To Paint a Tree is to Hug a Tree
Local Artist Pays Homage to the Oldest Trees in the Northwest
Just hearing him talk about trees, one can imagine Paul Brown wrapping his arms around an oak and breathing a contented sigh. The only problem is, the trees Brown likes the best are the oldest in the Northwest, which also means they are the biggest. So, he will have to be content with painting them, as many are over 12 feet in diameter.
“Some of these pictures you have to see to believe,” Brown says. But to get it just right, a painting is the best way to capture these giants. “I like to do field studies, just so I can get the coloration down,” he says. “It is hard to get that in a photo. I bring field equipment there for a sketch, and do a quick painting.”
He is hoping to find the oldest/biggest of 12-15 different tree species to paint for a project he has dubbed “The Hero Tree Project.” He has been visiting trees as far away as California and Washington, but he is finding many of his subjects in Oregon.
Near La Pine, he has pinpointed the ponderosa pine named the “Lone Pine” as the largest. Trees aren’t always named, he says, but when they are, that is a testament in itself to the age and impact of the tree.
An 11-foot-in-diameter monster of a sugar pine in the Sierra Foothills of California at a Girl Scout camp was named the “Whelan Pine,” though it sadly had to be cut down last year due to severe fungus and beetle infestation.
The largest redwood, specifically a Giant Sequoia, is the “General Sherman Tree,” located just across the Oregon/California border. In Josephine County, there is a massive incense cedar near
Tanner Lake, measuring 14 feet in diameter. It is perched atop an old glacial cirque, which is a bowl-shaped depression in the side of a mountain where a glacier used to be nestled. Brown says that is a sweet spot for big trees.
“Those areas are protected from high winds, they have a good amount of moisture and they are surrounded by rocky conditions, which shelters them from forest fires; environmental circumstances protect them,” he says.
Another biggie is a California laurel located near Gold Beach, which measures about 15 feet in diameter. Brown now has his sights set on a cottonwood near Eugene, and he has a few madrones in the running throughout the state.
“We are down to our last 1 to 1.5 percent of old growth in this country. That is reason enough to protect these trees,” he says.
Brown’s love for trees started early, when he pursued a park management degree in college, leading to him working for the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Parks Service in the 1980s. He double majored in graphic design, which he then pursued for over 20 years. He now volunteers for the Bureau of Land Management at Cathedral Hills in Josephine County, a popular hiking spot that happens to be home to the largest knobcone pine and light-leafed manzanita in Oregon.
Need proof? Check out americanforests.org/bigtrees to see the national registry of the largest trees in the United States, 48 of which are located in Oregon and two of which were nominated by Brown himself. He measures trees using a clinometer, which is used for measuring the height of a tree from the ground (as opposed to climbing to the top with a tape measure). After a few minor calculations to determine the diameter and crown spread of the tree, the overall size of the tree is measured in a point system.
True to his park ranger roots, Brown plans to do more than just paint the trees. “I will do a write up on each of the trees and their histories,” he says. “It is important to protect the remaining
habitat that supports these trees, the areas that naturally grow these trees. That fact by itself means these areas are worth protecting as seed reserves. The genetics are there.
Also the habitats that these trees provide. For example, there is a certain species of salamander that only lives at the tops of redwood trees.” Brown is obviously a lover of trees, though he also supports cutting them down, if done right.
“I am not against sustainably cutting trees,” he says. “I see so many cuts that are not sustainable. When you see clear cuts, especially in Southern Oregon, you know it gets awfully hot and dry here in the summer. It is hard for trees to get started on that. If you selectively harvest these trees, they do have a chance. I have a bias against clear cutting, but not lumbering. which could go on indefinitely if done properly.”