Somewhere deep in the woods, buried in the silence and privacy of the forest, a modest garden of plants sits basking in the California sunshine. This unknown location, kept safe by an unrelenting culture of loyalty and secrecy, is the home of a tremendously lucrative and undeservedly dangerous grow operation where pounds of cannabis are cultivated and trimmed. The sights and sounds of places like these are foreign to the uninitiated and untrustworthy, but New York-based photographer H. Lee was given open access to capture images of a clandestine enterprise in her collection “Grassland.”
After spending eight years in the heart of Humboldt developing a trusting relationship with the owner of a 400-acre ranch, H.Lee began documenting the fascinating underworld of illegal cultivation when Prop 19 appeared on the election ballot in California. The state was undergoing a shift in politics in 2010, with access to medical marijuana taking center stage and she wanted to be there to capture the transformation of the permaculture lifestyle. When she returned again, in 2013, the scene had blossomed in many ways — proof that perception of cannabis was experiencing a cultural shift.
Opening with a quote from Carl Sagan, the collection visually documents the underground universe of cultivation. The modest-sized book is full of artful images that objectively yet affectionately capture the spirit of the Emerald Triangle, a region in Northern California named for its high concentration of cannabis farms. It’s a world of secret gardens, grow houses and hanging colas, where pounds and pounds of weed pass through the hands of many before making it to market.
Aside from offering a behind-the-scenes look at the often unglamorous world of planting, growing, picking and trimming copious amounts of cannabis, there are also three small parts of the book written by author Emily Brady, former High Times editor Glenn O’Brien and the photographer herself, H.Lee. Although a picture is worth a thousand words, the written content offers depth to the images by providing glimpses of a backstory and shreds of insight into what the future may hold. The last segment, written by O’Brien, is a great ending to a powerful collection of images. In it, he tenderly reflects on cannabis culture and his personal relationship, from his first encounters with marijuana, where he ended up staring at a photograph of the moon for 10 minutes straight to meeting with the one-and-only Bob Marley.
A few of the standout photographs from the collection include an image of a buried pickled barrel repurposed to hold almost 30 pounds of bud. Camouflaged among the natural debris of the woods, the container is hidden in the expanse of the massive redwood forest. As a reader, it’s hard to imagine what type of response would come from happening upon such an unexpected sight nestled among the trees on a casual hike. While hypothetical situations like that are the things only stoner dreams are made of, such sights are a reality for those who live the life.
For the opportunity to live vicariously through the pictures, H. Lee has given purchasers the option to choose between three different versions of the book: a signed copy, the deluxe edition or the collector’s edition. The deluxe edition includes a signed book that comes inside of a hemp slipcase and an 8 x 10 limited edition print of one of the images from the book. The collector’s edition comes with a signed copy and three 8 x 10 archival pigment prints inside of a hemp-covered box handcrafted by Rory Sparks. It also comes along with a few accessories, including rolling papers, matches and a couple other small goodies that store nicely in the secret compartment.
This deliberate yet unbiased expression of an often-overlooked aspect of cannabis culture will appeal to an audience keen on learning through visuals. Although the collection focuses on the Emerald Triangle, Grassland definitely speaks to the larger cultural and social shifts taking place around the country. Thanks to creations like this, condemnation has transformed into curiosity and is now slowly shifting into widespread acceptance.
Purchase Grassland here.