of the substantial dog otter we watched feeding in the bay below our rented cottage. I have a few brief days at home and will travel back to the Highlands before the week is out. To beat the boom of fireworks I head into Hudswell Wood alongside the River Swale.
It is a delicate November day, still and subdued with a chill edge to the air and a touch of frost on the north-facing ground. The sky is a grey veil and the soft light it casts down into the wood creates sparks of heart-singing colour. Hudswell is predominately a beech wood and I allow myself the freedom to wander and become familiar again with its dense structure after three weeks away among the birches and pines in Glen Torridon and alongside Loch Maree. The time passes extremely slowly, as time should pass but rarely does, and I linger to enjoy every splash and combination of the November shades.
Family holidays and photography are not the ideal mix as experience has taught me that I cannot be in two places at the same time, physically or mentally. So it has been a while since I have made a picture and I amble through the wood without direction. While I sense I am surrounded by the resplendent fading away of autumn, I cannot as yet see a potential subject that will express how stimulated my eye is by all this opulence.
However a quiet confidence builds with the knowledge that as my excitement cools down and my eye warms up then a potential subject will eventually reveal itself. The length of the November day may be short, but I do have all of it to myself and I’m grateful. From the pale sky comes a gentle gleam that reveals and then accentuates the wood’s richness of colour and tonality. This is my ideal type of photography: working with soft, rounded light and no sense of feeling rushed.
Whenever I have been away, I always head for Hudswell Wood and as ever I am struck by the measured rhythm of the beech trees that form its framework and height. Evenly spaced, like columns in a cathedral, the beeches are load-bearing and arch upwards to provide the wood’s structural support and also emphasise its elevation. With my eye now awakened, I begin for the first time to realise that it is the beech trees themselves that could bring the shape and structure I need for my photograph.
With the soft light remaining constant, there is the luxury of time to explore the subject fully. I work hard on the sloping, muddy ground to achieve positional separation between the trunks, while judging the impact of the fiery orange foliage at the back of the picture in terms of balance and the pull it will undoubtedly have on the viewer’s eye. Too much and they will race past the trunks to get to the orange saturation and all my efforts to separate the trunks will be in vain. Too little and the inherent message of autumn and its wondrous palette of colour will be lost.
As I work, a robin watches. With the composition eventually resolved, there is the time to sit with the tea flask among the resplendent beeches and share a slice of shortbread with the robin. The biscuit's tartan wrapper reminds me of the long drive to come when I head back to the Highlands, so I relax while I can and try, if possible, to think of nothing.