Unique trees from Nat Geo’s photo archives mark amazing moments

From sequoias to cherry blossoms, the National Geographic archives record a long love affair with trees.

Published 29 Apr 2022, 14:26 BST
06 Arbor day trees
Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, a writer, photographer and editor for National Geographic in its early days, visited Japan for the first time in 1885 and was enchanted by the blooming cherry trees like this one in a public garden in Kanazawa. Returning home to Washington, D.C., she petitioned officials to plant those same trees around the Capitol. On March 27, 1912, the first of 3,000 cherry trees—gifts from the Japanese government—were planted around the Tidal Basin. When she died in 1928, her ashes were buried in Yokohama. A cherry tree descended from one given to Washington by Japan overlooks her grave. Its blossoms fall softly in spring and cover the ground with a carpet of pink.
Photograph by Eliza R. Scidmore, National Geographic Creative

Every tree tells a story. It may be a memorial to sorrow, an expression of belief, or a signpost of history. Most of all, these narratives speak to how trees nourish the earth and us. It is no stretch to say that trees exhale so that we might inhale, but they enrich us in other, more spiritual, ways. Buddha, after all, found enlightenment under a Bodhi tree in Nepal, an event echoed by John Muir’s observation that “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”

As our photographic archives reveal, for more than a century, National Geographic has used the power of the image to champion and spotlight trees, especially irreplaceable giants like the redwoods and sequoias that form the centerpiece of national and state parks in the western United States. In 1921, the National Geographic Society donated $100,000  to save what would become the Giant Forest of California’s Sequoia National Park, then imperilled by logging. The effort was spearheaded by the magazine’s first full-time editor, Gilbert H. Grosvenor. In his office he kept a photograph he took of 20 men linking their arms around the mammoth trunk of the 2,200-year-old sequoia known as General Sherman. “It’s like they were protecting it,” he said.

Prayer flags festoon a Bodhi tree at the Maya Devi Temple in Lumbini, Nepal, Buddha’s birthplace. Also known as the pipul or Bo tree, it is considered sacred because Guatama Buddha, the religion’s founder, reportedly sat under such a tree—the only place on earth, holy texts aver, that was perfectly stable—when he received enlightenment after meditating for 49 days. “Buddhists regard the Bo-tree as too sacred to be touched or robbed of a leaf,” Eliza Scidmore wrote of one of her journeys to the Far East in 1903. “Devout pilgrims kneel, fix their eyes upon it, and in a trance of prayer wait until a miraculous leaf detaches itself and flutters down.”
Photograph by Ira Block, National Geographic Creative
For the December 2012 issue of National Geographic, photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols went to Sequoia National Park in California to capture this unprecedented image of the President, a giant sequoia that is the third largest tree in the world, measured by volume of the trunk above ground. Using a rig system of ropes, Nichols and his team shot every section of the 247-foot-tall, 27-foot-wide giant. It took 32 days of work to photograph the tree and stitch together the image from 126 individual photos.
Outstretched arms of 20 men embrace the General Sherman Sequoia tree.
Photograph by Gilbert H. Grosvenor, National Geographic Creative
A portrait of the “world’s tallest tree”—a 367-foot-tall redwood—with then-editor Melville Bell Grosvenor standing beneath it, appeared on the cover of the July 1964 issue of the magazine.
Photograph by George F. Mobley, National Geographic

Grosvenor’s son and successor as editor, Melville Bell Grosvenor, would do the same for redwoods. He dispatched the Society’s senior scientist to a California forest to find the “world’s tallest tree”—a 367-foot-tall redwood. Grosvenor had the stupendous tree’s portrait made with a tiny figure (which just happened to be himself) standing beneath it. The image appeared on the cover of the July 1964 issue, and the Society donated $64,000 toward a study that helped establish Redwoods National Park in 1968.

