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Adventures of a big-tree photographer.


The rewards of this unique pastime are measured in far more than memorable images. had arrived too late for photography that evening, but I couldn't resist getting a glimpse of my first national champion tree. Stepping out of my car, I was suddenly immersed in the earthy smells and cautious sounds of the forest. A flashlight seemed obtrusive, so I left it behind and walked down the path in darkness. As my eyes adjusted, the treetops revealed themselves as inky black silhouettes set against the Milky Way. Then I saw something that looked, well, wrong. It looked like nothing-as in the absence of everything, including light. The emptiness before me was impossibly wide, like a giant tear in the fabric of space. Certainly, the word "tree" did not come to mind. The theme song from The Twilight Zone did.

I circled the unnerving object to see if it was several overlapping trees, but no break in the darkness appeared. Prevented by a fence from touching it, I tried to imagine the black void filled with solid wood, but it was easier to believe in the Twilight Zone.

The next morning, when I returned with my camera, I still had trouble applying my concept of a tree to what the sun now revealed was indeed the General Sherman sequoia. But then, the General Sherman, like other national champions, is no ordinary tree.

After several days of photographing General Sherman and other sequoias, I wondered how impressed I would be when I went to photograph other champion trees. When you've seen one champion, especially the champion of champions, have you seen them all?

The next champion tree on my list was a species I have known intimately since early childhood. Back then, all trees fell into one of three types: those I could climb, those I couldn't, and those called black walnuts. Each September my hands would be stained brown from gathering the big This western juniper in Stanislaus National Forest, California, is one of the 40 national champs the author has captured coast to coast. walnuts that, unhulled, went for about two cents a pound. My baseball-card collection grew as I discovered the locations of the biggest walnut trees.

Years later, when I headed up to northern California to photograph the king of black walnuts, I expected to find something comparable to the big trees of my enterprising youth. I could make a comparison, all right, but it required a factor of about four. No telling how many Mickey Mantles I could have had if that tree had been in my backyard. The champ had limbs bigger than any walnut tree I'd ever seen. The crown, which dwarfed a nearby barn, could shade nearly one-third of a football field. If you've seen one champion, I realized, then you've seen only one champion.

Since then, as an ongoing project, I've visited and photographed some 40 national champion trees from Connecticut to California, from the 1,300point General Sherman down to the 45- point California hoptree. I've never been disappointed. Each encounter is unique in its aesthetic rewards and photographic challenges.

Sometimes the biggest challenge is to find the subject. Not every national champion tree is the center of attraction in a well-known park with signs pointing that-a-way.' A number of champs have their vital statistics engraved on their own little plaque of wood, metal, or even stone, but most stand off the beaten path, unmarked and generally unrecognized.

My directions to find the biggest California-laurel in the Siskiyou Mountains of Oregon seemed simple enough: Go a quarter mile east on Road 3533 and park, then walk uphill about 100 yards to the tree. Right. I headed into the woods with tripod and camera gear, planning to be set up in five minutes. Wrong. The terrain had more in common with cliffs than hills. I counted my paces, guessing about one step back for every three forward on parts of the steep, unstable slope. After perhaps 200 yards, I figured I'd missed the tree, but was I too far east or too far west? At what level should I traverse? Two hours later, feeling like a rat in a maze, I finally stumbled upon an hourglass-shaped California-laurel with a hollow center roomy enough for a small party.

My confidence in you-can't-miss-it directions took another blow last winter on my quest for the co-champion Sierra lodgepole pine. "It's easy to find, " a ranger with the San Bernardino National Forest told me, "because there's a sign right next to it." After an uphill, five-mile ski, I arrived at the designated "X" on my map and found a big lodgepole pine. But there was no "This Is It" sign. I used the sun's last rays to photograph it just in case the sign was missing for some reason. Had I never heard of the sign, I would have had little doubt.

It wasn't until I was about halfway back to the roadhead, after a small accident, that I figured out what had happened. The moon slipped behind a cloud, causing a slight but critical navigation error that left me planted, headfirst, in the deep, sugary powder off-trail. After floundering a bit, I pushed down on my ski poles and was surprised at how deep the snow was. Suddenly, I knew that I had photographed the right tree, or at least all but the bottom four or five feet of it; the sign, along with the base of the champion Sierra lodgepole pine, had simply been covered by snow.

As I near an area where a champion tree grows, my thoughts usually run something like this: "Hmmm, that's a big one. I wonder if

...But this one looks about as big

...Gosh, how am I-oh, there it is!" Sign or no sign, most champions need no introduction.

