Trees as Timelines


I was recently out West where I saw this:

Ponderosa Pine Gazebo

Closer inspection revealed that  this structure sheltered a large chunk of tree trunk.

Ponderosa Pine

This was once the largest Ponderosa Pine tree.

The Stats

There are many of these tree-trunk-as-timelinse around the country, usually with the same historical milestones  on it.

The Timeline

There is the “Wow, that’s old” factor that first strikes when you look at these timelines, but my eye invariable heads to the bark of the trunk, and how this tree once stood vertically and reached for sky  and exhaled its waste product (oxygen) to our benefit, and now it’s a dead curiosity.


The hope is that seeing this make people experience the majesty of trees, but honestly, it depresses me as much as this photo…

The Fieldbrook Stump, left to our children.
The Fieldbrook Stump, left to our children.

What goes through your mind when you see these?


Trees as Monuments: A Quote

Trees at Sweet Briar College
Five beautiful trees on the Sweet Briar College campus.

Trees are the best monuments that a man can erect to his own memory. They speak his praises without flattery, and they are blessings to children yet unborn. ~ Lord Orrery

Thanks to​ Mary Akers for bringing this quote to my attention.​

Related post: Mr Pete’s Tree

“I must have more shots of the military!”

I’ve been editing a section of A Life’s Work that relies on some archival footage, so I’ve been searching and watching and thinking and searching and watching and cutting. A new post about archival footage coming soon, but here’s one I wrote back in 2009. Think of it as Archival Part I.

[The title of this post if from Tim Burton’s Ed Wood.]

Edward D. Wood, Junior
Edward D. Wood, Junior

I share with Ed Wood a fondness for stock footage. There, I hope, the similarities end. In fact, I don’t even like to call it stock footage. I prefer to call it “archival.”

I think it goes back to when I was in high school and my history teacher included some AV as part of a lesson on the Great Depression: “Brother Can You Spare a Dime.” Here was a voice singing about poverty and desperation, traveling over time and space, and punching me in the gut in 1978.

And that’s how I like to use archival. It’s evident in the SETI clip and the redwoods clip. That footage of redwoods being felled (from The Redwood Saga) looked a lot differently to people in 1940 when those images were first seen than it does to people now. Then it was a sign of progress: those trees were being used to build an America that was economically growing. Watching it now it seems like a mass execution. With the Soleri clip I posted I didn’t do that, not exactly. There I wanted to show Frank Lloyd Wright’s L A R G E presence; interviews you see or read with Soleri invariably begin with an introduction that includes his apprenticeship with Wright, and in Dome House you see Wright everywhere, except, as Soleri points out, in the table.  (In another Soleri section I use archival extensively to show the passing of time.)

I also have a feeling that when I’m using archival and home movies I’m working with found objects and incorporating them into a bigger canvas. I’m repurposing, in a sense, and I like that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about archival these days because I’m about to edit some new footage–the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project sections of the sample. These sections will add about eight minutes to the sample, which will bring it in at 35 minutes. It is now beginning to look more like a film than a sample.

But how to use it to advance Robert Darden and the BGMRP’s stories, and of course A Life’s Work as a whole? What footage do I choose? Where do I place it? How much? If I use gospel performance footage, what performer(s), which song(s), from when during the golden age? Big questions. Some of them have obvious answers, others don’t.

But finding answers to those questions is an exciting part of the process, and I’m grateful that I’ll have a chunk of time to examine those questions.

More on that chunk of time in the next post.

Photographer Barbara Bosworth – Interview

When I was at the MacDowell Colony in 2010, I met a fine photographer, Matthew Connors. When I told him about the people in A Life’s Work, he asked if I knew the work one of his colleagues at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Barbara Bosworth. I didn’t. But Bosworth had been to MacDowell, and her book of photographs, Trees: National Champions (MIT Press; Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, 2005) was in their library. I checked it out and was blown away by its beauty. I wished I had had this book as a reference before I shot a single tree for A Life’s Work. It only took three years, but I finally asked Connors to introduce me to Bosworth. She responded to my request for an interview enthusiastically, and agreed to share some photographs that do not appear in the book. It is my great great pleasure to share with you her words and images.

