Into the Woods with Kate Milford
Updated: Apr 9
Usually photographer Kate Milford is behind the camera, not in front, but for her birthday, this March 30, she got All Dressed and allowed herself to be captured in photos and film.
We were upstate in Shady, New York, where her in-laws have a magical home. I had been plotting a special All Dressed Into the Woods edition for a couple of months, basically since I started this project. Yes, because I wanted an upstate invitation, but mostly because Kate is my sister-in-law and one of the people I most love.
Mother Nature bestowed a beautiful early spring day for our outing, which seems fitting because the one thing that has most helped Kate get through this plague year is taking walks in nature. When the shelter-in-place order started, Kate, Karla Schickele and their children Emmet and Augie moved to Shady. The Wi-Fi was spotty, computer classes sucked, and everyone missed their friends, but outside the flowers were starting to bloom and the mushrooms were popping up after the rain.
Kate described those early weeks of Covid: “I remember my first walk, holding on to a tree, and thinking, oh shit, now I’ve done it, who knows who might have just been here, gripping this tree.” This was at a point when the woods were eerily empty, but her words recalled for me those first months of the pandemic when fear and uncertainty reigned, and we didn’t yet understand anything about how the virus spread. Tangential early Covid memory: For the first seven weeks of the pandemic I wiped down all of the public spaces in my apartment building and, in fact, jammed all my neighbors’ mailboxes because in my zeal I had sprayed the metal locks with undiluted Clorox. Soon after, we learned that surface transmission is very unlikely.
Kate later reached out to me with an addendum about that moment in the woods that I think is quite beautiful and resonant. Her worry was not just about possible infection from a tree, but a more unsettling thought, one that goes to the core of our way of being in the world. "In the woods last spring, breathing in the smells, seeing the new growth, I felt I was learning to be in this new environment. Reaching out to feel the bark of a tree to suddenly think, so darkly, and too late, that perhaps that was a very dangerous thing to do was a terrible feeling. Maybe my way in the world was all wrong; maybe I should think first of what might be dangerous or even deadly, rather than wondering what it feels like to touch?"
This new revelation about touch would be particularly unsettling for Kate, who loves physical activity of all kinds: walking, foraging for mushrooms, throwing a football. (She is a crushing yet delightful tennis partner, though I have many competitors who vie for a spot on her South Oxford tennis-court dance card.) But being in nature daily and watching the changes slowly taking place all around brought a new awareness, a poignancy to this strange and intense time. She watched the hummingbirds outside the kitchen window, cared for her mother-in-law’s garden, and noted the differing habits of, say, Hen of the Woods versus Oyster mushrooms. From Kate I learnt a new and beautiful word: saprophytic, or a mushroom or plant that thrives on dead or decaying matter. Betcha, some of your favorite mushrooms are saprophytic – morels, shiitake, cremini, white buttons, as well as young puffballs, of which I’ve included a slow-mo pic above. You’re welcome.
At the end of her gardening or nature excursions, Kate shared the most whimsical photos, intimate portraits of the vegetation around her, with commentary which was perhaps more revelatory about her own internal state than that of the plant.
From Instagram (as pictured above): A twisted cucumber with its stem twined around its body in a suffocating embrace: Oh, cucumber, why do you do this to yourself?! A tender shot of carrot leaves with aborted root: The answer to the burning question about when to harvest the carrots: Not yet. Or beneath a shot of the brilliant yellow blossom of a squash: Taking a moment to appreciate this baby delicata who doesn’t seem worried about the fast approaching end of summer. Or anything else. Then again would I even recognize the signs of worry? Maybe it’s freaking out on the inside. Maybe I’m projecting. Let me start again at the beginning to take a moment to appreciate this delicata.
Kate even became the center of a fiery drama on the Facebook page of the Mycological Society when she posted a photograph of a mushroom that was clearly not a Shiitake with the query: Could these be Shiitake? Apparently, you don’t want to ask such an obvious question of the mycologically obsessed. The extended comments went from a simple maligning of Kate’s character to cross-cultural squabbling related to the propriety of responding to Kate’s question in English, Ukrainian or Spanish.
I met Kate even before I met my husband, her lovable brother Matthew Milford. I remember when I was first getting to know her, going to an exhibition of her photographs which documented her and a friend’s road trip from New York to Uncertain, Texas, a town of about 150 where, according to Wikipedia, several scenes from Curse of the Swamp Creature were filmed. I loved the way she portrayed the people she met and the environments in which she travelled. Kate is a born traveler and has the quality I most admire – an openness to people and situations that she has never encountered. A trip of hers to Nepal plays infamously in Matthew’s first asking me out. We met on the street, he asked me for coffee, and he assured me he had my phone number, which he did not. He counted on Kate having it when she was trekking somewhere in the Himalayas. Matt looked me up in the phone book and invited another Amy Stein to the film Night of the Hunter, but that may be the subject of another All Dressed story.
For our outing, Kate selected a mélange of textures and pattern. First, the fabulous skirt with a photographic print of a fierce lion and rams head with horns purchased at the Fulton Street mall. A faux-furry vest in keeping with the nature-animal theme. An ivory silky shirt because ivory silky shirts add class. An iridescent green-glass necklace that glittered in the sunlight. Plus, fuchsia stockings with the perfect footwear: The silver heels she wore to my and Matt’s wedding twenty-five years ago. What could be better for a jaunt in the woods?
And get this, though we did not plan or even discuss our outfits, Kate and I were totally in sync!! I too had worn a light-colored top and paired it with a nature-themed photographically-printed skirt, and this skirt was the very item I had worn to her wedding! Great minds think alike. Or perhaps warped minds do?
For this very special Birthday-Into the Woods All Dressed feature we created a short companion film titled Fifi La Champignon Moves into the Neighborhood! Watch sweet but naïve Fifi (played by Kate) move to a new home and discover a macabre cast of characters living near her.
Plus, some teaser Fifi La Champignon photos!
Vive la Kate! Kate is woman, hear her roar!