The magazine would faithfully return to these trees, most notably in December 2009, when it published the image of a 300-foot-tall redwood in a California state park. Photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols and his crew rigged a nearby tree and incrementally lowered three remote-controlled cameras to shoot 84 top-to-bottom images of the mammoth redwood; the photos were then digitally stitched together. The six-page foldout that resulted, Ken Geiger, the picture editor on the story said at the time, “was an impossible view—the photographic equivalent of reaching Mars. You couldn’t see the tree that clearly even if you rented a helicopter.”

Nichols pulled off a similar feat for the December 2012 cover, which featured a 247-foot-high sequoia crowned with snow in Sequoia National Park.

Other less lofty, but no less memorable, trees have starred in the magazine pages or reside in its image archives. Some of the photos’ stories are poignant, such as the catalpa trees outside a Civil War hospital in Virginia, where Walt Whitman witnessed amputated arms and legs tossed out of a window, or the Callery pear “survivor tree” left standing after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre.

The knotted trunk of a catalpa tree, the "Walt Whitman Tree," on the grounds of Chatham Manor in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
After the conflagration of 9/11 reduced the 110-floor high World Trade Towers in lower Manhattan to a metal carcass; after a dark day of suffocating smoke and ash; after the horror of 2,753 dead, one living thing was pulled from the wreckage—a Callery pear tree, which became a centerpiece of the 9/11 Memorial. The tree stands as an exemplar of the botany of grief, but also, resilience.
A falling apple, said to be from this tree outside Sir Isaac Newton’s birthplace in Woolsthorpe Manor, England, allegedly hit the great physicist on the head, inspiring him to formulate the laws of gravity. The tale, written by William Stukeley, Newton’s friend and first biographer, is recorded in an 18th-century manuscript in the archives of the Royal Society in London, but Keith Moore, the Society’s librarian, wryly describes the apple story as “an 18th-century sound bite.” Was Newton a spin doctor who stretched the truth? “I think you could look at it as a core of truth,” Moore says. “He really did have an insight. But I do not think the apple went plonk on his head. It would have concussed him.”
Yoshino cherry trees along the Tidal Basin in Washington, District of Columbia.

Some are inspirational: the apple tree in a grove at Sir Isaac Newton’s childhood home in Woolsthorpe, England, that reportedly inspired his eureka moment about the laws of gravity, and the whimsical tree with serpentine branches at Christ Church College, Oxford, that was the inspiration for the favourite perch of the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

And then there are the celebratory images. In 1885, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, the Society’s first female writer, photographer, and board member, visited Japan and was enchanted by the flowering cherry trees that bordered the Tokyo’s Sumida River. After returning home, she petitioned officials in Washington, D.C., to plant trees like them. First Lady Helen Taft used her clout to get the idea off the ground—or, rather, firmly planted in it. The first of the trees (among 3,000 donated by the Japanese government) were placed around the Tidal Basin on March 27, 1912, and are today the spring glory of the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival.

Yet, the shadow of ephemerality persists. Nothing, not even a millennial-old tree, is guaranteed forever status. In 1990, photographer Sam Abell photographed a boab tree that, in the austere landscape of Western Australia, had turned white with age. When the magazine published the photo, Abell’s guide returned to the spot to re-photograph it with the page bearing the image held up in the foreground. By then only a skeletal trunk remained. After more than 900 years, the boab had been struck by lightning.

