The Ancients Among Us

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Brian Kelley photographs the nation’s champion trees and the Vineyard’s wind- and salt-hewn beauties.

Photographer Brian Kelley is a tree detective. He scours the internet, searching message boards and online threads to discover the locations and histories of old trees across the country. Kelley is looking for Champion Trees — the oldest and largest of a species in the country — as well as other old trees with unique histories. While many of Kelley’s photographs feature massive old-growth trees from upstate New York and the Pacific Northwest, he has a particular love for the wind- and salt-hewn trees of Martha’s Vineyard. In 2017, his girlfriend brought him to the Island for the first time; a few years later, they got married here, and had their son on the Island. They haven’t yet been able to make the Vineyard their permanent home, but they visit friends, family, and the local forests often. “What I find awesome is the trees that are shaped by harsh conditions,” Kelley says of the unique Vineyard forests. “Whether it’s the high winds, the salt spray, or the coasts that don’t allow for super old growing conditions as far as soil quality, you get these stunted trees that are wind-grown and beautiful.” 

Whether it’s the high winds, the salt spray, or the coasts that don’t allow for super old growing conditions as far as soil quality, you get these stunted trees that are wind-grown and beautiful.

–Brian Kelley

“I fell in love with the oak tree at Peaked Hill,” he says of one of the precious Chilmark tree. “It’s one of my favorite photographs that I’ve ever taken of a tree.” He displays these photos on Gatheringgrowth.org — the website of the non-profit Kelley started in 2017 to “visually preserve the legacy of trees and forests.” Each photo lists the tree’s name, general location, age, and other details. Characteristic of all his work, and in Kelley’s Peaked Hill oak photos, is a sense of invitation: branches spiral out, inviting our gaze inward toward its prolific trunk. The tree asks to be closely examined, and Kelley brings the tree to us. We need not climb the tree nor collect its bark residue between the treads of our boots in order to feel its presence and care about it.

Early in his quest to document Vineyard trees, Kelley connected with Adam Moore, executive director of the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation and Tim Boland, the director of Polly Hill Arboretum, who shared the Island’s unique ecological history. Despite the Vineyard’s not-so-long-ago history of forest clearing on a massive scale, Kelley discovered some remarkable old and unique trees, contributing to their preservation. 

On the opposite side of the Island was another remarkable Island tree: the Japanese pagoda tree in Edgartown. On an Island blanketed by young scrub oaks, the oldest Japanese pagoda tree in the country spreads its branches over South Water Street in Edgartown. With the help of the MV Museum, Kelley learned that in 1873, Captain Thomas Milton returned home from his international sea travels, bringing with him a seedling he’d picked up in China. Upon his return, he planted the seedling — then known as a Chinese Huai tree — beside his home in Edgartown. The tree thrived and grew, despite unfamiliar soil and, later, pavement laid across its roots. In 2014, the then-owner of the Milton property proposed a renovation which included a two-story garage located near the Japanese Pagoda tree. While his plans included steps to mitigate the impact to the tree, the people of Edgartown — alerted by an article in the Vineyard Gazette — rallied to halt the building process that could put the old tree at risk. The Edgartown conservation commission heeded the public outcry and prevented the building of the garage so close to the historic pagoda.

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japanese pagoda tree with sun streaming through branches
The Japanese pagoda tree in Edgartown is the country’s oldest. – Photo by Brian Kelley

Kelley decided to document this tree and share its story. He photographed its leaves, trunk, and branches, as well as its home beside two sleek Range Rovers. He also collaborated with Ollie Becker and the MV Film Festival (now Circuit Arts) to create a short film about the tree (see it here: bit.ly/EdgPagoda). “People react to things that have names or stories,” Kelley says. “It makes people care about it more. If that [Japanese pagoda] had no significance that people knew about, people wouldn’t fight for it.”

In 1873, Captain Thomas Milton returned home from his international sea travels, bringing with him a seedling he’d picked up in China. Upon his return, he planted the seedling — then known as a Chinese Huai tree — beside his home in Edgartown. The tree thrived and grew, despite unfamiliar soil and, later, pavement laid across its roots.

Kelley wasn’t always on a mission to photograph trees in order to protect and celebrate them. Uninspired by his heavy math and science course-load in high school in the small town of Horseheads, New York, Kelley took what would become a life-changing multimedia class: “I had a great art teacher named Mrs. Malloy, and she taught us that nothing was ‘wrong.’ It was always, what did you think about to get to that point? Or what was your process here?” He fell in love with photography, which led him to the School of Visual Arts in New York City. He’d grown up skateboarding, and recalls that he “still wanted to somehow be part of the culture. So I started shooting photos [of skateboarders]. For me as a kid in photo school, that was the first time I felt like there’s something here [as a career].” Kelley managed to forge a connection with skateboarding icon and designer Keith Hufneigle, which opened the door to a successful and fast-paced career in commercial and still photography. 

