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In Search of the Elders and Betters: Honoring Our Oldest Trees with Brian Kelley

From the 1600s to the present day, nearly 90% of the original forests of the continental United States have been logged. It’s impossible to calculate or even fathom how many trees that is. Rarely was any tree spared, regardless of how awe-inspiring it may have been. According to current estimates, only about seven percent of the remaining woodlands are old-growth, mostly on public lands and in Alaska. Beginning in 2017, photographer Brian Kelley began to document “champion trees,” accumulating images and data of 122 of them over two years. That’s when he began The Gathering Growth Foundation to continue his work and celebrate the majesty of these old giants.


Words & Photos by Brian Kelley

I'm Brian Kelley, and I’m a photographer/archivist based between Brooklyn and Lumberland, New York. Archiving was something I got into almost ten years ago when I was trying out different concepts for still-life photography projects. I started laying out and neatly organizing MetroCards, eventually seeing a larger picture of what I was documenting. This eventually led to my first book, NYCTA "Objects," and shortly after that, "Parks," a collection of National Park Maps and Brochures.

With a CBH of 33,' the Grandma Tree is the second thickest Douglas Fir in the U.S. and the fourth in the world.
With a CBH of 33,' the Grandma Tree is the second thickest Douglas Fir in the U.S. and the fourth in the world.

All the while, I was taking some road trips to the Northwest U.S. Olympic National Park, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, the Redwoods, and so many more. Growing up in upstate New York, you're not exposed to old-growth/giant trees. So, seeing these epic places for the first time sparked so much curiosity.

I ended up going down the Google rabbit hole to find more photos of big trees, which eventually led me American Forests Champion Tree Registrar. But, upon discovering this list of all the biggest trees in the United States, I found myself bummed that so many of these "champions" lacked proper documentation–if any. For the next few years, I acted as an ambassador to the American Forests Champion Tree archive, traveled around the country living out of a van, and documented over 100 champions.

A massive White Oak located in the Warwick Valley, NJ.
A massive White Oak located in the Warwick Valley, NJ.

Not wanting my efforts and travels to be in vain, I decided to branch out and not just focus on individual trees. This was the start of The Gathering Growth Foundation. I wanted to be able to create the most extensive visual archive of significant trees and forests in the U.S. What's "significant" about a tree can be many things. It could be historical, big, landmark, have a unique story attached to it, or just be old.

(L) One of the largest Freeman's Maples in the U.S. A Freeman's Maple is a hybrid between a Red and Silver Maple.  (Center) The Pine Plains Sycamore, the largest recorded American Sycamore in the New York and New England area. (R) The Dewey Granby Oak, a sprawling white oak located in Connecticut.
(L) One of the largest Freeman's Maples in the U.S. A Freeman's Maple is a hybrid between a Red and Silver Maple. (Center) The Pine Plains Sycamore, the largest recorded American Sycamore in the New York and New England area. (R) The Dewey Granby Oak, a sprawling white oak located in Connecticut.

The images I take act as a timestamp in a tree or forest's life. To know what they looked like on that day, month, year–to preserve their legacy. Another reason for starting the archive was to spark people's interest in trees. Showing the images of people next to these giants is a great way to get people excited. It allows the viewer to understand their size and grandeur. We're constantly looking for new trees to document, and we'll gladly take any referrals. If you're interested in getting involved in or contributing to the project, head to www.GatheringGrowth.org.

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