Sometimes, though, the directions to find a big tree are a bit too sketchy. I never did find the champion Pacific rhododendron or the wavyleaf silktassel. And on a few sad occasions, my search was ended when I learned of a champion's demise: the coast live oak downed by a storm, the California sycamore washed away in a flood.

But more often than not, my searches have ended with success. As I honed my photographic techniques for champion trees and my approach became more second nature, I began to observe and learn more about these regal subjects. Though I have long studied the natural history of trees, until this project I had never watched a tree.

Among naturalists and nature lovers there are birdwatchers, butterfly watchers, and tree huggers, but I've never heard of a tree watcher. Most of the time trees don't seem to do anything to watch. Impressive as General Sherman is-being the largest living thing on earth-most visitors walk up to it, say "Wow!" and snap some pictures, then leave. With their inert, aloof silence, trees are too passive to hold our attention for very long. They just stand there.

Photographing champion trees, by slowing me down and focusing my attention on one tree for several hours, has forced me to see them as dynamic, interactive organisms rather than as just part of the scenery. I imagine a tree's life as a movie and then speed up the film. Suddenly, the invisible process of water flow from tiny root hairs to treetop leaves becomes a fountain. The tree pulses with flowers and leaves in the spring while drawing nutrients from the soil and the leaf litter of previous autumns like a sponge. It gives nectar to insects in exchange for pollination; food and shelter to other animals for dispersing its seeds; and countless other benefits to plants, wildlife, and humans for nothing at all.

After observing many champion trees, I began to realize that my previous concept of tree growth was abbreviated. Yes, trees sprout, grow to reach the light, and mature. But then they get big. Upward growth is just the preamble to real growth. For a while, all champion trees looked "wrong" like General Sherman did on that first encounter. But they only seemed that way because I was born at the wrong time to see much in the way of a normal mature forest. Most national champion trees are not oddities. They are just surviving specimens of what was common when old-growth was a significant part of our forests.

This was made poignantly clear to me when I visited the champion eastern hemlock. It is located on the edge of West Virginia's Cathedral State Park in one of the few remaining stands of virgin eastern deciduous forest. It was wonderful to find a champion tree in association with old-growth but sobering to see that the park's map was scaled in feet.

I found another reminder of the old days in an Oregon backyard. The champion American chestnut escaped the chestnut blight because of its isolation nearly 2,000 miles from its native range. Majestic chestnuts like the five-foot-diameter champion once so dominated central Appalachian forests that for every four trees encountered, chances were that one was a chestnut. Now they persist only as stump sprouts that succumb to the Asian fungus before reaching the canopy.

I was born too late to know a chestnut forest or anything more than tiny fragments of old-growth. So I find consolation in our champion trees. They have strengthened my resolve to help protect wild things and places. In a world of fast changes, Big Trees herald the values of patience and persistence, qualities I keep in mind as I scan the list of champions I've yet to see and photograph. I've got only about 800 more to go.

As a nature photographer, I'm used to chasing elusive quarry, searching for that rare combination of an exceptional subject, elegant composition, and beautiful light. With champion trees, the subject is already chosen and the scene is set. The challenge lies in having to work with that specific tree. Here are some tips to put the champions you visit in their best light.

Conveniently, trees don't go anywhere, so take time to scout all possible angles. Besides circling the tree to choose its best side, search the area for relevant or aesthetic foreground subjects such as a branch of a similar tree. Take care to crop out possible distractions like telephone poles, but take advantage of elements that enhance the scene like barns or, in a forest, saplings of the same species. Include people or some recognizable object if your goal is to convey an accurate sense of the tree's size.

For a more eye-catching photograph, choose views that most people would never see. Try shooting from ground level, use a woodpecker's perspective looking up the trunk, or, when it can be done safely, climb the tree or one nearby to get an aerial view. I've climbed three champions with horizontal limbs big enough to set my tripod on ! If your champion is in the open, early morning or late afternoon light will add that warm glow. In a forest, the soft light of an overcast sky will reduce the contrast and prevent heavy shadows or overly bright sunlit spots from obscuring the form and detail of the tree.

If you want to include the entire tree in the frame, any lens will do, provided you have sufficient room to move back as needed. But in the forest or any other tight situation, a wide-angle lens will be indispensable. Wide-angle lenses are also helpful when you want to emphasize the foreground while retaining sharp focus throughout the scene.

Though certainly impressive, champion trees aren't necessarily the most picturesque trees. To give your images that extra touch, "dress" your subjects by timing your visit to coincide with the spring bloom, fall colors, or a fresh winter snow. -WHIT BRONAUGH
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Forests
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Bronaugh, Whit
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1992
Previous Article:A stand at the woodpile.
Next Article:Thank you, Mrs. Sharpe.

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