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Mount Carroll, IL: The Big Picture

By farming trees, Michael Johnson sustains the landscape he's made his name photographing.



When Michael Johnson goes out to photograph a landscape, he brings along his 1937 Deardorff view camera, five-by-seven black-and-white film, and patience. He goes to the place he's been wanting to shoot--a barn a short drive from his home in Mount Carroll, Illinois, perhaps, or someplace just across the Mississippi River in Iowa--sets up his equipment, and waits. Waits for the sky to fill with the particular type of clouds he believes will complement this particular patch of ground. Waits for a coming storm to reach just the right level of fury. Waits for the changing light and shadows in his setting to arrange themselves into a portrait he appreciates.

The waiting can last hours. During that time, he says, "I'm sort of meditating, or praying, for the picture."

Once the view takes on the look he wants, Johnson makes just one exposure--two if there's a chance dust got on the negative. Then he breaks down his equipment and leaves.

"I'm not going to shoot and shoot and shoot, then go home and see what I have," says Johnson, whose work is in the collections of the Art Institute, the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, and the Hyatt and McDonald's corporations, among others. "I go knowing what I want, and I wait until I get it, and then I'm finished."

Johnson doesn't manipulate the landscape for his photography, and he doesn't mess with it in his other line of work either. On the 70-acre farm where he and his wife, Patricia, grow trees for lumber, his approach is so subtle and naturalistic that on a walk around the grounds you'd think they were natural and unretouched.

Walking up the side of a ravine on the undulating land where the Johnsons have lived since the 1970s, he motions toward a stand of walnut trees he planted nearly 20 years ago. They aren't lined up in prim rows like corn or soybeans. Instead, there's what looks like a random cluster of muscular 25-foot trees presiding over a spring carpet of trout lilies, trillium, and last year's leaf litter.

For this work, too, one of Johnson's primary tools is patience. After all, many of the hundreds of trees he and Patricia plant each year won't be ready for harvest for seven or eight decades. (He's 57, she's 62.) Others will grow a little, only to be nibbled to nubs by deer. Forestry as the Johnsons practice it is an act of optimism: They're selling fine hardwoods as a lumber boutique in an age of industrialized wood farming, while nurturing the ecosystem of their land, preparing it to survive the next hundred years.

They aren't the only ones trying to grow and sell hardwoods with a sustainable methods. Small-scale forestry has been going in that direction for at least a decade, says Ralph Eads, a forestry consultant in Mount Carroll who spent 35 years as the state's regional forester for four counties in northwestern Illinois. "We've been talking to a lot of people about taking care of their woods, harvesting trees that need to go and replanting with the quality hardwoods --oak and walnut and cherry and other species," Eads says. But, he says, the Johnsons distinguish themselves with their "seriousness about doing this right, about doing something that will benefit somebody a few generations from now."

The Johnsons' place is a tree farm, not a tree museum, and the work isn't entirely selfless: every tree they cut down to make way for a preferred species becomes raw material for the sawmill they operate on their property, as do some members of the preferred species if they're old enough to be cut down. "You're growing some for your use, some for later," Eads says. The sawmill operation is called Johnson Creek Hardwoods, for the stream (which got its name from some other Johnson) that runs along two sides of the property.

In both of his pursuits, photography and tree farming, Michael Johnson is elevating the Illinois landscape, an unassuming part of the world that's usually overlooked in favor of Ansel Adams's craggy peaks or rain forests in need of saving. Johnson's work is a reminder that there's something to be saved here, too, whether on photo paper or in the living landscape. "I've always found value in the land," he says, "and all these things we do with the land. I do believe there is value in seeing the landscape."

"Michael's working on a landscape with human scale," Patricia says. "It's not the spectacular landscape, the one-of-a-kind places. It's the landscape of home."

Northwestern Illinois became Johnson's home accidentally, when he tried to avoid fighting in Vietnam. He grew up on ten acres in what's now Barrington Hills; his father was an attorney who commuted into Chicago. Of his childhood, Johnson says, "I had a gun and a dog and a boat and a 100-acre lake. I had no loss of anything to do." He reached college age in the late 1960s, and to avoid the draft he bounced from DePauw University in Indiana to an inner-city teaching gig in Philadelphia and then enrolled at Shimer College, a small liberal arts school that at the time was in Mount Carroll. (Shimer eventually moved to Waukegan and then last year to Chicago, to the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology.)

Mount Carroll is in what's known as the Driftless Area, the region in western Wisconsin and Illinois that wasn't scraped flat by glaciers and has a rolling terrain that makes it, if not dramatic, at least picturesque. Johnson wasn't much interested in college, but he was a fan of landscape painting, in particular the work of the great 17th-century Dutch painters, including Jacob van Ruisdael and Aelbert Cuyp. "This land is pastoral like Holland," Johnson says. "We have these beautiful rolling hills and farmland and rivers with rock outcroppings, these majestic skies."

When the government established a draft lottery in 1969 and Johnson pulled a high number that put him at little risk of being called up, he dropped out of Shimer and headed to Chicago to get a commercial photography career going. But the Driftless Area stayed on his mind, and in the early 1970s he moved back to Mount Carroll, though he continued working for Chicago clients. By 1973 he'd bought 40 acres of timber four miles outside of town.

He didn't buy it to farm. "I love solitude and I love trees," Johnson says. His grandfather, Chicago financier Ralph Bard, had picked up a vast, forested Virginia plantation cheap during the Depression. (Bard, assistant secretary of the navy during World War II and later undersecretary, was part of the Interim Committee of eight appointed to advise President Truman on the use of the atom bomb.) The family would go down to Bard's Virginia spread to hunt and hike. "My Aunt Kate asked him once about religion, and he said, 'I guess it would have to be trees for me,'" Johnson recalls, and adds, speaking of himself, "I'd say my spirituality is certainly wrapped up in the natural world."

After he'd begun building himself a cabin and photo studio a quarter mile into the woods, Johnson met Patricia at a party. She'd grown up in Evanston and moved to Los Angeles, vowing never to return to Illinois. After that she'd moved to New Orleans, where she was making sets and props while working on a master's thesis in dramatic theory at Tulane.

Patricia shared Johnson's passion for trees. She says it was sparked by an assignment she'd done in the seventh grade at Nichols Junior High in Evanston. "We had to get the leaf or the bark or the bud of every kind of tree between the school and our house," she recalls. "I must have been exactly the right age to do it, because I totally fell in love with trees then." While living in cities, she'd dreamed of having a garden and sheep and, most of all, trees.

Meeting Johnson was auspicious. "He had just bought 40 acres of timber," she says. "That was very attractive of him."

Together they moved into the new 864-square-foot cabin. They made some money raising honey--a beehive, a wedding gift from Johnson's brother, turned into a small business they would operate for almost 20 years. But Johnsons' main work continued to be photography, and his landscapes and botanical shots were earning him an estimable reputation.

Like those Dutch landscape paintings, his pictures make a subtle terrain look like the most precious section of the planet. The size of his prints, 26 by 36 inches, suggests they are important pictures of worthy places.

"In Michael's photography there is a lot more interest in the midwestern landscape than is typically understood," says Emily Eddins of the Dolphin Gallery in Kansas City, which has carried his work for more than decade. "You're drawn into the image, into the play between the darkness and the light and between the lines in the landscape. Your eye is never static. It's guided to move throughout the composition. You're just kind of led into the moment of that picture."

In a photograph called The Mines of Spain, Johnson captures the rocky limestone walls left behind by a lead mining operation in Dubuque. Areas of light and dark--spring foliage, tree trunks--alternate from foreground to rear, until your eye has moved between the imposing walls to a strip of inviting lightness beyond. That's the Mississippi River. The river hits you like a revelation, as if you're the first to have spotted it. "That view to the Mississippi I worked on for a year," Johnson says. "I kept going back to get the right light and the right time of year. For me the entire image has to be composed--there can't be a landscape with no sky. The idea is to get you back here," he says, indicating the far distance with a finger. I'm there.

Eddins says Johnson's landscapes, unlike those of many photographers, "stand on their own and don't become repetitive or cliches." She considers Johnson "one of the best traditional landscape photographers working today. We don't see anything else that compares to his work."

Johnson is a virtuoso of the system of tonal zones that Ansel Adams and Fred Archer developed in the early 1940s, a technique that helps a photographer foresee the contrasting lights and darks that a full-color real-world view will translate into on black-and-white film. Each work is a masterful shot, the getting of which Johnson describes as carefully as if it were a bridge he'd engineered.

Describing one called Retreating Storm #2, he says, "These are the farm buildings across the way, and I'm in the van shooting because it's raining. You can see the arabesque [of clouds] that I've waited to form from the bottom to the top of the frame, light and dark alternating, beginning with a dark foreground.

"Here's one with a Ruisdaelian convention," he goes on. "It's called Landscape With Oats." The picture shows grainy clouds above a billowy horizon--a stretching field of oats that rolls over three rises. "I was up on top of my truck because when you look down over the landscape you can get the pattern in the field, and I waited a couple of hours to get the clouds going along repeating the pattern in the sky. It didn't come, but when the clouds blew away, there was this Marc Chagall sky and I took it."

As Johnson's reputation grew, so did his family--and their house. As he and Patricia raised their three children, they expanded the original cabin in stages to its present size of about 3,000 square feet. The bees multiplied too, to 60 hives with a summer population of about 80,000. The Johnsons soured on the honey business about a dozen years ago, finding it a lot of work for a little money, and at about the same time they realized, Johnson says, that "we weren't doing anything with our timber, and that was bothering me."

They sold their hives and honey equipment and Johnson boned up on silviculture, the agriculture of trees. Around that time a massive storm took down between 50 and 100 40-foot-high cherry trees. Cherrywood is valuable, so Johnson figured he could either have a logger come in "or I could do what I've always wanted to do--buy a sawmill."

So he bought a sawmill, and since then Johnson Creek Hardwoods has become a laboratory for sustainable timber farming. This entails opening up selected areas of the existing forest by taking out trees that are damaged or dying, if they're preferred species, or just in the way, if they're hackberries or other "junk trees." A butternut hickory, for example, while attractive and native to the region, "is so dense it blocks everything else from getting light." As it happens, the tree makes profitable lumber, so taking one down is a win on both counts.

This surgical approach contrasts with the clear-cutting that commercial loggers will do for a fee on any rural landowner's property. That results in a scarred landscape pimpled with tree stumps, while the Johnsons' method can actually enhance the view, opening up the tree canopy to allow more light in and clearing sight lines through a dense thicket. "I won't take a tree down until I have to," Johnson says.

On a tour of his woods, Johnson points out patches of planted trees that I wouldn't have recognized as different from any other part of the woods. This is nothing like those tree plantations from the early 20th century that you spot along many rural highways--the ones that flicker past in long, orderly rows.

"The whole business of taking care of a tree farm is you do it for timber, for aesthetics, for air and water quality, and for wildlife," Johnson. "It's not just timber."

At the bottom of a long, low hill, hundreds of young sycamores stand in soggy soil around a meandering stream, the beginning of what will in a few years be a picturesque glade and not long after that a source of lumber. On a hillside, Johnson stops to point out an American chestnut that's 25 feet high and six years old. Once one of America's most beloved street trees, the species has been devastated by chestnut blight, which was accidentally imported with Asian chestnut trees early in the last century. "I have no hope for this tree," Johnson says. "It will die. But it's enjoyable to watch while it's here."

When a tree is taken down, Johnson and his sawyer, Steve Wolf-Camplin, look it over. Does it have branch crotches that might yield some beautifully feathered wood when stripped down into planks? How might the trunk be sawed to maximize the distinctive appearance of the grain? They talk about each log as intently as some people plan a putt. It's that almost reverential planning that sets their lumber apart, says Tim James, a client of the sawmill who runs Signature Woodworking, a cabinetry and custom carpentry operation in the nearby town of Savanna. "Every board is cut with attention," James says. "Those guys don't just slice it up." They cut it and then dry it in the open air and in a kiln with the kind of care you expect from a winery.

James showed me a sumptuous plank of walnut he'd recently bought from Johnson that he was going to use for some kitchen cabinets. The many looping lines of its grain suggested a topographical map, and the rich brown color a cup of espresso. James then handed me another walnut plank, this one bought from "somebody else I don't want to name." If Johnson's plank looks like espresso, this other piece is weak tea, its color is so thin by comparison. James said, "I'll use that in the back of the drawers, where you don't see it."

He pays more for Johnson's wood, but it usually requires only minimal staining--the color is rich and full already. "Without that extra labor," James said, "I'd say Michael's wood ends up costing about the same as other people's."

At the Johnsons' farm, the best wood is in the "board room," where it's put on display for customers to sort through. What specialty cabinet makers like James see is richly grained wood as different from the wood and veneers in most homes as a microbrew is from an Old Milwaukee six-pack. Johnson Creek does small runs, usually not more than 300 feet of a particular lumber, Johnson says. That's about enough for a standard kitchen's cabinetry. You don't see big builders here, coming in looking for enough wood to raise a subdivison.

The Johnsons proudly show off bright yellow blocks milled from an Osage orange tree--not a citrus but a tree that was widely planted in midwestern farmland as a hedgerow. A carpenter might use it as inlay. The Johnsons also show their assortment of "book-matched" chestnut: book-matching is a way of cutting down the center of a log so that its two halves open into identical side-by-side panels.

As their sawmill's reputation has spread, the Johnsons have started taking in other wood, like the century-old oak with a four-foot-thick trunk that died at a nearby campground, or the eastern cedars that grew by the front walk of a house in Olney, Illinois, for more than 100 years without ever being pruned. The wood from those trees, exuding that deep, sweet, cedar smell, has no knotholes, a rarity in cedar.

The Johnsons love to describe the provenance of their lumber, but wood isn't their only interest. Recently, they were anticipating the season's first morels, those wild midwestern mushrooms whose devotees get giddy at the thought of finding some secret flourishing stand.

There were seedlings to be planted, logs to mill, trees to be protected from deer--but at the first sign of morels, Johnson said, "we may have to shut down the sawmill for a day or two." The Johnsons have been good to the landscape; maybe morels are the landscape returning the favor.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Murphy.

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