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Where did the idea for a book about trees come from?

I grew up surrounded by a forest. My “playground.” I have always loved being around trees.

I learned of the National Register of Big Trees in 1990 and immediately set out to photograph the trees on the list. After 14 years, a book felt right.

Dwarf chinkapin oak_KS_Bosworth

What’s the most difficult thing about photographing trees? The most enjoyable thing?

The most difficult aspect: getting to the trees.
The most enjoyable aspect: getting to the trees.

Chokecherry_AZ champion_Bosworth

Many of the photographs suggest the presence of people — a bike, a telephone pole, buildings, fences (there seem to be a lot of fences around champion trees), but there are very few people in them. Why?

To me, this work is as much about the American landscape as about trees. These trees are in our backyards, along our highways, next to parking lots. The human presence is important in telling the story of the American landscape. I am interested in that presence.

In addition, including recognizable human artifacts in the scene provides a sense of scale. We can read the size of the tree by its proximity to a car, or a bicycle or a fence.

Can you tell me about why you made some of the artistic choices you did (black-and-white, the use of triptych and diptych, horizontal instead of vertical orientation)?

Cucumbertree magnolia_OH champion_Bosworth

In a black-and-white photograph the world is pared down to forms in tones of grey, not distracted by that red sign or blue house or orange fence. I wanted these photographs to simply be about the tree and its environs. At times, in a color photograph, a red sign takes on greater importance than a brown tree. In these photographs, I want us to be aware of the sign, the house and the fence, but not to let the colors dictate their importance in the scene.

Plus, I like black-and-white photography’s reference to history.

I use multi-panel images as a way to show how the tree is in its surrounding landscape. It’s not just about the tree. It’s everything around it, as well.

While these photographs are of the largest tree of each species, this work, for me, has never been about size. Not all these “champions” are large. A champion Pussy willow is not the same size as a champion Red oak.

By choosing to photograph a vertical subject in a horizontal format, it keeps the emphasis on the landscape.

There are 70 plates in the book. I wonder how many photos you actually took and what the editing process was like?

The 70 images in the book are edited from several hundred. Many friends helped me with the editing and sequencing. MIT Press was wonderful to work with. Their insight and guidance was instrumental in shaping the book.

And, because the trees are ever changing, I continue to photograph these trees.

Hollyleaf buckthorn_AZ champion_Bosworth

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Barbara Bosworth is a photographer whose large-format images explore both overt and subtle relationships between humans and the rest of the natural world. Whether chronicling the efforts of hunters or bird banders or evoking the seasonal changes that transform mountains and meadows, Bosworth’s caring attention to the world around her results in images that similarly inspire viewers to look closely.

Bosworth’s work has been widely exhibited, notably in recent retrospectives at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona. Her publications include Trees: National Champions (MIT Press; Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, 2005) and Chasing the Light (Nightwood Press, 2002).

I’ve conducted  many interviews for this blog and elsewhere. See the entire list here.

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What’s A Life’s Work about? It’s a documentary about people engaged in projects they won’t see completed in their lifetimes. You can find out more on this page.

We recently ran a crowdfunding campaign and raised enough to pay an animator and license half of the archival footage the film requires. We need just a bit more to pay for licensing the other half of the archival footage, sound mixing, color correction, E&O insurance and a bunch of smaller things. When that’s done, the film is done! It’s really very VERY close!

So here’s how you can help get this film out to the world. It’s very simple: click the button…

Donate Now!

… and enter the amount you want to contribute (as little as $5, as much as $50,000) and the other specifics. That’s it. No login or registration required. Your contribution does not line my pocket; because the film is fiscally sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, all money given this way is overseen by them and is guaranteed to go toward the completion of this film. Being fiscally sponsored also means that your contribution is tax-deductible. So why not do it? The amount doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you’re helping to bring a work of art into the world. And that, I think, is really exciting!

Questions? Email me at d a v i d ( aT } b l o o d o r a n g e f i l m s {d o t] c o m[/color-box]

How to Hug a Tree: A Clip

The Best Way to Hug a Tree

I was in a patch of Michigan forest admiring a pine tree, one tree among thousands. I stopped and stared at it. “There’s something about that tree,” I said. “That tree speaks to me.” I felt a little embarrassed that I said such a New Agey thing. David Milarch then instructed me how to hug a tree.

