These Ancient Trees Have Stories to Tell

Photographer Beth Moon traveled the world in search of centuries-old trees.

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The great western red cedar of Gelli Aur, Thuja plicata, in Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire, Wales The arboretum at Gelli Aur (Golden Grove) is home to an impressive selection of mature specimen trees, but none so magnificent as the multitrunked western red cedar, thought to have been planted in 1863.

Over three trillion trees live on planet Earth, and yet we know so few of their stories. Of course all trees play an important role—purifying the air, hosting the feathered and the furry, teaching kids (and kids at heart) how to climb—but some have spent more time doing these things than others. Quiver trees, for example, can live up to 300 years, oaks can live a thousand years, and bristlecone pines and yews can survive for millennia.

In 1999, photographer Beth Moon took it upon herself to begin documenting some of these more seasoned trees. Specifically, she sought out aged subjects that were “unique in their exceptional size, heredity, or folklore.” And it was a quest. “So many of our old trees have been cut down,” she says, “that without a concerted effort you are not likely to run across one.”

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She found some of her subjects through research and discovered others through tips from friends and enthusiastic travelers. Beginning in Great Britain, she eventually trekked across the United States, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia to connect with oaks named after queens and baobabs shaped like teapots.

“Sometimes the journey is half the fun,” says Moon, citing a tree in Madagascar that was particularly hard to find. “It was so big, you would think it would be easy to spot. In the end, the local chief came to our aid. He rode with us, giving directions to the tree. The people of the village were so intrigued they followed along behind the jeep and sat in the field watching as I photographed.”

Part of what intrigues her about these trees, which are older than many of our most established institutions, is what makes them last. “I am always amazed at the way trees have the ability to endure and adapt to severe conditions. Some ancient trees hollow out as they age as a survival technique. The tree will send an aerial root down the center of the trunk, which will continue to grow from the inside out.” In her book Ancient Trees: Portraits of Time, she explains that these ancient individuals “contain superior genes that have enabled them to survive through the ages, resistant to disease and other uncertainties.”

That same endurance is reflected in her photographs, which she takes with a Pentax medium-format film camera. She imprints her negatives on heavy cotton watercolor paper coated with a tincture of platinum and palladium metals. This process actually embeds the image into the fibers of the paper, resulting in a picture that will stand the test of time, without fear of fading.

Many of the real trees represented, however, face hard times ahead. “Quiver trees are dying from lack of water in Namibia. Dragon’s blood trees are in decline and on the endangered list, and three species of baobab trees are currently listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List,” says Moon. “The disappearance of old-growth forests may be one of the most serious environmental issues today.”

Moon fondly reflects on her childhood, recalling a favorite oak with a comfortable nook where she spent many afternoons. “I have always felt a connection to trees on a deeper level,” she says. Not much has changed. While working on this project, “I was able to camp under [many of] the trees I photographed. Sleeping in the frankincense forest on the island of Socotra, or in the salt pans of the Kalahari under giant baobab trees in Botswana, was an unforgettable experience. I have never felt more vibrant and alive.”

She hopes sharing her wonder will begin a conversation about the conservation of these arboreal treasures. It’s the part of the artist, she feels, to channel her passion into art, spurring dialogue, action, and awe.

See more of Beth Moon’s work on her website.