“Some people in this world focus on the forests. Some people focus on the trees. Ralph Yznaga is definitely a tree kind of guy.
Next spring, Texas A&M University Press will release Yznaga’s new book, “Living Witness: Historic Trees of Texas.” For anyone whose idea of nirvana is sitting under a giant oak tree on a summer day with a good book in your lap, this is the book for you. In fact, anyone interested in history, trees or small town Texas needs a copy. The book is a collection of the photographs and stories of 35 historic Texas trees and provides driving directions to each.
The independent creative director cum author will preview some of the dramatic photographs from the book at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower center on April 30.
Yznaga, a San Antonio native and University of Texas alum, bought a home in the Westbank to raise his children with wife Jerri Ann after years in New York City working as a creative director. His vitae includes national ad agencies such as J. Walter Thompson, Saatchi & Saatchi and GSDM.
“When I returned home to Texas, I became fascinated with the trees,” he said. “They are tough, hardy survivors, like the people of this state.”
Poking around at a garage sale seven years ago, Yznaga found an amazing 1969 book put out by the A&M press that listed the famous trees of Texas and gave their locations. That planted a seed in him, to revisit those hardy survivors and see how they are doing.
“At first, I had no clear idea that this would become a book,” he said. “But standing in the fields with the trees was a very moving experience for me.”
Yznaga wanted to share that experience. In his spare time away from GSDM, where he worked at the time, he began traveling the state following a meandering path to those historic trees. He realized that he had never really seen Texas before he started his tree odyssey.
“It has taken me to so many places I would never have visited, ever,” he said. “Surprisingly, the more remote the location, the more forgotten, the better. It has been an incredible journey of discovery for me.”
Yznaga had honed some impressive photography skills working with talented photographers in New York. But photographing trees turned out to be harder than expected. For one thing, trees are big; it’s hard to convey the scale in a photo. And he had to travel far, sometimes in pretty nasty weather. But Yznaga kept at it, caught up in the stories. There’s the Indian Marker tree in Burnet County that Comanche Indians tied down as a sapling to make it grow sideways. And there is the Fleming Oak in Comanche, Texas, where early settler Martin Fleming hid when he was attacked by Indians. Those trees offer the chance to feel history.
“I find going to trees very moving – going to a tree and thinking about settlers doing mass there. You can see a tree that Sam Houston’s army camped under. You can stand under that tree today, and it is much the same. It hasn’t really changed.”
Yznaga hopes the book will help preserve the state’s rich history, along with the stories of its people and culture. Since writing it, he has paid more attention to the plight of trees and their need for protection. Among his private collection, is the photo of the stump of a 450-year-old tree near Lockhart that was cut down to build an access road for the Texas 130 toll road. The circumference of the stump is said to be 14 feet.
“People are drawn to trees,” he said. “We grow up playing on them. They shade our homes. Our first churches in Texas were trees and our first courthouses. We owe it to ourselves and to our children to protect our trees. They provide oxygen and life.”
The publication of his first book isn’t about to slow Yznaga down in his pilgrimage. He says he hasn’t gotten all the trees he needs to get, so he plans to keep going.
“There are more to get, and I am going to get them,” he said.
As he wanders down the paths of Texas history, he won’t be capturing natural wonders with a digital camera. He will be documenting his ancient friends with another friend from the past, the trusty 1957 Roleiflex twin-lens camera Jerri Ann gave him a few days before their first daughter was born. He has to look down the top of it to see his subject.
The April 30 Wildflower Center show will be a groundbreaking ceremony for the Arboretum, a new 16-acre site dedicated to the preservation of Texas trees. The show will run from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Fine prints of Yznaga’s tree photographs will also be on display at the Texas Capitol in the Visitors Center from June through September. To get a sneak preview of his work, visit livingwitness.net”