May 2017

Baobabs and Flame Trees

The Existential Photographs of Beth Moon

By Eric Ellman, Yale Climate & Energy Institute

Eric Ellman is an environmental scientist and features writer for AR3.

This mind-bendingly beautiful image is courtesy of Beth Moon, whose third collection of photography was published in November.  Ancient Trees: Portraits of Time documents her 14-year study of some of the world’s oldest, largest and most singular botanical specimens. The impossibly starry background against which she frames the Mozambican baobab (which distinguishes this issue of AR3), and the Diamond Nights series from which it comes, mark an inflection point in her career, where the cosmos becomes as much a subject of her portraits as the trees themselves.

Moon’s evolving imagery follows the trajectory of science, which finds increasing links between trees and the universe around them.  The sun is not the only celestial source of a tree’s energy, her website reminds us. Distant stars shine on them every night (and throughout the day, too, although sunlight prevents us from noticing).  Is the extra radiation meaningful?  Aptly-named Moon cites a 2009 study in New Phytologist, which concludes that cosmic rays impact tree growth as much as precipitation.  Less controversial studies confirm an “internet of fungus” that allows trees to “talk” to each other.  Whatever these sentinel trees are doing, Moon’s portraits remind us they are not just standing there. Her portraits also remind us that they will not stand forever.

AR3 reached Moon in Stamford, Connecticut, on her way to California for a summer to study sequoias and bristlecone pines, species whose ages are measured in millenia. She spoke with us about her concerns for some of the world’s most unique trees in Botswana, Madagascar, Yemen … and England, the island nation where her fascination began.

While living  in London in the early 2000s, she learned that a particularly old and majestic yew – a species whose age, size and peculiar habit make it England’s version of the baobab – had come down in a storm.  Her recent photos would be the last to preserve its memory.  Struck by that significance, she found herself crisscrossing England, looking for more trees and memories to preserve.  Moon visited St Mary’s Priory, the site of a Benedictine nunnery to photograph the Ankerwycke Yew, a 2,500-year old tree that witnessed King John as he signed the Magna Carta in 1215.  The same tree may be where Henry VIII met Anne Boleyn. Before the advent of dendrochronology, historical references to particular trees helped dendrologists (those who study wooded plants and shrubs, and their taxonomies) recognize that England’s trees were older than Olde England itself.

“That they could live that long knocked me for a loop,” says Moon. “It kind of became an obsession.  The first tree I saw was just so big.  I was overcome by its size alone. And then I started research. In the 1960’s I think there were a thousand trees in England, each over a thousand years old,” says Moon.  Less than half remain, she adds.

Using England’s well-maintained registries as a guide, she spent years tracking the country’s oldest trees, and preserving their likenesses using platinum printing, a traditional technique that lends black-and-white photographs a three-dimensional quality and yew-like durability. Someone else will have to come back and confirm it, but platinum prints should preserve their quality for thousands of years.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, and the Fox Talbot Museum in Wiltshire, England were displaying her black-and-white images in 2006 when she started traveling to Africa and Arabia, places where the paucity of electrification translates into skies that are free of light-pollution.  Apart from Antarctica and over the ocean, those regions offer the world’s best star-gazing.  “I don’t think I was prepared to see it laid out so starkly above me, the Milky Way stretching from one end of the horizon to the other.”

Without popular history and tree registries to lead her, Moon hired guides to take her through the bush.  Travelling the better part of a day without seeing anyone else, and camping for up to two days on arrival, she walked around quiver trees and inside giant hollowed out baobabs.

“It’s like a maze inside,” she says, “like a cave. Bats hanging from the walls of different rooms.”  Indeed, rooms inside of some of South Africa’s largest baobabs served as hiding places for ANC rebels, she says.  And though she never encountered rebels, nor big cats inside of a baobab, she had close encounters with elephants outside.

A greater challenge was capturing the experience on film.  Moon shot at night, illuminating her subjects with reflections from lanterns, using digital media with high ISO’s and 30-second exposures to capture the stars.  Such long exposure “stacks up” the light on camera sensors that have higher dynamic ranges of nocturnal vision than people do.  The finished prints grab you by the pupils.  It is as if your mind’s eye is dilated, conveying in a moment what the trees perpetually bathe in.  Back home, she found, counter-intuitively, that color printing best captured her night-time images and the feeling of those first “celestial safaris.”

On Yemen’s Socotra Archipelago she photographed coral-like Dragons Blood trees, whose sap has served medicinal needs for generations of islanders, and whose dye has added luster to violins since the 18th century.  The trees’ habitat is drying up, however, with predictable effect.  “I didn’t see many saplings,” she said.

Moon photographed Botswana’s oldest baobab on Kubu Island, a relic of former Lake Makgadikgadi, in what is now the Kalahari Desert, a place which – like much of Africa – is still drying up.  “Chapman’s Baobab, the third largest tree in Africa, simply fell over recently,” she notes. If Beth did not consciously set out to preserve memories of Earth’s greatest tree specimens before climate change could finish them off, she may be doing it anyway.

Beyond making you feel what it is like to stand alone under African skies, and better understand the interwoven nature of things, she hopes to further efforts to protect the subjects of her photos. The Starry Night series, beyond preserving the memories of Africa’s great baobabs, quiver trees and others, conserves an experience that is part of antiquity, the blinding pincushion effect of a light-pollution free sky.  For AR3, a magazine that is acutely aware of the speed at which rural Africans gain access to electricity, her work captures the ephemeral nature of the continent at the turn of the 21st century.