I have a confession to make. I possess a profound and abiding love and respect for trees.
Occasionally I encounter trees that are so expressive I’m prompted to imagine them having personalities and histories and life stories. It’s usually the older trees — the big ones with branches like arms and hands and fingers, or bark that’s a bit like skin, or trunks-like bodies that sometimes expand a little at the base like feet. When I find a big old tree like that, if I’m alone, I rest my hand up against its bark and silently acknowledge its presence. A few times I admit to actually saying “hello” out loud!
I’m certainly no arborist or botanist or horticulturalist but over the years, as I’ve been photographing Australian trees, I’ve researched my favorites so that I can understand them better. I took up photography when I lived in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, and anyone who has been there will guess instantly that I was most fascinated by the Australian Boab tree: the Adansonia gregorii.
The Boab tree, with its canopy of short, gnarled branches with spidery tips and large seedpods in fruiting season, is distinguished by its swollen, silvery trunk and bark that shimmers in the light. It grows to about 15m in height, but then stops growing upwards while continuing to grow rounder at its base; sometimes reaching four or five meters in diameter up to an age of around 1500 years. Whereas younger trees are slender with smooth, glowing bark, older trees tend to look squat and gouty with wrinkled, pockmarked trunks.
When I was living in the Kimberley, I heard lots of names for the Boab: it was commonly referred to as the “upside down tree” (its branches look like roots), and the “Tree of Life” (it can hold water). The local Aboriginal name for it was larrkardi. Boabs are sacred to several Indigenous cultures in the Kimberley. The Boab nuts are high in Vitamin C and the leaves in iron, and Aboriginal people have traditionally used the nuts, leaves, roots, and seeds as nutritious food and for medicines. Adansonia gregorii are endemic to the northwest of Australia; they do not grow anywhere else in the world.
Having said that, there are actually nine species of the baobab tree worldwide. Most are found in Madagascar, while the rest are found on mainland Africa and the western edge of the Middle East. So the obvious question is how did the Boab get here?
Originally, the hypothesis was that all the baobabs existed on the supercontinent of Gondwana, which split up and became Africa, Madagascar, and Australia. However, in 1998, that idea was set aside when a genetic analysis of baobab species from Africa, Madagascar, and Australia was conducted and the results showed that the three major branches separated just over six million years ago, whereas Gondwana split up more than 50 million years ago. The other two theories are that baobab nuts drifted here across the ocean from Madagascar (8,845 km/5,496 miles!), or that African people took baobab nuts with them when they migrated out of Africa some 70,000 years ago, but the fascinating thing is that science has not yet been able to prove either idea, so it remains a mystery. I quite like the idea that they are holding on to their secrets.
Almost all Australian native trees are evergreens. There are only four types of deciduous trees that are native to Australia: the Boab tree, two species of Cedar, the Flame Tree, and a very special Beech tree: the Fagus (Nothofagus gunnii), which puts on a stunning autumnal display before dropping all its leaves in anticipation of cold winter weather. For many years, I have joined a small group of photographers who make an annual pilgrimage to Tasmania to witness this event, which we call the “Turning of the Fagus.”
The Australian version of the Fagus (also known as Tanglefoot for its tendency to sprawl over boulders and trip up inattentive hikers), is a short, shrubby beech tree that can grow up to 8 meters tall but is generally much shorter. It has waxy leaves that look just like little crinkle-cut chips, and it grows in alpine and sub-alpine regions in Tasmania, mainly at altitudes higher than 800 meters (2,600 ft) above sea level. The fascinating thing about Fagus trees is that they have survived for tens of millions of years, and date back to before Gondwana broke apart. Of all the former Gondwanan continents, Antarctica is the only landmass on which it does not occur, though there is an extensive fossil record there too. Forty-three species of Fagus trees grow across southern South America (Chile, Argentina) and Australasia (east and southeast Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, and New Caledonia).
The Nothofagus gunii goes unnoticed for most of the year, as its green leaves make it blend in unobtrusively with all the other alpine vegetation, but in autumn, its leaves change from green to yellow to orange to a spectacular red before finally turning brown and dropping off. As individual trees they are beautiful, but when they all change color simultaneously, the entire mountainside turns gloriously and breathtakingly gold.
We have a very special native tree where I live: the Snow Gum (Eucalyptus pauciflora). I live in a small town called Bright, at the foothills of the Victorian Alps, and every year, our local mountains are transformed by snow. Trees that can survive the heat of summertime plus the freezing winters and howling winds are few but the Snow Gum has developed clever adaptations to handle the weight of the ice that forms from the constant melting and freezing: its branches bow and bend but rarely break, and they grow recognizably gnarled and twisted trunks with pale bark that sheds in long ribbons, revealing stripes of smooth, colorful red and yellow bark underneath.
Both the Snow Gum and the Fagus are currently at risk due to our changing environment: the Fagus from unprecedented bushfires, and the Snow Gum from a warming climate, repeated bushfires and the wood-boring Phoracantha beetle which essentially ring-barks the trees and causes a slow, inexorable death.
Obviously, we have introduced trees in Australia, and one of my favorite trees to photograph in autumn is the chestnut tree. They are actually in the in the beech family, but they are native to temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. In our cool-climate region, many chestnut orchards have been planted, and in autumn you can often find me standing with my tripod on a foggy morning enjoying the still and peaceful atmosphere, interrupted only by the occasional sound of a chestnut falling to the ground.
One of the things I love about photography is that it enriches my life in so many ways. It’s not only the feeling of connectedness I get when I’m out in nature, but also the challenge of showcasing nature at its best; it’s having a tripod and camera to make me take things in more slowly and thoroughly; it’s the delight of discovery; it’s the way my “busy brain” switches off to appreciate the joy of the moment; and it’s the way my curiosity gets the better of me to go and discover more about our wonderful world.
The article is courtesy of ELEMENTS Magazine. ELEMENTS is the monthly magazine dedicated to the finest landscape photography, insightful editorials, and fluid, clean design. Inside you will find exclusive and in-depth articles and imagery by the best landscape photographers in the world such as Bruce Barnbaum, Edward Burtynsky, Michael Kenna, Erin Babnik, Chuck Kimmerle, Rachael Talibart, Charles Cramer, Hans Strand and Lynn Radeka, to name a few. Use the PETAPIXEL10 code for a 10% discount off the annual subscription.
Mieke Boynton is an Internationally-acclaimed landscape and aerial photographer. Her landscape photographs celebrate the breathtaking beauty of nature, and she has won many awards, including the Epson International Pano Awards. Mieke and her partner Matt Palmer exhibit a large selection of their fine art landscape prints in their “Alpine Light Gallery” in Bright, Australia. He can be reached via his website, Facebook, and Instagram.