Friday, March 14, 2014

TOP STORY >> Documentary features champion trees

Leader staff writer

The beauty of the trees in a new documentary “Champion Trees” speaks for itself. In-depth interviews with artists, historians and the owners of the land the trees sit on further capture their splendor.

One such person is Jerry Sanders, a retiree in Sherwood, who has the largest dawn redwood in the state planted in his backyard.

Sanders sent away for the tree and planted it 20 years ago, when it was three feet tall. He calls gardening “intoxicating” and, while sitting in a lawn chair in his well-planted garden, says that he tends to “slack off” on other things to make time for gardening.

Then there are the trees that have personal significance for the families who still have them in their yards. Wadene Foreman Hilliard of Rosebud has an American holly in her yard.

She remembers when her family made wreaths from its leaves to hang on their front door.

While people associated with the trees make up a large part of the film, the trees remain the subject, which gives them an unusual personification.

Viewers can count on receiving assurance that Arkansas’ great treasure is its nature and the awe that it creates, as many of those interviewed say.

“Anyone who’s around trees as a child knows that enchantment,” says Linda Williams Palmer of Hot Springs. She’s an artist who throughout the film prepares for a gallery showing of her drawings of champion trees.

Her exhibit, she says, is to thank the trees for the part they played in her childhood, when she would play and daydream in the forest near her family’s house.

“My depiction of it, or drawing of it, is my expression of gratitude in some way,” she says.

Other trees and towns featured in the film are a post oak in Waldo, a deodar cedar in Searcy and a southern red oak in Birdeye, among many others.

Champion trees are considered the largest of their species in the state. The film’s crew traveled statewide to document these species and their stories. Many of the trees have been given historical markers.

Watch the film, an AETN production, for pictorial documentation of these trees, including miles of orange-leaved forests during the fall, which is part of a diorama of trees through the seasons.

Matthew Voskamp, a county forester with the Arkansas Forestry Commission in Little Rock, says looking at the champion trees also inspires awe in him and gives him a sense of state history beyond what is written.

“These champion trees are really fascinating because they are the largest…They’re pretty awesome to just marvel at how large they are,” Voskamp says. “If there’s any tree that I’ve (been) just awestruck with it was the champion bald cypress (in the White River National Wildlife Refuge) and that was the first champion tree I ever visited.”

He reflects on how it has survived a “saw or a bulldozer, or lightning, or a windstorm for that long.”

The tree is estimated to be 300 to 400 years old and is the largest tree in the state.

Surrounding its huge trunk are hundreds of roots, called knees, that appear to grow upward out of the ground so that small tree trunks look to have dropped from its branches and into the swamp below.

There were many more bald cypresses in Arkansas before much of the swampland dried up.

Most of the champion trees are 5 to 8 feet in diameter. The bald cypress is 14 to 15 feet in diameter.

Voskamp travels the state to qualify these trees for champion designation.

Individuals who believe that a champion tree sits on their property can call Voskamp to apply for the status.

The trees are accompanied by a fitting and beautiful score by Amos Cochran of Van Buren.

Cochran’s score, along with long, wide aerial shots of Arkansas forest, are magnificent.

Don Bragg, a tree researcher with the USDA, says that, before settlers arrived in Arkansas, almost the entire landscape was covered in trees.

He says 96 percent of the land was forest. The film shows that, in some remote areas of Arkansas, the landscape is remarkably the same as it was then. Largely, the film is about the capacity that trees have for survival.

Before settlers, trees much larger than the ones we see now were commonplace. Photographs from the turn of the century show loggers with massive stumps of newly-cut trees that dwarf the loggers in size.

“Before the Civil War,” says historian Ronald Kelley, “we had a lot more trees.” Kelley works in Helena, where a maidenhair ginkgo towers over Evergreen Cemetery.

Kelley says the combination of natural and American history make the cemetery a perfect place to visit.

Cornilica Davis of the Yell County Historical Society discusses Dardanelle’s 350-year-old white oak, which the Native Americans called the Council Tree for its designation as their meeting place.

Champion trees will re-air several times on AETN this spring. Check for air times.