In March 2013, photographer Yan Wang Preston first observed “Frank,” a 300-year-old ficus tree. It was flourishing in the small Chinese village of Xialiu, which was soon to be flooded by one of the Yangtze River dams. The tree, and everything else in the village, had to be relocated. By the time Preston returned that June, Xialiu was destroyed, and Frank and three other old trees had been sold off for RMB 100,000 (about $14,000). Frank’s branches were lopped off and the 70-ton tree was moved to a five-star hotel being constructed in the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture.
“It broke two cranes before finally getting uprooted from its home of 300 years,” Preston writes in her new monograph Forest. “It was so big that it could not be transported around city street corners. The local police had to coordinate the move.” By November 2017, the hotel had a foundation, yet Frank was gone. “It had died two years before,” Preston recalls. “Only the mound of red soil that it once stood in remained.”
Forest, out now from Hatje Cantz, is a photographic chronicle of the migration of China’s mature trees. Preston, who grew up in China but is now based in the UK, first noticed this arboreal movement while working on Mother River, a longterm photography project that follows the entirety of the Yangtze River. As the rural villages they’ve shaded for centuries are obliterated for development, the trees are in demand as greenery in the increasingly dense cities. With the construction of new urban spaces, the transplanting of trees is a big business, as parks and foliage raise the property values of developments.
Preston spent several years documenting the stages of this tree relocation, including surreal rows of uprooted trees — their severed branches bandaged like wounds — and their new homes amid the glass and concrete. Although the violence of this ecological disturbance is visceral in the scenes of plastic-draped skeletal trees, there is a love for them in their new homes. Ginkgo trees in Chongqing’s Forest City have their trunks regally wrapped in gold fabric to express their importance. However, the plastic yellow leaves decorating their bare branches show that they have yet to establish themselves in this new environment.
Forest is organized by location, with Preston capturing a displaced tree propped up with metal poles in Chongqing’s Guanyinqiao shopping district, and a huge arbor in University City. Within its roots is a segment of an old wall, a relic of some village left behind. In the Yunlang Quarry Ecology Recovery Project, trees are planted in an attempt to restore the scraped surface of the industrial site, with stretches of green netting covering places where grass cannot grow. There is an environmental brutality in these images, but following photographs also show people in cities enjoying the trees’ shade, or stringing up hammocks between their trunks. The trees could have just been cut down; instead a great effort was made to bring them here.
Preston treats these trees like individuals, in turn drawing a connection to the human movement of millions into these cities, people who are similarly uprooted from their longtime homes. “In this migratory process, trees and people experience the same trauma of leaving a familiar land and a familiar life more in tune with nature,” writes Zelda Cheatle in a book essay. “But new life does provide new opportunities. Like the rural dwellers that migrated to the city, some of the transplanted trees do adapt and grow.”