Centuries-old redwoods in California are being mutilated, as poachers chainsaw off their burls to sell the rare wood on the black market. As the National Parks Service (NPS) stated in a 2014 release, the elimination of the burls can structurally weaken the tree, leaving them vulnerable to winds and floods, as well as insect infestation in their exposed heartwood. And the loss can effectively sever a tree’s centuries-long lifespan, as the burl continues growing even after a redwood falls. As NPS states: “A burl from a 2,000-year-old coast redwood can initiate growth of a new tree that can live for another 2,000 years, thus the Latin name for coast redwoods, Sequoia sempervirens, which means ‘forever living.'”
To visualize this crisis, which threatens the surviving five percent of old-growth coastal redwoods in the Northern Hemisphere, photographers Kirk Crippens and Gretchen LeMaistre journeyed into the California forests from 2013 to 2016. Their images of the damaged trees are published in Live Burls: Poaching the Redwoods, out now from Schilt Publishing.
“I had recently visited the redwoods in Humboldt County, and shortly thereafter saw a news article about redwood poaching,” Crippens told Hyperallergic. “The report featured a redwood tree cut so dramatically that the ranger standing in front of it was dwarfed by the scar. I was very struck by it, and asked Gretchen if she wanted to develop a project based on the poaching trend.”
The San Francisco-based Crippens and LeMaistre have collaborated before, including the series Ingleside Inn which involved portraits of the people in a Palm Springs hotel that feels arrested in time. For Live Burls, they connected with National Park Ranger Jeff Denny and received a permit from the Redwood National Park, which led to several rangers providing access to the trees. The photographs are simply titled “Lady Bird” or “Skunk Cabbage,” referring only vaguely to their geographic location.
“As we continued our research, we began to realize the connection between photography and the redwoods was charged with historical significance and contradiction,” LeMaistre explained. “For us, photographing the poached trees was an extension of this history. We were specifically interested in image makers of the 19th century, because for the first time in American history, photography meant that all of the treasures of Manifest Destiny were now able to be seen on a popular scale.”
To harken back to this 19th-century landscape photography, Crippens and LeMaistre employed a large-format 8 by 10 camera and shot in black and white. They were particularly inspired by Carleton Watkins, whose images of the American West contrasted its majestic beauty with its destruction through the logging industry.
“Years after he made them, Watkins’s photographs became instrumental in promoting congressional arguments to preserve land and establish our National Park system,” LeMaistre said. “This marked a very public beginning of the relationship between photography and environmental concern for the Western landscape.”
A 2014 New York Times article reported that one group of poachers cut down a whole 400-year-old tree just to get a redwood burl that was 60 feet up, and each of the Live Burls images reinforces this ongoing loss. Without the burl, the propagation of a redwood’s DNA is interrupted, and these trees that are ancient presences on the planet may eventually disappear. A quote from John Steinbeck from Travels with Charley: In Search of America precedes the photographs in Live Burls: “The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always.”