Cedar Swamp and Rhododendron Preserve

Late last year I visited a nearby Nature Conservancy property called The Cedar Swamp Preserve.  Yeah, real romantic sounding place, right?  Well it’s got two great things going for it – Atlantic White Cedars and Great Laurel or Giant Rhododendron as it’s sometimes called.  This is a small preserve jammed between huge condo developments, some commercial operations and an abandoned-before-it-was-built college campus.  Lucky for me it’s only 15 minutes from my house.  I’m very grateful for its presence.

I have a thing for trees.  Not hugging or anything too silly, but a reverence for what they are and what they do.  How long they live and how symbiotic our relationships to them are.  I wish I still had my 10-year-old body and mind so I could keep climbing them.  I am always saddened by the sight of a full logging truck.  I think of the animals and birds dependent on those trees and how they’ve been destroyed.  Sometimes when I see a particularly wonderful tree, I put my hand on it and feel the wind vibrate through it.  I especially like to find trees that are extraordinary for their size or their mere existence.  Like these Atlantic White Cedars for which the land was set aside.

Atlantic White Cedars

According to the website, these trees are quite rare around the world and this 42-acre stand is part of only 550 total acres in NH.  This swamp is the most northern of all Atlantic White Cedar swamps and also has a black gum tree which I have yet to actually find.  The walkways are a bit treacherous in places, but I haven’t taken a dunk yet.  Neither has my tripod which is too big for the planks.  I do like taking a stroll through though.  Check out those cinnamon ferns!

Cedar swamp preserve

So the other thing that makes this special (and me glad that UNH chose the mill buildings in Manchester) is the Great Laurel or Giant Rhododendron.  In all my wanderings and hikes I’ve never seen these anywhere else up here (except some cultivated plants which might be variations on the wild species).  They’re giant, ghostly and faintly primordial trees.  Much bigger than mountain laurel they can grow to 35 feet high.  I wished for a taller tripod or a stepladder while photographing them, so much of the drama seemed to be taking place far above my head.

Great Laurel

I missed the blooming last year and was determined to get there at the right time this year.  Unfortunately because of the weird, wet spring we had, wildflower timing was all over the place and I had to keep coming back and back and back to check on the blossoms.  The last time I did the bud casings were soft and springy to the touch, so I knew the time was near.


Each time I visited the groves, ideas would start to coalesce.  I envisioned black and white primarily because the canopy above these huge bushes obscures a lot of light and I could play up their natural drama.  And because when they do bloom, the flower clusters seem to hover in space a bit against their dark leaves.

The Indifference of Heaven

But the light was amazing and so soft that I couldn’t resist doing some in color as well.

Gentle Giants

I had the idea of heading over just after dropping my husband at the airport at 6:30 am.  Like I’ve been trying to do all year, I wanted to incorporate more dappled sunlight in my images.  The low-angled, early morning sun was perfect.  I couldn’t believe the wind was so still either.  Wind!  The bane of my existence.  But it was still; just a breath.  A perfect storm of conditions.  Just look at the texture and depth the sun adds.  And that subtle blush of color.  OMG.

Tenderness on the Block

Sometimes when I’ve got an idea in my head for months and I finally get to execute on it, I’m disappointed, but not with these.  I’m so happy they came out the way I thought they might; better even.  It’s stuff like that that makes me light up inside.

So for you technical peeps here’s the skinny.  I used my normal rig; Olympus E-30 and ZD 12-60mm lens.  No polarizer since the leaves are so beautifully shiny; like rubber almost and they catch the light to give depth to the shots.  Lugged my ancient Bogen tripod since it is the taller of the two I own.  I exposed for the highlights which is part of the reason there’s so much detail in the whites.  I find the E-30 and most other modern digital cameras can hold  lot of detail in the shadows, more than the highlights, so I just watched the clipping blinkies in Live View and held them down.  Processing-wise the monochromes are pretty basic, just some stretching of curves to emphasize certain tones in certain shots.  The color shots had a bit of vibrance intensity added and some white balance adjustments.  Not much cropping post-capture on any of them.

The woods and forests are magical to me and when I can capture that I’m so pleased.  I hope you enjoy it, too.




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