92 Ways of Looking at a Tree Up close and aboreal with photographer James Balog
Plains cottonwood Populus deltoides var. occidentalis, Boulder, Colorado
When James Balog walks through a grove of redwoods or a stand of aspen, he's not seeing the forest—he's looking at the trees. Often at one specific tree. While working on his recent book, Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest, the photographer scoured woods, fields, and suburban backyards for the country's biggest, tallest, and oldest specimens. He even spent several winters earning the trust of a handful of biologists before they deemed him "worthy" of learning the location (kept secret to protect the tree and its habitat) of the tallest living thing in the world: the 370-foot redwood Stratosphere Giant.
Other subjects were more accessible, like the cottonwood (at right) outside the Colorado home where Balog recently lived. While many trees in the book are national "champions"—the largest of each native and naturalized species in the United States—or notable for their advanced age or distinct appearance, this one simply charmed him. "It's a middling-size cottonwood at best, but it's really special to me," Balog says. "I looked at that tree every day, and it was always a marvel."
Balog discovered he wasn't alone: People would regularly approach him at photography exhibits to talk about the important trees in their lives. "This wasn't just environmentalists," the artist says. "I find that quite reassuring. Though we are living in a very technologized society, not all of our connections to nature are lost."
The author of six books, Balog is best known for his 1990 work Survivors: A New Vision of Endangered Wildlife, in which he bucked the documentary conventions of wildlife photography with his stark, stylized portraits of single animals in a studio setting. The 92 images in Tree likewise bring out individual personalities. "It's hard to relate to generalized places," he says. "I believe that people can expand from their connection to one tree to something more universal."
For Balog, that realization came not out in the woods but in front of a computer screen. To capture the biggest redwoods and sequoias, he took hundreds of photographs while rappelling a neighboring tree, then spent weeks digitally weaving the shots into large composites. As these images emerged, Balog says, he started to think about the even bigger picture: all the trees, species, and habitats that have disappeared from the continent since it was settled and industrialized. "I felt like I was taking a little step to put the lost forests of America back together again." --Jennifer Hattam
Valley oak Quercus lobata
"A great tree infuses empty space with memory and turns it into a place. This valley oak germinated long before Anglos started farming a charming isolated basin in the Northern California hills. Many no doubt could have found reason enough to cut down the tree but didn't. Its current owners, Bobby and Sheila Fetzer, members of a noted viniculture family, are enormously proud of their national champion.
"As I took the first shots, I was dangling only an arm's length from the branch visible on the top left side of the oak. The circular shape on the limb marks a hollow where a colony of bees lived. They buzzed in and out of their hive just a few feet from my face. I had two choices: Go down and try a different image—or take a deep breath, think friendly thoughts, and hope the bees were amicable. They were."
Giant sequoia Sequoiadendron giganteum
Camp Nelson, California
"Twenty-five stories above the earth,
I untangled my camera from the thicket of nylon slings around my neck and began to shoot, panning from the left of Stagg—the 242-foot sequoia a few dozen yards away from me—all the way to the right. Then I rappelled 15 feet and repeated the process, descending in measured increments so that no twig went unrecorded. At times, the rope I was hanging from spun me in circles. The rain thickened. Icy moisture soaked me to the skin. When my boot soles touched the ground after nearly four hours, my legs were numb. For a few minutes, I couldn't stand properly.
"Back in the studio a week later, I digitally rebuilt Stagg from the 451 frames I'd captured in the air. Stitching together a reasonable semblance of the arboreal tapestry required two weeks; perfecting it took four more. Watching the sequoia emerge was a revelation because as I climbed and rappelled through the forest, I could see only fragments; the rest was obscured by foliage. I had never actually seen the tree whole."
American beech Fagus grandifolia
Waynesville, North Carolina
"This beech was surrounded by some of the most abject squalor I have seen in an economically developed country. Rusted appliances, scrap metal, and the rotting carcasses of long-dead cars were thrown in chaotic heaps. A dozen bloated hogs lived in a miserable pen next to a vile lagoon that held their effluent. The odor was unspeakable.
"Paradoxically, an unpleasant situation led to a satisfying picture. The hogs, it seems, had been rooting around the beech, eroding the soil and exposing its subterranean plumbing—an extremely rare glimpse at the hidden underworld of a living tree."
Intermountain bristlecone pine Pinus aristata var. longaeva
White Mountains, California
"Bristlecone pines are well-known for their longevity under harsh conditions. To protect these trees from souvenir hunters, I did not identify them specifically, as encounters with humans can be disastrous.
"In 1964, a graduate student named Donald Currey was studying ancient glaciation cycles on Nevada's Wheeler Peak by surveying bristlecone pines. He and a friend chainsawed a tree and hauled a cross section back to a motel room to count its rings.
"Nearly four decades later, on a quiet night in Bishop, California, a retired forest geneticist named LeRoy Johnson lifted a metal box off a shelf in his garage. Inside was a piece of orange-tan wood two feet long, one foot wide, eight inches thick, and sanded as smooth as silk. Johnson reverently offered it to me in the palms of his hands. It was one of the pieces on which Currey had counted 4,844 growth rings. The scientist had killed the oldest single living organism ever known."
Live oak Quercus virginiana var. virginiana
Johns Island, South Carolina
"The Angel Oak is named not for heavenly hosts but for a family who owned this section of the Carolina coastal plain early in the 19th century. Ancient live oaks usually have hollow trunks, making precise dating futile. Educated guesses put this tree's age at around 1,400 years. If so, it germinated when King Arthur and Muhammad were afoot.
"Though I don't usually indulge in romantic, druidic speculation about trees, when I'm in the presence of this oak, I can't help wonder who is the observer and who is the observed. While we watch trees, do they gaze back at us?"
Captions adapted from Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest, by James Balog.