Gretchen LeMaistre

LIVE BURLS,  collaboration with Kirk Crippens

Before the aggressive logging of the19th century, redwood trees grew abundantly on the Pacific coast. Today less than five percent of old-growth redwood forest remains in the Northern Hemisphere, most living in the Redwood National and State Parks. Yet even the protected trees of the parks are subject to threat.

Redwood trees grow knobby protrusions, or burls at the base of the tree roots and on their trunks. The exquisite wood grain of these burls is prized on the black market for its rarity. In 2013, an alarming number of trees in the Redwood National and State Parks were targeted by poachers with chainsaws. One team of thieves was bold enough to fell an entire tree for its burl. Sadly, they jettisoned the 500- pound burl by the side of the road when it proved too heavy for their vehicle. Brett Silver, a supervising park ranger, compared the act to hacking up a church, echoing Theodore Roosevelt’s words in 1890-that a grove of giant redwoods is like “a great or beautiful cathedral.” Because much of propagation happens through its burls, just one poached tree can impact an entire grove ecosystem. Decades may pass before the full extent of the damage can be assessed.

We learned of the poaching incidents through the media, and contacted park rangers, who led us to the shorn trees in the forests. We wondered about the fate of the trees as we returned through many seasons to photograph them.

Redwood preservation and the history of photography in the U.S. are closely intertwined. Carleton Watkins’ photographs of Yosemite and of logging were instrumental to congressional dialogue that resulted in securing land for our National Park Service.  We chose to reference conversations begun by Watkins and other early masters by photographing these 21st century trees with an 8x10 camera in black and white format. The redwoods of today are timeless emblems of natural glory, but also of entitled consumption. They represent the dual nature of the American dream. 

Click here to view Datz Museum Of Art interview about the collaboration.