I have spent more than 25 years travelling to tropical countries around the world to document not only the forests, wildlife and environmental devastation and the way remote peoples interface with some of the last great wildernesses
Tree hugging is difficult at the best of times, but near impossible when the chosen subject is ancient and has an eight metres-round trunk. Whether Edward Parker actually puts his arms around the trees he photographs is irrelevant as his soulful textured images reveal his obvious depth of connection and respect for the centuries-old gnarled giants of the UK's forests.
Parker's evocative photography is the focus of a fascinating new book called Ancient Trees of the National Trust. You may not immediately think of the great outdoors when you think of this famous conservation charity but when the Trust was established in 1895, it was primarily concerned with preserving open spaces. Now many of its 4.3 million members drive quickly through the grounds with barely a sideways glance en route to a tour of the attached stately home but Parker's book redresses the balance, highlighting the importance of appreciating the precious landscapes that surround the bricks and mortar.
In fact, these woodlands contain a rare, untainted view of natural history because, despite industrial advances, the landowners of many of the National Trust's historic estates stubbornly resisted change and continued to manage using traditional methods. A classic example is the 17th-century Calke Abbey whose reclusive owners shunned all modern conveniences such as electricity. When the abbey, often dubbed 'the house that time forgot', was taken over by the Trust in 1985, it realised that it had inherited a priceless time capsule - not just internally but externally too. Its thousands of ancient trees are 'natural' in that they have, almost uniquely, been allowed to go through their full life cycle: growth, collapse and eventual death without human interference.
As a result, the abbey has some of the finest ancient trees in the country and more than 550 species of invertebrates have been recorded living on the decaying wood of its undisturbed fallen branches and rotting trunks. It is also home to one of the best examples of a 'walking tree'. This is a process by which new clones grow away from the original lime tree by rooting themselves from a connected branch where it touches the soil. It means the same tree organism has existed for more than 10,000 years.
The words 'trust' and 'truth' share the same linguistic root as 'tree', which sheds light on why ancient trees were given such symbolic significance by our ancestors. It is thought that beneath the Ankerwicke Yew in Surrey, the Magna Carta was signed in 1215. At that time, the tree was already 1,700 years old. Parker's study of it beautifully captures the fluted solidity of the trunk of one of the most important heritage trees in the whole of Europe.
Elsewhere, Parker showcases one of the most valued historic trees in the scientific world in full leaf in the garden of Woolsthorpe Manor. At 350 years old, it is the oldest apple tree in the world, and thought to be the very tree under which Sir Isaac Newton observed gravity doing its work when a shiny ripe fruit fell from its branches in 1666. Newton's tree is a whippersnapper in terms of this book, of course. Many more pages are devoted to ancient oaks and it appears the old adage that in its lifetime, an English oak grows for 300 years, rests for 300 years and then slowly declines for 300 years is fairly accurate.
Parker has spent 25 years turning his lens on arboreal beauty, giving him the empathy and understanding to display these giants and their lattice of twisted branches to their best. It is a source of great concern to him that oaks, ash and many others, having survived hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of years are now under attack from newly identified pathogens and pests. It means there has never been a more important time to record and promote our ancient survivors.
The Arts Interview: Edward Parker
Black and white or colour? Colour. I have always admired great black and white photography but for me colours play and important part in the way I represent scenes and portraits.
Digital or film? I love film and would happily still be on Fuji Velvia 50 if I could, however, the advances in digital imagery means that new types of images are possible. Digital is also a great instantaneous teaching tool.
Human's most annoying environmental error? Light pollution is a bugbear of mine as is the exponential growth of the numbers of private cars.
Favourite season for photography? Spring. In May there is not only blossom to photograph, but leaves are generally perfect (un-nibbled by caterpillars etc.) and wonderfully translucent often appearing a stunning electric green in the low angled spring sunshine.
Studio OCD or organised chaos? Organised chaos. A number of years ago I was introduced to a publisher by a friend who said ‘This is Eddie Parker. He runs a slide heap (library) in Dorset.'
Cold wood or tropical forest? I have spent more than 25 years travelling to tropical countries around the world to document not only the forests, wildlife and environmental devastation but to also create photo essays on the way remote peoples interface with some of the last great wildernesses such as the Amazon, Congo and Borneo rainforests.
In the studio or out in the wild? I almost exclusively photograph in the wild using natural light and as part of my work I have had the privilege to visit some extraordinary locations such as standing, 11000ft up in the white mountains in California at dawn, next to a tree that was fully grown before the first brick of the great pyramids in Egypt had been laid.
Dawn or dusk? I prefer dawn in many ways but as long as the light is low angled I am happy snapping away although some of my favourite images have been taken on overcast days sometimes in gale force winds and driving rain. There are photographic opportunities in every weather condition.
Favourite tree? This is extremely difficult to narrow down but possibly the first among equals is the astonishing tree known as El Tule, a giant swamp cypress (Taxodium disticum) near Oaxaca city in Mexico. It is considered the second stoutest tree in the world with a girth of 119ft or 54m (174ft or 79m including irregularities) and which has great woody buttresses giving it an air of a vegetable Notre Dame. Struck by lightning it once had a hollow big enough for a mounted conquistador to ride in and out of the heart of the giant tree. Its growth and significance to the local indigenous groups has been meticulously recorded over the last nearly 500 years during which time and the vast hollow has filled gradually in.
Edward Parker has been photographing and writing about trees and environmental issues for over 25 years in more than 30 books. He has twice been highly commended in Wildlife Photographer of the Year. He lives in Dorset where he is also manager for the Springhead Trust www.springheadtrust.org.uk To see more examples of Edward's photographic work visit www.edwardparker.com
Gary Cook is a conservation artist and Arts Editor of the Ecologist
Society of Graphic Fine Art: sgfa.org.uk/members/gary-cook/
The Ecologist: tinyurl.com/j4w6zp3