When he lived in New York City, Kelley discovered the photographer Robert Frank, who traveled the country documenting the people. Inspired by Frank’s journeys, Kelley carved out a couple of months to make his own way across the country. He discovered it wasn’t the people who drew his lens, but the forests. “I ended up in the Pacific Northwest, where I was able to see big trees for the first time in my life,” he says. “That was mind-blowing. I felt really inspired.” Ablaze with curiosity and excitement, Kelley did some research and discovered American Forests, one of the oldest environmental nonprofits in the country. Founded in the 1940s, the organization created the Champion Tree program to collect archival images of the oldest and largest specimens of every tree species in the country. Kelley noticed that many of their archival photos had been snapped by hikers on cell phones, so he reached out to American Forests to propose a professional photography project. American Forests didn’t have the resources to fund the project, but Kelly was undeterred: he eventually found a private donor who supported two years of travel in a Sprinter van, during which Kelley produced some of the most startling photographs of Champion trees to date.

On his website he’s written: “I remember the moment we arrived at the Olympic National Park in Washington State; immediately I felt this sense of calmness and peace wash over me. Being in the presence of towering spruce, fir, and cedars like I’d never seen before.

“Seeing these big trees in person simply stops you in your tracks. How is this real? How old is it? Why aren’t these trees everywhere? I remember coming to a complete halt when we saw the Hall of Mosses, a small pocket of big leaf maples with moss growing all over them. Not only did I feel physically and mentally refreshed but also walked away with a new-found curiosity for trees and forests around the United States. This experience has led me to where I am now, traveling the country, and documenting old growth.

After two years of documenting trees that met the narrow criteria of “Champion” status, Kelley felt he was missing opportunities to shoot other, equally important trees. “I [decided] to start Gathering Growth Foundation as a way to make the largest archive of the oldest and largest trees in the U.S.,” he says.  And in 2019, that’s just what he did, enabling him to not only photograph the trees, but also to learn and share their stories.

Kelley visits his subjects many times throughout a day. He shoots with high quality film: “There’s a richness that comes through film, and a feeling, it’s almost unexplainable: the tones, the depth, the grain structure of film.” He also captures audio recordings of the space around the tree. And he has collaborated on multiple short films that focus on these ancient and sometimes fragile trees. By telling the trees’ stories, he inspires viewers to want to preserve them. 

Seeing these big trees in person simply stops you in your tracks. How is this real? How old is it? Why aren’t these trees everywhere?

–Brian Kelley

When Kelley shares his work, he observes that viewers’ “primary fascination tends to revolve around the age of the trees. It’s often the first thing they inquire about. I’ve had the privilege of photographing trees as young as 50 years old and as ancient as 4,000 years old. There’s something special about sharing this kind of information, like revealing that a tree began its growth before the Roman Empire. And, of course, when you share the possibility that it might be the largest known of its species in the U.S. or the world, it adds an extra layer of wonder. I love sharing this information because I believe it creates a deeper connection between people and the trees or forests, inspiring a greater sense of care and appreciation.”

Kelley recounts a cautionary tale of Washington State’s Champion Sitka Spruce, the largest of its species in the world. In the 1970s, the tree was nearly 800 years old, and it was flourishing. But the tree grew so famous that enthusiastic visitors nearly killed the tree with accidental soil compression and root damage. When Kelley visited this spruce, he recorded serene silence at dawn, with no other visitors nearby. “And then I went back at 4 pm, and it’s like a zoo. It gives you this insight into what that tree most likely experienced for the first 780 years of its life.”

Kelley’s work allows tree enthusiasts and newbies alike to experience the wonder of these trees without the risk of harming them. “I’m not trying to be a gatekeeper to big trees, “ he says. “I want Gathering Growth to be educational, where someone can come and learn. For example, if I’m going to go and see this big tree, I’m not going to climb on it. I’m not going to spend too much time around the base.”

I’ve had the privilege of photographing trees as young as 50 years old and as ancient as 4,000 years old. There’s something special about sharing this kind of information, like revealing that a tree began its growth before the Roman Empire.

–Brian Kelley

One of the biggest challenges for the Gathering Growth Foundation is finding financial support. Kelley’s work, while educational, exists in the somewhat rarified intersection of ecological preservation and art. But Kelley continues to forge ahead. Currently, he is working with two other tree experts to create a book of New York State’s largest and oldest trees. They work diligently and incrementally, tree by tree, frame by frame. It’s slow work, and in a world of viral clickbait, it can be difficult to continuously grow their audience. Their book of New York trees will not be a vehicle for instant gratification, but rather a work that contains all the dignity and awe of ancient forests. 

Of Gathering Growth’s work in general, Kelley says, “Nowhere else does an archive like this exist. I think to date, I have documented over 500 trees and forests. And if I’m able and my body’s willing, I’ll continue for the rest of my life.”

It’s a nice line of work. His first visit to Cedar Tree Neck made an enduring impression, he says. “I immediately had this feeling of being in a special forest. The wind-shaped, stunted forest exuded character, with twisting branches of oak, sassafras, and beach — like nothing I had ever seen before.”

What You Can Do

• Visit Gatheringgrowth.org
• When visiting trees, don’t climb them, or spend much time around the base.
• Visit our trees: At Polly Hill Arboretum, Sheriff’s Meadow, Land Bank Trails. Find all Island trails at the trailsmv app on the App Store.

For more on trees, check out the essay, Do Trees Have Rights?

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Tessa Permar
Tessa Permar
Tessa Permar is a freelance writer and choreographer from Martha’s Vineyard. She has worked for local nonprofits in the fields of disability, dance, and community-building through the arts. An advocate for people living with tick-borne illness, Tessa writes about the ways creativity can help us build a more sustainable world.
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