Rooted in history
New book by Austin photographer focuses on trees that played a role in Texas history.
By Denise Gamino
Published: 6:24 p.m. Wednesday, April 27, 2011
A few years ago, Austin ad man Ralph Yznaga bought a $1 book at a garage sale and discovered his roots.
“Famous Trees of Texas” was an illustrated catalog of about 90 significant Texas trees — mighty oaks, giant cottonwoods, huge pecans and others that had witnessed history and sheltered lives. It was published in 1970 by the Texas Forest Service.
“It really fascinated me. I just fell in love with the book and the idea of these amazing trees,” Yznaga said. “I wanted to go back and find out which ones are still there, how they had changed.”
Over the past four years, Yznaga, a photography buff who uses a vintage Hasselblad and a 1957 Rolleiflex twin-lens camera, spent many weekends driving the back roads of Texas to locate dozens of the famous trees. Some had died, but many survive.
He documented the quest with fresh photographs and information on three dozen fascinating Texas trees. His findings are to be published next year by Texas A&M University Press as a coffee table book called “Living Witness: Historic Trees of Texas.”
An exhibit of photos and stories from Yznaga’s forthcoming book will be on display Saturday at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center as part of a groundbreaking ceremony for the center’s new 16-acre arboretum. The arboretum will open in the spring of 2012, but one tree will be planted and tours will be conducted. When it opens, the arboretum will have all 53 oak species in Texas and other native trees.
Trees, with their oxygen, shade and timber, play a key role in the lives of humans, so Yznaga focused on trees with historical stories rather than trees notable for their sheer size.
“We have an emotional connection to them because they help us connect to the land,” he said.
When he visited the Twin Oaks in Hamilton, 120 miles northwest of Austin, he saw the trees still have a powerful pull. The trees are famous for giving cover to a man named William Willis, who was attacked by American Indians in 1866. Willis rode his mule to the home of a local judge, where he saw two young girls playing near the trees. The girls heard the fight and ran inside for help. Willis hid behind the trees, but was hit by an arrow. He died three weeks later, the last death in an American Indian fight in Hamilton County.
“When I drove up,” Yznaga said, “there was a big, giant swing on the tree. So, 150 years ago little girls were playing at that tree, and now, in the year 2011, kids are still playing at that tree. So they have a meaning to us.
“This history is all around us, and we don’t know about it. It’s forgotten history. It’s a part of the story of Texas, and I’m preserving it for the people of Texas.”
The upcoming book will include a map and driving directions to each tree.
In addition to Saturday’s exhibit at the Wildflower Center, Yznaga’s tree photos and stories will be on display on Mother’s Day at the Driskill Hotel and at the Texas Capitol Visitors Center from June 11 through Labor Day. On Yznaga’s website, living
witness.net, readers are nominating more trees to be documented.
“Everybody has a story about a tree that was important in their lives,” he said.
He might have to prepare more volumes.