Matt Keene

is creating portraits of a drowned forest

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Photographing the Drowned Forest of the Ocklawaha by Kayak


Once, this was a forest with a broad and distant shaded bend.Today, this land near Orange Springs on the northwestern edge of Ocala National Forest in Florida spends multiple years flooded beneath dammed waters with periodic dry-outs known as “drawdowns” happening every three or more years. These drawdowns serve to kill off excessive aquatic vegetation that builds up in the impounded waters. If the growth were allowed to get too thick, it would (and has in the past) cause fish kills from depleted oxygen.
I arrived at the Orange Springs boat ramp during the most recent drawdown beneath a blue twilight sky that was quickly absorbing the cloudy greys I was hoping for. A purple stain inked through the grey as the Southeast slowly turned towards the sun. The stain passed through the sky like a glowing jellyfish in the darkest ocean. Rising, the sun wore a thick veil of cloud cover, spreading a diffused, even light across the landscape.
I slipped my kayak off the rack and lowered it down to the water’s edge, the current rippling against a half-buried chunk of old tree. The flow would be quick this morning, I thought.
These past few months, I have spent a lot of time on the water fishing and paddling so loading and securing my gear was familiar and fast. My memories pulled back to the months spent kayaking long-distance around the state. That feeling of snapping to simple routine in the morning called to me. Loading dry bags. Clipping hatch covers. The light press of a PFD. I breathed deeply of the early air. This would not be a multi-day expedition to unknown shores. This would just be a morning paddle. A solo paddle. The first of the new decade. A paddle in search of dead trees with stories to share.

Four bends into the river and two sandhill cranes looked out from a low and muddy bank. One yodeled a call alerting the entire national forest of my approach. Four other cranes raised their heads from a distant shore. Egrets darted between broken trunks missing their trees as the river pulled me downstream into the graveyard of cypress.
I scoured the drowned forest for the compositions etched into my mind these last weeks. I’ve studied these trees in my dreams, I’ve watched the light illuminate their texture, I’ve seen the shadows in their shape. I was here to photograph these trees, to find their stories that have been stuck in the thickening mud of this lost place.

In my kayak’s aft dry storage I carried my Calumet CC-400, a large-format, 4×5 monorail camera, as well as the largest tripod I could fit through the hatch. The fore storage held a dry bag with 8 sheets of Ilford FP4+ 125 black and white film loaded in film holders, a bubble level, air blower and cleaning tools, a dark cloth for focusing, eyeglasses and my Sekonic 558R light meter.
It’s a lot of equipment for a few photographs a long ways away from a car, but much of my past video experience involves lugging awkward and heavy, precise and delicate equipment into remote areas. So, I haven’t found the difference in gear to be much of a burden. I feel settled by the purposefulness of each item. The light-tight film holders and slides. The focusing cloth stitched by my wife that reveals the moment framed in front of me. The tactile adjustments of focus and aperture. The gears, the locks, the springs.
I found an inside bank and tucked into it, letting the tail of my kayak sweep out into the current. My boat pivoted towards shore and I pulled up alongside a log laid out into the water. The ground was muck so I balanced my exit on the log, a personal dock made with no sharp nail and no loud hammer. A few cross-steps up the log took me to seemingly firm and cracked dry ground, a supercharged layering of sediment and dried up vegetation from four decades of managed water rise and fall.
I scanned the scene. The vastness of the drowned forest stuck up and out against the grey swift-moving clouds. My attention was stuck on the breadth of it and I began composing landscapes and pulling out gear. Camera loaded, I spread the legs of the tripod and set it onto the–firm–ground. The legs sunk into the mud beneath the weight of the camera, one side sliding a full six inches, and then it sunk a little more. Committed now, I pressed the tripod firmer into the soft ground until it was steady and brought the camera to level. With the shutter open and the cloth over my head, I could see an upside down world made of light and shape and pattern. The world shrunk around me and expanded in front of me. I stepped into the scene, made adjustments to my composition and worked out my focus. The details of the weathered cypress called for exploration, their texture a remembered topography of scarred history.
Seeing what was in front of me, I timed my exposure, gathering my brightest highlights and darkest shadows in front of my light meter. Exposure calculated, I loaded the film holder into the camera, steadied my breath and surveyed the scene. When all was right, I took my shot, pulling the film slide out and pressing my shutter release, exposing the delicate negative to the balance of light before us.
Seven compositions later and it was mid-morning. The clouds were thinning as I packed my gear and loaded it into my kayak. There was so much peace on that river bank, in spite of its tragic loss. The cypress sang of striped bass glinting below leaf-dappled skies. Of manatees and swift water. Of a fantastical, mystical, wild land with calls that rattled cypress knees and where alligator humps bobbed in and out of shadows around long and wide bends.
By the time these few photos were developed, scanned and edited, the water would be rising around the base of this cypress graveyard and flooding the emergent habitat stretching for the sky.
What precious time out on this day listening to old spirits, I thought, paddling upstream towards the boat ramp.
The cypress reflected back upon the water and the sandhill cranes watched as I passed.
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