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Charlotte Amalie
Monday, March 20, 2023


Feb. 29, 2004 – Respect and love your trees. Hug your favorite trees and, if a hurricane threatens, wish 'good luck' to your oldest green friend. Walk around a tree for an hour, getting acquainted with all its angles, before you attempt to take a photograph.
That's advice from the Earl of Longford, also known as Thomas Pakenham, an author who seems to wander the world and this past week has wandered, under the organized hand of Dr. Robert Nicholls, through treed areas of three Virgin Islands.
The author of "Remarkable Trees of the World," the earlier "Meetings With Remarkable Trees," solid works on Ireland, and several political/ historical works mostly of Africa, cautioned staff gathered at the University of the Virgin Islands' Cooperative Extension Division Tuesday. "I'm not a botanist," he said, despite his two works that rival any publications in print about trees, pointing out that they are not tree guides. "I'm a tree-lover, an enthusiast, an advocate" for trees, a "big-mouth writer."
His first day in the Virgin Islands was spent on St. Croix, where Olasee Davis took him to see a remote baobab in a "mostly undisclosed" area, as baobabs are of particular interest to Pakenham.
Wednesday morning at the University of the Virgin Islands on St. Thomas, Pakenham presented Provost Gwen-Marie Moolenaar with copies of his two large-size, copiously illustrated books enthusing about trees. Moolenaar was pleased to receive the books for the university, she said — and also pleased that she will get to be the first at UVI to read them, since she was standing in for UVI President LaVerne Ragster.
From Moolenaar's office, where Pakenham also participated in a radio interview with Alex Randall, the party proceeded across part of the campus' golf course to a young baobab. Toni Thomas, natural resources extension agent, proudly showed off the tree, which was separated from its parent St. Croix tree and brought to St. Thomas some years ago for planting. It's now about 10 feet tall and flourishing — except where the weed whacker has skinned it at the base. Pakenham certainly looked the tree expert as he examined the specimen; yet, his comments reflected his regard for the tree as an individual.
Both of Pakenham's books reflect trees as individuals, "as personalities, not the genus," he said. His chosen subjects are not necessarily the biggest, oldest, the superlative anything; they have stories and character.
Why did a historian-writer of books about Africa and Ireland turn to trees?

The earlier book, "Meetings With Remarkable Trees," grew out of an experience the author had at home in Ireland, graphically described in the book's preface. The radio weatherman had been tracking a system for three days by January 5, 1991, and warning residents that a severe storm would hit in the morning.
"I went out in the evening of the 5th and stood contemplating the old beeches in the garden: 19 of them," he wrote. "I guessed they were a little under 200 years old and 100 feet high … I slipped a tape measure round the smooth, silver-green, lichen-encrusted bellies of the trees and listed the measurements … None was a record breaker. But all had been good friends to five generations of our family. As I taped each tree, I gave it a hug, as if to say 'good luck tonight.'"
He awoke next morning to sounds and sights familiar to longtime V.I. residents, although it was "a gale, not a hurricane … When I went down to the garden, crunching over broken twigs and branches, the tallest beach lay there like a fallen sentry … Two … were straddling the main road; they were being cut up by the fire brigade. Another had sealed off the back drive … gusts struck each tree or clump of trees like a wave hitting the bow of a ship."
That's when he decided to collect in photography 60 individual trees in Britain and Ireland chosen for their unusually strong personalities.
Some time after publication, a Japanese couple made a pilgrimage to Great Britain, using Pakenham's "Meetings" as their guidebook. He learned of their travels and, intrigued, took them to a pub for lunch. During the lunch, the gentleman of the couple brought out his postcards, created from his own photographs. One of them struck Pakenham forcefully, he said: An aisle of baobab trees, "it resembled a Salvador Dali painting." Where was it? The Japanese gentleman said, in Madagascar.
And thus was Pakenham inspired to begin the wanderings that resulted in his second tree book. For a decade he roamed the world, toting his 30-pound Linhof camera and tripod to North America, remote Mexico, Europe, Asia (including Japan), Australia, New Zealand, northern and southern Africa and Madagascar. The book contains "Giants and Dwarfs, Methuselahs, Shrines, Dreams, Lovers and Dancers, Ghosts and Trees in Peril," the book jacket says. It does includes some superlatives: the 1400-ton General Sherman sequoia in California; the oldest Methuselah tree yet measured, a 4,000-year-old bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California, 2,200-year-old Bo-tree in Sri Lanka, and, of course, the Dali-esque aisle of baobabs in Madagascar.
Of his books, Pakenham said they are "useless, not intended to be guides; but rather how to appreciate trees, and open people to their possibilities." His goal, while perhaps not scientific, is far from useless.
When asked how the islands of Ireland and Great Britain defined native and invader, he quickly replied, "with far too much attention." Regretting his use of the term alien in his first work, he now refers to them as travelers, guests, "the warp and woof, the natural weave of islands." He suspects tropical islands fall prey more easily to aggressive invaders than islands in temperate zones, which are not so hospitable to their flora guests. He would have continued this discussion at length, but Nicholls pulled him away to get to the ferry for an afternoon on St. John.
Advice "for ordinary people" who want to take photographs of trees
Before leaving, he had advice for those with cameras seeking trees. It requires most of all patience, he said, recounting squirming a long ways through mud and "under a fence like a rat" to reach one of his subjects.
— First, put the camera down. Walk around the tree and inspect it from every angle, view it as sculpture, see it as two separate halves — for at least an hour.
— Separate the tree from its background: get down, see it against the sky, mist, or snow. Look at its shadow. Or ignore its shadow.
— Then take your photographs. And eventually you will have a perfect photograph: "one which you can't make any better."
Editor's note:Pakenham is on the advisory board for Dr. Nicholls' "Remarkable Big Trees of the Virgin Islands" project. Dockside Bookshop has both Pakenham "Remarkable Trees" books on order.
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