When I first became interested in photographing the imperiled oak trees of California, I began where I often do, with research. I learned about the many types of oaks, including the coast live oak that filled the property where I grew up, and the tanoake, an imposter that lives in the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains where I spent time all my life. I learned about sudden oak death and the gold-spotted wood borer.
One article, entitled “The Importance of Tree Death,” describes how the death of ancient oak trees is a necessary part of the natural cycle—death is needed for life. But introduced pathogens, rather than those which are part of the ecosystem’s natural mix, can catastrophically alter this cycle. Such is the case with the sudden oak death pathogen phytophthora ramorum and the gold-spotted wood borer. Both were introduced and both are important to tree death, but in a new and different way.
As I spend time in the field photographing most of the oaks of northern California, I have seen first-hand how they are increasingly in peril. As many as thirty percent of our coast live oaks have perished already. To the south, gold-spotted oak borers have spawned the biggest oak mortality event since the Pleistocene. In central California, tanoaks are dying en masse. Walking up coastal-range creek beds I can count more than a dozen dead trees in one camera frame.
So I keep photographing these trees—living trees, dying trees, fields and hollows filled with tree carcasses. I make images with unflinching detail, full of color and texture, because there is another important message of tree death—it is a visual, visceral reminder that our world is out of balance and it is our collective fingers which press hard on one side of that cosmic scale.
© Dave E Dondero Photography