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California coastal redwoods (sequoia sempervirens) are the tallest trees on earth. Some are close to 120 meters tall and 2000 years old. In the past 100 years, we have cut down 95% of the greatest forest on earth and left a legacy of fouled streams and scarred land. After a hostile takeover in the 1980s of family-owned, sustainably-operated Pacific Lumber, Wall Street accelerated the “old growth” clear-cutting practices. The local economy, dependent on the forest in many ways, was destroyed by this greed. Left, right and nobody wrong, these actions sparked the California Timber Wars. To protect one tree, Julia Butterfly Hill famously sat in “Luna” for two years. With nothing left, the war has ended with unemployment at an all-time high in towns on the Northern Coast. Tensions between “tree huggers” and “tree cutters” remain. But, for the time being, the last of the old-growth redwoods have been saved.

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A note about our big tree composite photograph In his book Tree, James Balog pioneered full views of redwood trees using mosaics of images that he captured from rope with a camera in hand. On assignment for National Geographic, we had to find a way to show a complete and undistorted tree in the Magazine. I was looking at the same trees with the same team that had guided and rigged James. Of course, considering myself a pioneer in photography, I hate following. I could not replicate Balog’s technique because it made stitching the images together seamlessly virtually impossible. For over a year I had nightmares of how we could capture this. Our breakthrough came when Jim Spickler suggested we take the camera out of my hands and use the precision of a computer controlled film dolly, embracing all the technology we could muster. After three weeks of predawn attempts with a team of eight, finally we captured, in one perfect hour, the 84 images that Ken Geiger, Senior Photo Editor at NGM, would spend 120 hours stitching together to create this composite. With all that, what is important is not the effort or the technique, but whether the image makes us all care about this 1500-year-old giant that could so easily have been felled if the wrong chainsaw had approached her.

Michael “Nick” Nichols

This story was published in the October 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Michael Nichols

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