Visual proof that ancient is better

By James Balog|Friday, December 03, 2004


American beech, Fagus grandifolia, Lothian, Maryland. Designated the largest tree of its species—a national champion—it is 115 feet tall, has a trunk 23 feet in circumference, and supports 17 major limbs spreading 138 feet.

Photographing the largest, oldest, strongest trees in America—92 of them, of 47 different species—has been my obsessive quest for the better part of the last six years. I was looking for stellar individuals, often referred to as “champions,” recommended to me by arboreal aficionados or listed on the National Register of Big Trees. From Key West to the Pacific Northwest, from Maui to New England, the miles traveled became uncountable. The process was exhilarating. Great trees are sculpturally elegant. They are grounded. They transcend time. They are humbling. They are authentic. They are nature’s ultimate survivors, having escaped the ravages of weather, fire, disease, insects, and humans.

Ancient trees are also an antidote to the amnesia that spreads from generation to generation as Earth’s original tree cover is significantly altered or annihilated. In central and eastern North America, primeval, virgin woodland occupies half of 1 percent of the 350 million or so acres of deciduous forests. In the lush lowlands of the Pacific Northwest, where the biggest conifers in the world grow, the story is the same: 99.5 percent of the primeval, ancient trees are gone. In the lower 48 states, only 5 or 6 percent of forest is virgin today; most of that is in the high montane forests of the Rockies, Sierra Nevada, and Cascades.

If photographing these trees taught me anything, it is this: Age matters. Ancient forest is to regrowth as the Grand Canyon is to a freshly plowed furrow. Old forests have character, the imprint of time, biological complexity, and architectural eloquence. Regrowth doesn’t. On the ground, the difference between old forest and new is obvious to the eye. Beauty is something you can see and smell and touch and hear. It is precise, immediate, concrete. Trees mean something. Nature means something. If given a chance, photography can take us beneath the skin of what we think we know to what we really know.

An adaptation from Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest, to be published by Barnes & Noble Books.


Live oak, Quercus virginiana var. virginiana, Johns Island, South Carolina. Ancient

live oaks usually have hollow trunks, making precise dating impossible.

Educated guesses put this one’s age at around 1,400 years old. One of the

tree’s enormous limbs sprawls 90 feet from the trunk.

Engelmann spruce, Picea engelmannii, San Juan National Forest, Colorado. This 109-foot-tall spruce, one of the largest in Colorado, lives at an elevation of 10,640 feet. When the photo was taken, a storm swirling in from the Pacific had just swaddled the Rockies in 15 inches of powder. The wintry landscape reminded me that Stradivarius used spruce from the Alps to make his violins. Those spruces lived between 1645 and 1715, the coldest part of the little ice age. The frigid conditions led to slow growth and exceptionally dense wood that endowed the violins with their heavenly resonance.

American elm, Ulmus americana, Buckley, Michigan. For many years, an 87-foot-tall, 8-foot-wide elm named the Louis Vieux tree was the largest elm in the country. It grew along the Vermillion River in northeastern Kansas. In 1997 the tree was firebombed. When the police arrived, flames were shooting 25 feet into the air. The perpetrator was caught, fined, and sentenced to probation—which included planting an elm sapling. The Michigan elm stands in a field of corn grown for hog feed. It has Dutch elm disease, the beetle-borne blight first imported on timber from Europe in 1909. Many of the elm’s roots have been inadvertently cut during plowing.

Intermountain bristlecone pine, Pinus aristata var. longaeva, White Mountain, California. Ancient members of this species live in western mountain ranges at about 10,000 feet. A few are more than 4,000 years old. Methuselah, the oldest bristlecone, thrives in conditions that seem atrocious: Water is minimal to nonexistent, averaging 10 inches a year. The soil is stony; the wind and blowing snow are punishing. During drought years the tree hardly grows at all, and its annual growth rings are no thicker than a human hair. The wood is extremely dense, full of resin, and resistant to insects and disease. As bristlecone scientists like to say, adversity breeds longevity.

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