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These Ancient Trees Have Stories to Tell

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.

Picture of western red cedar, Thuja plicata, in Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire, Wales
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.

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.”

Picture of desert rose, Adenium obesum, in Socotra, Yemen
Desert rose, Adenium obesum, in Socotra, Yemen
Socotra’s ”bottle trees,” are among the most astonishing sights in the alienlike landscape. Leathery and bulbous, they look somewhat like small baobabs, with inflated trunks and huge tuberous roots that apparently requite little soil, as they sink into the bare rock. Their blossoms have earned them their more poetic name: desert rose.

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.

Majesty, English oak, Quercus robur, in Nonington, Kent, England One of the largest maiden, or unpruned, oaks in all of Europe grows on a private estate in Kent. Thought to be more than four hundred years old, this aristocratic tree boasts a girth of more than forty feet. At one point, a large branch broke off the north side of the tree, leaving a hole that reveals the cavernous space of the hollow trunk.
Majesty, English oak, Quercus robur, in Nonington, Kent, England
One of the largest maiden, or unpruned, oaks in all of Europe grows on a private estate in Kent. Thought to be more than 400 years old, this aristocratic tree boasts a girth of more than 40 feet. At one point, a large branch broke off the north side of the tree, leaving a hole that reveals the cavernous space of the hollow trunk.

“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.”

Avenue of the Baobabs, Adansonia grandidieri, in Morondava, Madagascar
Avenue of the Baobabs, Adansonia grandidieri, in Morondava, Madagascar
These baobabs, which rise to heights of nearly a hundred feet, are found only on the island of Madagascar, where they’re known as renala, Malagasy for “mother of the forest.” The trees in this grove are approximately 800 years old. Sadly, these 20-some baobabs are the only survivors of what was once a dense tropical forest. In 2007, the avenue was granted temporary protected status.

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.”

The Crowhurst Yew, Taxus baccata, in Surrey, England Among the tombstones of a churchyard in Crowhurst stands an ancient yew with a girth of 31 feet. The tree is estimated to be more than 1,500 years old. When the villagers hollowed out the trunk in 1820, they found a cannonball embedded there, a relic of the English Civil War. The farm across from the church may have been the intended target because of its owner’s staunch Royalist beliefs.
The Crowhurst Yew, Taxus baccata, in Surrey, England
Among the tombstones of a churchyard in Crowhurst stands an ancient yew with a girth of 31 feet. The tree is estimated to be more than 1,500 years old. When the villagers hollowed out the trunk in 1820, they found a cannonball embedded there, a relic of the English Civil War. The farm across from the church may have been the intended target because of its owner’s staunch Royalist beliefs.

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.

Picture of a kapok tree, Ceiba pentandra, in Palm Beach, Florida
Kapok tree, Ceiba pentandra, in Palm Beach, Florida
“Kapoks of this size usually inhabit the rain forest, but I found this one on a private estate in Florida. “I first saw a picture of it in a book from the 1940s, with a caption locating it in Palm Beach. Comparing the current tree with that old photo, I could see that the trunk had filled out tremendously in 60 years; the roots now rise more than 12 feet above the ground.” (The bench on the left provides a sense of scale.)

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.”

Picture of the Ifaty Teapot, Adansonia za, in Toliara, Madagascar
The Ifaty Teapot, Adansonia za, in Toliara, Madagascar
Growing on a small preserve in Ifaty, on the west coast of Madagascar, this baobab bears an uncanny resemblance to a teapot, which is what the locals have nicknamed it. Thought to be 1,200 years old, the Iftay Teapot’s trunk is approximately 45 feet in circumference and has the ability to store more than 31,000 gallons of water.

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.”

Quiver Tree, Aloe dichotoma, ub Keetmanshoop, Namibia. The Quiver Tree Forest in southern Namibia is home to a spectacular collection of some of Earth’s most unusual trees, some of which are three centuries old. Strictly speaking, they are actually succulent aloe plants that can grow up to 33 feet high. The Bushman and Hottentot tribes use the hollow branches of this plant to make quivers for their arrows. The forest was made a Namibian national monument in 1995.
Quiver tree, Aloe dichotoma, Keetmanshoop, Namibia.
The Quiver Tree Forest in southern Namibia is home to a spectacular collection of some of Earth’s most unusual trees, some of which are three centuries old. Strictly speaking, they are actually succulent aloe plants that can grow up to 33 feet high. The Bushman and Hottentot tribes use the hollow branches of this plant to make quivers for their arrows. The forest was made a Namibian national monument in 1995.

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.

Rilke’s Bayon, Tetrameles nudiflora, in Ta Prohm, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia. Today, the late twelfth-century Buddhist temple of Ta Prohm stands in a semi-ruined state among forests and farmland. The structure is straddled by immense Tetrameles whose serpentine roots pry apart the ancient stones in a desperate journey to find soil. The temple provides a striking example of what the untamed tropical forest will do to even the mightiest monument when human hands are withdrawn.
Rilke’s Bayon, Tetrameles nudiflora, in Ta Prohm, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia
Today, the late 12th-century Buddhist temple of Ta Prohm stands in a semiruined state among forests and farmland. The structure is straddled by immense Tetrameles whose serpentine roots pry apart the ancient stones in a desperate journey to find soil. The temple provides a striking example of what the untamed tropical forest will do to even the mightiest monument when human hands are withdrawn.

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  1. Cool pictures. There’s an ancient tree called Methuselah in my home state of California that’s supposed to be thousands of years old. Although it’s exact location is kept secret, I’ve seen a picture of it and it is awesome!

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