Last night, as I was browsing through Netflix, I came across a documentary called Climbing Redwood Giants made by National Geographic. This piqued my interest for two reasons: 1) I am writing a children’s fantasy novel for my Master’s Project that includes very large fictional trees, and 2) Lately, I have been obsessed with the natural beauty of Humboldt County, CA and have made it one of my “must go” places. As Biggie said, “I’m going going
back back to Cali Cali.” While the obsession was recently spurred on by watching the movie Humboldt County, my interest in redwoods stems from my childhood. On a cross-country road trip, when I was about 9 years old, my family had planned our final stop to be the Redwood National Park, but we never made it to CA because our second to last stop, the Grand Canyon, proved to be so awe-inspiring that we decided to stay there for the rest of our allotted time. At 9 years old, I had a passion for climbing trees, so the thought of one with a diameter larger than our above ground pool blew my mind. It still does, in fact.
A part of this documentary explains how photographer, Nick Nichols, created a genuine “composite image” of a full-length redwood tree–something that has never been done before, as explained in this video clip. Nichols describes how difficult it is to photograph trees in general, let alone one that stands over 300 feet tall. He hoped to create a photograph that embodies the true size of the redwood because he explains that pictures do not do it justice. In order to capture this massive tree, the team constructed a 3 camera dolly which then had to be rigged to an actual old-growth redwood giant. Nichols and his team monitored the images from a computer on the ground that was linked to the camera dolly. They produced a series of 84 shots that were compiled together to form the amazing image of the 1,500 year old redwood.
In another clip, Nichols explains, “What everybody says, is they talk about how they felt when they were in the redwoods, but you never see it in pictures. I had to capture that.” Nichols and his team discuss their three favorite shots, some of which can be viewed in this stunning and informative gallery. Nichols and a team of researchers spent 7 months over a 2 year time span working on these and other photographs of redwoods.
In the first photograph from the gallery, the team attached a mouse to the top of a camera in order to get a shot of a spotted owl flying directly at the lens. (This was after Nichols attempted to wear a camouflaged costume with a fake owl attached to the helmet in hopes that the spotted owl would swoop down and attack it. That did not pan out.) Instead, the team constructed an infrared beam in the owl’s flight path so that the camera would automatically shoot the picture at the right moment–just as the owl descended on its prey. Nichols discusses other complexities associated with this particular photograph: “We were trying to tell an editorial story, so we gotta have the trees in the background growing out of old-growth.”
I find it interesting that even in such a calculated and complex context of photography, the goal is still to tell a story. In the beginning of the semester, when I decided to focus on photography of the natural world, I didn’t understand how to discuss or analyze it in comparison to more abstract forms of visual art. I didn’t realize that photographers of the natural world still have that same innate goal of storytelling. In the case of Nichols and his team, their story attempts to capture the unique feeling of being in the redwood forest and standing next to a giant. I imagine telling this story through photography is just as difficult (if not more so) than telling it with words. However, the combination of audio, video, storytelling, history, text, and photographs (as represented in the documentary) come very close to capturing the essence of that feeling (or what I can now imagine it to be). Perhaps the reason that the documentary is so engaging is because it’s multimodal, and different parts of the film inform one another to create meaning (i.e. A segment about clear-cutting and the protests during the 90’s to stop it informs us about the importance of conserving the only redwood forest left on Earth). The documentary’s use of intertextuality makes my understanding of the Redwood National Forest that much richer. Whereas “tree-hugger” is often used as a derogatory term, I now associate with something positive, something brave. Had it not been for the “tree-huggers” who protested against clear-cutting the redwoods in the 90’s, who were pepper-sprayed in the eyes in response to their refusal to leave the last of the remaining ancients, the lumber industry would have surely demolished the remaining < 5% of a nearly indestructible species.
Here, nearly indestructible means that the redwoods thrive on their own. The older the tree gets, the more wood it continues to put on its girth. The redwoods are also one of the fastest growing trees, and they can do so in minimal sunlight. Even fire cannot destroy old-growth redwoods due to an outer layer (sometimes 1 foot thick) of protective bark that develops as they age. Aside from humans, black bears are the only other species that pose a real threat to redwoods because they often strip the bark. These trees are also extremely resilient in the dry California summers because they are able to collect moisture from the thick fogs that rise off of the Pacific Coast. Hence, the redwood crown contains an ecosystem all its own with deep patches of silt and ferns growing hundreds of feet off the ground. Until Steve Sillett (pictured below) pioneered the study of redwood crowns by actually climbing them, little was known about their vast ecosystems.