The Making of "Calmness of Woods" by Victor Rook

It's easy to ignore our natural surroundings. Even those who jog, bike, or walk their dogs through the woods rarely take a prolonged glance at what they're passing by. Though I'd been on several group hikes, which I jokingly refer to as "watching people's ankles," I was guilty of it myself. But that changed two years ago.

Back in 2010 I had just published a book of short stories about my crazy life when I thought, where do I go from here? To the woods, of course. It always seems like a great escape. But I know how this story goes. I'll grab my camera, set out to the nearest nature trail, take a few pictures, then feel desperately sad that I'm enjoying it alone. This day turned out to be different.

Halfway through the Ellanor C. Lawrence trail off Route 28, out of breath and thinking I should just make my way back to the car, I spotted this wonderful nook inside a fallen tree. Its own little ecosystem of plant life, decaying matter, and probably lots of insects and small animals, it reminded me of the terrariums I kept at home. It was unlike other decaying logs strewn throughout the trails. It screamed, "Look at me, I'm nature's diorama!" The "oh cool" bulb flashed off in my head and I took several pictures from various angles. That moment, finite as it was, set me off on a two-year journey through six of Northern Virginia's most beautiful nature trails: Prince William Forest Park, Manassas Battlefield Park, Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, Conway Robinson State Forest, Brentsville Nature Trail, and the Bull Run-Occoquan Trail. Fifty long hikes and over two thousand pictures later, I would complete the "Calmness of Woods" DVD.

As you can imagine, every picture has a story. Like this one of a young male deer making its way across a pocket of ferns and brush. I was startled a few minutes earlier when a group of three deer jumped over the trail ahead. In case you didn't know, when you surprise deer they will often make a snorting sound, then run like hell. It's their version of "Oh my God, you just scared the crap out of me." However, this little guy was a bit more curious. He stayed behind and made his way toward me, gnawing on a few branches, then looking back over at me with my camera. For about ten minutes he edged closer, and I snapped away.

This would be just one of many encounters with deer on the trails. At Manassas Battlefield, for instance, there was rarely a hike when I didn't spot a deer, or two, or twenty. One time on a bridle trail in the southeast corner of the park a group of about ten deer and I met simultaneously at a 'T' in the pathway. It was like a scene from America's Funniest Home Videos. They scrambled as I frantically tried to adjust my camera. Others I wouldn't notice until I was virtually upon them, like this buck who eyed me from the sidelines.

Insects were a bit less skittish. Like this red-spotted purple butterfly resting on the Manassas Battlefield Stone Bridge marker. The red spots are more pronounced on its underside, in case you're wondering. My favorite are the orange butterflies that flitted and landed on the path in front of me, and this zebra swallowtail. And then there was the luna moth on a tree just before it began to rain one late afternoon. These large moths are a rare treat to find.

Most insects have absolutely no qualms about public procreation, like these damselflies caught in the prime of the act. When you only have a few weeks to live, modesty is the least of your worries.

I must have my own love affair with mushrooms and fungi. So much so that I dedicated an entire video piece to them on the DVD. There's nothing more exciting, even whimsical, than coming upon a colorful mushroom or patch of turkey fungi in the midst of a mostly green and brown space. Some are absolutely HUGE. What makes finding mushrooms (which are fungi) so attractive is that you won't always see the same species in abundance. Often times you'll spot one or two of a kind, then never see the same ones again.

This wee, butterscotch-looking mushroom was captured at Prince William Forest Park along Little Run Loop. I was focusing on a shot of the creek below when I noticed this little guy all by itself in a bed of equally tiny moss. So I knelt down and snapped away.

Some mushrooms I gave pet names to, like cookies and cream, and lemon pound cake, though I'd think twice before gnawing on them. It looks like a few of the forest creatures already tried. Remember puffballs? These were spotted along Mawavi Road as I made my way to the High Meadows Trail in Prince William Forest Park. How about Indian pipe?

From the bluebells of Bull Run to the bed of white flowers that covered the forest floors of Conway Robinson State Forest in the spring, I did my best to document the various flora in the parks. Even unfolding tree leaves appeared like bats flying in the open air.

Panoramas of ferns greeted me on the north side of High Meadows Trail at Prince William, and lily pads abounded at Ellanor C. Lawrence's pond off Walney Rd. The mile-long Brentsville Trail is a hidden treasure of plant and animal life. Trout lilies and Bloodroot rise up in unison in early spring.

I'll be darned if that pileated woodpecker didn't escape my camera lens, however this large hawk perched aside Manassas Battlefield Park stood brave and still for its close-up. Seeing it on a large TV in all its detail is a sight to behold.

Water, pathways, and the changing seasons rounded out my camera's focus for the DVD. The shot at the top is the inviting entrance to Prince William's 'A' Trail. To the left, reflections from the trees above look like a can of green paint mixing with the water below. Water flows like silk along the South Fork Quantico Creek, and this impressive suspension bridge carries you above the creek on South Valley Trail.

Fall and winter are my favorite seasons. And though we missed out on a snowy backdrop for the winter of 2012, the autumn leaves were still just as impressive. This sole red maple seedling in a sea of decaying leaves reminded me of the movie The Village where red was an outlawed color. Villagers were advised to pull up any red plants that emerged from the soil.

You never know what you'll discover when you make a different turn. One day I decided to go left on a Manassas Battlefield bridle trail I had traversed many times. A hundred yards later: this large hidden water sanctuary below not even on the map. I've returned to this spot many times since then. On another nearby trail in the dead of winter, three deer appeared like a greeting card image. And on a cold January day, a coiled-up leaf with a built-in porthole could be home to some unknown, mysterious creature. I figured I'd just take a picture and let it be. My hands were frozen.

Award-winning composer, Kevin MacLeod, added the soundtracks to the various videos on the DVD and uniquely captures the essence of the featured shots. It makes you want to take notice, which is a hard task when far too many images bombard our daily lives.

Finally, for those wishing to improve their own picture-taking skills, I added a Nature Photography tutorial called "10 Nature Photography Tips." I want others to experience the joy of taking great photos and learn to uncover these buried gems with their own cameras.

Will the DVD make people appreciate nature more the next time they're out into the woods? Or at least pause for a moment to take it all in? I truly hope so.

Just watch out for ticks.

"Calmness of Woods" is available here,, the Manassas Museum, Whimsical Galerie on Center Street in downtown Manassas, and hopefully soon, the gift shops of the parks featured on the DVD.

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(c) 2012. All images copyrighted by Victor Rook and are not to be copied or distributed without written consent.

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