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Birch and Blizzard

Paul Gallagher

For some rea­son, win­ter makes me feel safe. I like the bite of the cold and wind whip­ping across my face, fol­lowed by the retreat to the warmth of the indoors as the day comes to a close with the fail­ing light.

Japan, in par­tic­u­lar Hokkai­do, had been a place I had cov­et­ed for many years and the urge to vis­it became a real­i­ty in 2017. As soon as the plane began to descend into Asahikawa Air­port the bro­ken cloud gave way to a white land­scape of pris­tine snow and rolling hills. Hokkai­do, the most norther­ly island in Japan, is noth­ing like this is the sum­mer months. It is a vibrant land­scape of flower fields, and the fish­ing ports that sur­round the island teem­ing with activ­i­ty.

As the win­ter arrives, the land­scape changes dra­mat­i­cal­ly and the landown­ers close the farms and head into their homes, the fish­er­men haul their boats out of the sea to pre­vent them being crushed by encroach­ing sea ice, and the tem­per­a­tures plum­met to below freezing.

My first impres­sions of Hokkai­do were that it is an ele­men­tal land­scape, won­der­ful­ly min­i­mal, and every­where seemed silent. Because of the con­stant falling of fresh snow, sound is damp­ened and pho­tograph­ing in silence is what I first remem­ber of Hokkai­do. As much as this pho­to­graph invokes a sense of peace in me, it was a moment in which work­ing quick­ly did not pay div­i­dends. I was return­ing back to the vehi­cle and anoth­er band of dark, snow-laden cloud began to approach. Soon after, heavy snow­fall began.

Just before the arrival of the snow, I worked as quick­ly as I could to pho­to­graph the trees. The colours and tones were beau­ti­ful. The sil­ver tree bark gave way the dark greys of the dense­ly packed wood­land, at the foot of which, were small yel­low bam­boos adding an essence of warmth to the cold scene. Arrive the snow did, and before too long it grad­u­al­ly placed a shroud between me and the trees. I had been sat­is­fied to have har­nessed the oppor­tu­ni­ty to make some images and felt con­tent to just stand and stare.

I find snow trans­fix­es me. It’s hyp­not­ic. I watched as it thick­ened and con­tin­ued to fall, occa­sion­al­ly chang­ing direc­tion by the whim of the winds. The struc­ture and shapes of the trees slow­ly fad­ed away and became more dis­tant, then grad­u­al­ly, and before my very eyes, began to reap­pear. As the snow gen­tly came to rest on the fin­er branch­es they became white and grad­u­al­ly emerged from the grey veil of the snow and I knew instinc­tive­ly that this would be the pic­ture of that moment. Even to this day, I still stare at those trees.