It was like a dream, or a memory of a dream, but the video below tells me that it did in fact happen.


When Milarch started schooling me, I told Wolfgang Held he could turn off the camera , but he kept rolling. I’m so glad he did because this is one of my favorite bits. I suspect it won’t make it into the film, but I’m so glad I have it. And I’m glad I can share it with you.

The other shots: writer Jim Robbins (The Man Who Planted Trees) relaxing against a giant redwood tree in Roy’s Redwood Preserve, California (where I’m told they shot the speeder bikes scene in Return of the Jedi), David and Jared Milarch visiting some of their friends in a forest in Michigan, me among the Bristlecone Pine trees in the White Mountains of California.

Also see: Jim Robbin’s guest blog post.

Quotes: Teddy Roosevelt

A Quote from Teddy Roosevelt

I was looking through Barbara Bosworth’s stunning book of photos, Trees, when I came upon this quote in the accompanying essay by Douglas R. Nickel.

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir at Yosemite
Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir at Yosemite

There is nothing more practical in the end than the preservation of beauty, than the preservation of anything that appeals to the higher emotions in mankind.

Well said, Teddy.

Want to help out the film?

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A Quote About Trees and a Calculator

A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.
William Blake.

I’m not one for name calling, but it is certainly true that when a person like David Milarch or Jim Robbins, author of The Man Who Planted Trees, looks at a tree, they see it differently  than, say, a person who worked for the Pacific Lumber Company.

Jim Robbins (in the tree) with David Milarch.
What’s a Tree’s “Worth”?

Would you like to calculate the value of a tree planted near your home? Use the National Tree Benefit Calculator. Type in your zip code, the species of tree, and its diameter, and the calculator will tell you how much stormwater runoff that tree will intercept,  how much CO2 it will sequester, how much you will save in your summer electric bill, how much the tree will add to the real estate value, and more! It’s informative, fun, and couldn’t be easier. Give it a try!

The Man Who Planted Trees – Guest Blogger Jim Robbins

I met Jim Robbins when I followed David Milarch around a grove of Redwoods in Northern California in the fall of 2007. It was a tense shoot (you can read about it here), and Jim’s cool presence did a lot to settle my nerves. We’ve kept in touch, and when he comes to NYC, we try to catch up in person. I asked if he’d write a few words about his recent book, The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet, for the humble A Life’s Work blog. He graciously agreed. Thanks, Jim.

Screenshot of writer Jim Robbins taking a photograph at Roy’s Redwoods.

In 2007 I visited Roy’s Redwoods, a park in Marin County, California with David Milarch and David Licata. I was writing an article for the New York Times on Milarch, the founder of the Champion Tree Project, and his efforts to clone some big honking redwoods. The project was struggling, things seemed a long way from the goal of cloning the big, red trees and growing hundreds of copies. But five years later seems like an eternity. After several years of looking into the role of trees in the world I realized how precious little we know about them. Based on the few things we do know, I realized they are vital to life on the planet. In the meantime, Milarch raised millions from an angel investor to help realize his goal, and I not only wrote an article about Milarch, I wrote a book, The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet, which comes out this week.

You can order the book on Amazon. I’m reading it now (the perks of being a friend and a blogger, you get stuff early!) and I can tell you it’s worth picking up. And not just because I’m mentioned on page 90.

And if you’re eagle-eyed, you can spot the camera-totting, camera-shy Robbins in the Redwoods section below. Don’t blink or you’ll miss him.

The Giving Trees

Did you read yesterday’s New York Times Op-Ed Why Trees Matter, written by friend of A Life’s Work Jim Robbins?

That's Jim in the tree.

Well click the link and check it out. You may be surprised to learn (or re-learn) all the good things trees do for the planet and its inhabitants. I re-learned that aspirin comes to us thanks to willow trees. I knew there was a reason it was my favorite tree.

Jim ends the piece with one of my favorite quotes.

“When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago. The second-best time? Today.”

Jim Robbins’ book, The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees, and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet, will hit books stores on April 17. You can pre-order it on Amazon.