• U.S.

A Tree Hugger’s Delight

3 minute read
Andrea Dorfman

British historian Thomas Pakenham is best known for his books about colonial Africa, but his real passion is trees. Huge trees. Majestic trees. Misshapen trees. Historic trees. Trees, as he puts it, with “noble brows and strong personalities” that are impossible to ignore.

Pakenham, 69, a self-taught photographer, has already parlayed his arboreal love affair into a best-selling collection of portraits of 60 remarkable British and Irish trees. On the strength of that book’s unexpected success (and the bbc series that grew from it), he has spent the past four years roaming five continents, 30 lbs. of camera equipment in tow, in search of the world’s most fascinating trees. The result of his quest, a stunning volume titled Remarkable Trees of the World (W.W. Norton; 192 pages), arrives in bookstores this week.

Although Pakenham did research for his book at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, he cheerfully admits that the final selections were completely arbitrary. The only place he knew in advance would be on hislist was the Daliesque “Avenue of the Baobabs” near Morondava, Madagascar. In some cases, he showed photos of trees to people at airport check-in counters and let them tell him where to find even better ones. In others, he relied on what he calls the “Wow! factor.” “My wife is by no means addicted to trees,” Pakenham explains. “So if we walked by a tree and she became oddly silent and then said in a very small voice, ‘Wow!’, I knew it was a candidate for the book.” Like Ansel Adams, whose meticulous photographic technique was his model, Pakenham often had to wait days for just the right light to appear. “I take portraits of trees, not landscapes,” he says. “I try to reduce all the complexities of a tree’s personality into two dimensions.”

Pakenham’s obsession dates to his childhood in Oxford, where he kept watch for German parachutists during World War II from a perch in his favorite horse chestnut. But he didn’t take trees seriously until 1961, when he inherited an estate–Tullynally Castle in Ireland–that encompasses several hundred acres of stately 200-year-old oaks and beeches. (Pakenham could have been the eighth Earl of Longford, but he doesn’t use the title. His father was a famous politician; his mother is the biographer Elizabeth Longford; the writer Antonia Fraser is his sister.)

In his book, Pakenham skims over the botanical minutiae and delights instead in the history and folklore that grow like thick vines around his chosen trees. For him trees are best classified by personality type: gods and goddesses, grizzlies, dwarfs, aliens and ghosts. Some are already famous, such as California’s brutish General Sherman sequoia, the largest living thing, or the 2,200-year-old Sri Lankan bo tree that was reputedly grown from a cutting of the tree under which Buddha found enlightenment. Others are less well known: the Montezuma cypress in Tule, Mexico, 140 ft. high and 190 ft. in girth, which “wraps itself around you with its huge, bare brown arms”; the troll-like red tingle in a forest in Western Australia that resembles something out of Tolkien; and the Bavarian “dancing lime,” whose pruned and propped-up bottom branches can support an orchestra. “The message is subtle,” he says. “We all love trees, but we shouldn’t take them for granted.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com