Through the work of concerned photographers, American audiences have come to know the horrors of wildlife poaching in other countries, where complex economic factors drive people to slaughter animals and traffic in their body parts. We are sadly familiar, for instance, with images of African elephants or rhinoceroses with their faces hacked apart to get to their tusks or horns. Poaching is not only happening in developing economies, however. Live Burls, the new book from photographers Kirk Crippens and Gretchen LeMaistre, published by Schilt Publishing, documents an American poaching crisis.
To satisfy a black market for rare wood, poachers have cut apart ancient trees in the Redwood National and State Parks in Northern California to remove burls, the growths that contain the Redwoods’ stem cells and help them reproduce. Working with an 8×10 camera on black-and-white film—in homage to Carleton Watkins and other 19th century photographers of the American West whose images helped early conservation efforts—Crippens and LeMaistre photographed the damaged behemoths over the course of several seasons, guided by park rangers.
The richly toned black-and-white images are beautiful and troubling. In many ways, the photographs reminded this viewer of other poaching photographs. The wounds often seem like grotesque mouths, open and twisted with agony.
“For us, the connection between photography and the redwoods is charged with historical significance,” Crippens and LeMaistre explain in their essay. Their hope is to help the effort to conserve the Redwoods. They point out, “The scarred redwoods are emblems of both natural glory and entitled consumption. They represent the dual nature of the American dream.” In the damaged and dying Redwoods, and in Crippens and LeMaistre’s photographs, we can see yet another result of America’s culture of self-interest. —Conor Risch