In some Aboriginal cultures, ancient boab trees are regarded as cherished entities and embody a creator figure. They supply water—captured in their spongy interior—fiber to make rope, and edible seeds. Sam Abell photographed this haunting example in 1990 while covering a story in the Kimberly region of Western Australia and it was published in the magazine the following year. In a kind of homage, he sent his guide back to the spot to re-photograph the tree with the published picture held up in the foreground. But only its trunk remained. A lightning strike had reduced the tree to a charred skeleton.
The history of the National Geographic Society is interwoven with that of tree conservation. “On a mission to save the giant sequoias I went to California in 1915,” Gilbert H. Grosvenor, the magazine’s first editor, wrote. He and a friend pitched their sleeping bags at the foot of this tremendous sequoia. His mission was fulfilled, and thanks to Society contributions, 2,239 acres of California sequoias were preserved.
Photograph by Photograph Gilbert H. Grosvenor Collection
In northern India, the neem tree is known as the healer of all ailments and an embodiment of the Hindu goddess Shitala, a mother figure. To neighborhood residents who worship this tree at the Nanghan Bir Baba Temple, in Varanasi, it is even more. “My son was born premature. The doctor told us he would surely die,” one man told David Haberman, a professor of religion at Indiana University and an expert in Hinduism. “But I prayed to this neem, and he lived.” The tree, dressed in colorful cloth, wears a face mask of the goddess to strengthen the connection between her and worshippers.
An important chapter in the story of the 1,000-year-old coastal redwood known as Luna in California’s Humboldt County is that of activist Julia Butterfly Hill. In 1997, Hill climbed the tree, which was threatened by logging operations of the Pacific Lumber Company, and stayed there for more than two years on a small, tented platform 180 feet above the ground, where she gave interviews by solar-powered phone. Finally, the logging company agreed to a conservation easement. In 2000, the tree was vandalized. A chainsaw cut left a three-foot-deep gash halfway around the tree’s circumference. Steel brackets and cables stabilize the tree, which endures.
Known as le arbol de Tule, the massive Montezuma Cypress in Oaxaca State boasts a trunk 119 feet in circumference, which supports a crown that is nearly the size of two tennis courts. In the 1990s, the Mexican government rerouted the Pan American Highway around it, and approved a grant to dig a well for the tree to compensate for a falling water table.
Photograph by Russell Hastings Millward, National Geographic Creative
On April 19, 1995, a blast planned and executed by Timothy McVeigh, a disaffected veteran, destroyed the nine-floor Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in the center of Oklahoma City, incinerating cars and claiming 168 lives. It scorched the trunk and embedded debris in an American elm growing in a nearby parking lot. Today, the “survivor tree” is a feature of the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, and provides solace to family and friends of those who died in the blast like Doris Jones, whose 26-year-old daughter Carrie, pregnant at the time, perished in the explosion. “It’s as if that tree had a will to survive,” says Mark Bays, an urban forester for the state who helped nurse it to health. “It understood, when none of us understood, that it needed to be around.”
In Greek mythology, dragon trees—Dracaena cinnabari—like these on Socotra, an archipelago off Yemen in the Arabian Sea, were supposed to have emerged from blood flowing from a slain dragon. Seventeenth-century herbals promoted its red resin as a remedy for everything from dysentery to loose teeth; it also was used as a dye and a breath freshener, as well as in rituals. Threats of global warming and overgrazing by goats have placed the tree on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List as a vulnerable species.
The search for the southernmost tree in the world led to Isla Hornos, the last scrap of land in the Tierra del Fuego. The expedition, led by Brian Buma, a forest ecologist at the University of Colorado, Denver, determined that the titleholder was Nothofagus betuloides, a 41-year-old Magellan’s beech just under two inches in diameter that stands two feet high. With a baseline established, scientists hope to monitor soil warmth and tree growth—and in an age of climate change—determine whether that southernmost edge will advance south toward Antarctica.
Bristlecone pines like this one in California are among the oldest living trees. Convinced their rings could reveal the earth’s climate history, dendrologist Edmund Schulman spent summers hunting them. In 1953, he found his patriarch in California’s White Mountains—Methusalah, a bristlecone with 4,676 rings, then, the world’s oldest. In 1964, Donald Currey, a graduate student, found bristlecones in Nevada that rivaled Shulman’s. In coring a specimen to determine its age, the drill bit broke. Currey convinced the Forest Service to cut the tree for study. Its rings numbered 4,844. The oldest tree discovered until that time had been inadvertently cut down. Methuselah still stands; its location remains a secret.

Cathy Newman, a former editor-at-large for National Geographic, writes for The EconomistNPR.com, and Anglers Journal. Follow her on Twitter @wordcat12.

 

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