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Agate is pleased to share this video and story of photographer Dominique Braud’s project, which draws inspiration from a single—and singular—cottonwood tree through the seasons. It’s a natural pairing with the evocative music of traditional Dakota flute player Bryan Akipa, whose Song of the Aspen was inspired by a tree belonging to the same family.
Whereas Braud began photographing the tree in spring, you’ll see that the video dips into the cottonwood’s year beginning in our current season, autumn. You’ll also discover that it disregards the rule of thumb saying that videos are best kept to two to three minutes to keep a viewer’s attention. At Agate, we don’t believe that people head out on a beautiful trail hoping its end is right around the corner.
Below, Dominique tells the tale of how his photography project unfolded.
On May 4th, 2019, while on an early morning photo shoot at a Dakota County park close to my home, I came upon a scene that will forever be branded in my memory. Shortly after sunrise, I noticed a large, beautifully shaped double-trunked tree standing tall in a field, the only discernible feature in a landscape obliterated by some of the thickest fog I had ever seen. Diffused by the dense fog, beams of intense light from the rising sun were shooting out from behind the tree like so many hallelujahs, casting a mystical aura over the lone, imposing figure. The scene was glorious, breathtaking and simply unforgettable. I had passed this tree dozens of times in previous visits and hardly ever given it a second look. On that day, though, it was as if the tree had had enough of the anonymity it had lived in for so many decades and was pulling out all the stops to be noticed.
And notice I did! I grabbed my camera, laid down flat on my stomach in the dew-soaked grass to emphasize the tree’s stature and started shooting like a man possessed. I kept muttering: “I see you, my brother, I see you!” All too soon, the fog gradually dissipated and other trees and distracting elements began to emerge, robbing my tree of its star status and returning it to being just one of the many cast members living in this park. When the sun climbed too high in the sky for photography, I walked up to the tree, now curious about its identity. Its rough and deeply furrowed bark, along with the waxy and triangular shape of its emerging baby leaves, confirmed that it was an Eastern cottonwood. I took out the small measuring tape I carry on my car key ring and took a measurement, walking around its base: 16 feet in circumference.
Certainly, it wasn’t a giant among its kind (the state’s record-holding cottonwood is 33 feet in circumference), but it commanded respect nonetheless. Cottonwoods are fast-growing trees, so chances are that, in spite of its large size, the tree was probably not as old as I imagined. Still, as I looked down at its fire-scarred base and then up toward its massive crown, I wondered how many prairie fires, winter storms and summer droughts it had endured. How did it end up successfully establishing itself so far away from the water sources that its kind thrives on? What events of human history had it silently witnessed or possibly been part of in its lifetime? Hoping to channel some kind of response on its part, I put both my hands on its thick bark and waited for answers but none came. Clearly, the tree was quite guarded about its age, so I didn’t press the issue. When time came for me to leave, I promised I’d be back to visit and photograph it, at least twice a month for the next year, in all seasons and types of weather.
I kept my word. Truth be told, my visits stretched closer to 18 months, as personal circumstances kept me away from “my” tree in the summer of 2019. At 4:24 pm on December 31st, 2020, I took my last photograph for the project. Since then, my visits have become much less frequent but, on a recent drive to the park, I was happy to see that my old buddy was looking great, unfazed by the Covid-19 crisis or the drought we have experienced this summer. While I struggle to find motivation and optimism in the challenging times we live in, I often think about “my” tree’s quiet resiliency in the face of adversity and I draw strength, calm and patience from its stoicism.
About the Artists
Professional photographer Dominique Braud specializes in wildlife and landscapes of Minnesota. A native of France, he moved to the United States in 1980. One of his many adventures has been teaching high school, which he did for 31 years until his recent retirement. His photographs have been widely published in books, calendars and in such publications as Birder’s World, National Wildlife, