As a young artist, George McLeod loved to explore a small and ancient forest near where his father lives in Norfolk, South East England. It was here, among the trees and deer, that he first discovered his passion for photography at sixteen years old, and it’s a place he’d return to again and again as an adult. He knows the terrain well, and he’s found all the best trees for climbing. 

“It’s a place that I care for deeply, since I’ve seen it slowly grow and transform over several decades,” McLeod tells me. “It’s also a place I worry about–an ancient woodland surrounded by fields that is never far from the sound of the nearby roads. For me, this woodland exists almost as a metaphor for the wider world: a small haven for wildlife holding out against the slowly encroaching modern world.” 

McLeod has an uncanny ability to create worlds of his own; also at sixteen, he built a darkroom in his father’s attic, and before devoting himself to photography, he wrote music. More recently, the surreal series Tree Huggers from the Future took him back to the forest of his childhood, this time with colored gels and lasers. 

In this magical tale, told in pictures, the artist introduces us to a group of time-traveling eco-tourists, sent back to the forest of today in hopes of saving the trees. In the future they knew, all of the trees had been destroyed. As McLeod explains, the fictional eco-tourists are his distant relatives, and he was allowed to document their work in the field. 

For this series, McLeod drew inspiration from several sources, including Stephen Hawking’s theoretical physics and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, though he forwent the spacesuits in favor of hazmat suits. But the most powerful inspiration came from the landscape itself, with the artist countless hours exploring the depths of the forest–alone save for the occasional deer. 

“Quite honestly, I had no idea what I was doing when I started, but during the process of walking around the forest for days on end, the story slowly developed in my head,” he admits. “In one image of the ‘Tree Huggers’ reflected in a pond, I was on my way back, fed up because I’d had an unsuccessful day, but the sunlight was just hitting the tree beautifully. 

“I tried bouncing a magenta flash off the water’s surface. You could see me with what looked like a glowing red face. As I said to a friend recently, sometimes you just have to walk around a forest, with a smoke machine and a pink hazmat suit, and not worry too much about why you’re doing it.” In truth, all the tree huggers are portrayed by McLeod, who used a tripod and wireless trigger to photograph himself in action. All the lights were physically present in the environment; when multiple eco-tourists are pictured, they’ve been stitched together. 

“I shot these 99% on my own, with help on one image from my girlfriend, whom I roped in to take the photo while I wandered around in a silver suit, half-blinded by a laser beam,” the photographer remembers. “I have a surprising number of great memories from doing this, which is odd to say because I was on my own. The funniest moment was when I had the laser flashlight shining out of the woods from ten meters up in the trees at night, and two guys came out of the forest. They had gone in to smoke weed, and they didn’t notice me. Through the haze of smoke and impairment, I heard the words ‘Dude… dude… it’s fucking aliens!’ I was quick to make myself known and explain what I was doing.” 

Still, even knowing the backstory, I can’t help but find McLeod’s adventures in the forest just as magical as those guys did. There were less glamorous moments–like the time he got stuck in a swamp and laboriously trudged his way out, only to realize he’d left his flash behind in the muck–but almost everywhere he turned, he discovered enchantment among the trees. In some cases, they were the same trees he’d seen and climbed as a child, but in his story, the eco-tourists are seeing them for the very first time. Every tree is a miracle. 

Like any great fable, Tree Huggers from the Future is by turns serious and playful, and McLeod maintains his sense of humor for multiple reasons. First, he sees it as a positive tool for persuasion and an accessible point of entry for frank conversations about the climate crisis. Second, he never takes himself too seriously: “watching myself undertake this project on my own in the depths of the woods, I looked utterly ridiculous (to the local deer population), so I had to poke fun at myself.” 

More than anything, though, Tree Huggers from the Future has become a love letter to the forest where he once played, marked by wit and anxiety in equal measure. “Frankly, I’m terrified about the future of conservation,” he tells me. “I typify this idea of eco-anxiety. However, I’m probably a long-term optimist because of my trust in science and humans’ ability to problem-solve. In fact, the area where I shot this, North Norfolk, the council are planting one tree for every resident–tiny in the grand scheme, but I take small comforts in projects like these.” 

All images © George McLeod

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