Trees are the Aristocrats of the Vegetable Kingdom, the noblest expression of vegetable life. Take them from the landscape and its whole appearance changes completely – luxuriance gives place to barrenness…The arresting characters of trees, their height, spread of crown, bulk of trunk and ruggedness of bark, are unique features without which this world would be largely bereft of its scenic grandeur. No, trees are virtuous citizens of the earth, rich in permanent qualities – indispensables.Ernest Henry Wilson, Aristocrats of the Trees
In 1922, Arnold Arboretum plant collector Ernest Wilson returned to Boston after a two-year goodwill tour to the world’s most prominent botanic gardens and arboreta. He took up duties as assistant director of the institution to the venerable Charles Sprague Sargent, now 81 years old, and conducted much of the day-to-day management of the organization.
A voluminous writer, Wilson produced dozens of books and articles on trees, horticulture, gardening, the Arboretum, and his explorations, for both professional and popular audiences. He was a sought after lecturer who even spoke live on the new medium of radio.
In Search of the Witness Trees
Wilson purchased an automobile the next year, which opened up new opportunities for exploration closer to home. No longer at the mercy of a train schedule, he and his family could take to the open road for a day’s drive along the byways of rural New England.
Wilson, his wife Ellen, daughter Muriel Primrose, and family friend Beatrice “Aunt Betty” Mumford struck out for locations around Boston, central and western Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire, Maine, and Rhode Island in search of special trees. They were sometimes joined on their outings by Arboretum propagator and fellow “Kewite,” William Judd and his wife Lucy.
We do not actually know why Wilson began photographing these magnificent trees in 1923; perhaps he had a book in mind, and indeed, he did use some of these images in his last major publication, Aristocrats of the Trees. He may have envisioned a larger project, or sought to document the noble elms before Dutch Elm Disease took it’s toll, but he might simply have wanted to document the notable specimens he encountered, as rural New England began to modernize.
Whatever the reason, Wilson ventured forth with his companions armed with his sturdy Sanderson glass plate camera, the same one he carried on his expeditions to the mountains of northwest Sichuan Province, China, the far reaches of the Yalu River in what is today North Korea, and among “reformed” headhunters of Taiwan. In Asia, his camera, its heavy glass plates, and bulky tripod were carried by his porters for hundreds of miles, often over impossibly rough terrain. That tripod even served as a makeshift splint for his crushed leg in 1910, after he was caught in an avalanche along the Min River in Sichuan.
For his New England tree portraits, Wilson had the luxury of proximity, and ample time and resources. Contrast the ease of a family drive in a comfortable touring car for a day of relaxed photography, with his challenges in Asia. Over a four-year period, Wilson captured about ninety photographs of stately American elms, Ulmus americana, more than fifty images of various species of oak, as well as portraits of many other aged witness trees of New England. He also recorded the cultural landscape that surrounded them, that could include colonial farm houses and town street scenes. His final output was over 500 photographs.
Several years ago, we were fortunate to digitize these striking images of early twentieth century New England from their original glass plate negatives as part of the Digital Commonwealth program, a web portal and repository service for cultural heritage materials held by Massachusetts libraries, museums, historical societies, and archives. We also feature 75 of the most striking images in this collection in the Arboretum’s Google Arts and Culture galleries, where the viewer can zoom in to see all the features on these amazingly detailed photographs.
Please see the Dig Deeper section below for more articles on Wilson’s New England tree portraits.
Follow Wilson on a journey to photograph the Rugg-Gates Elm in Framingham, Massachusetts, in Mr. Wilson and an American Elm.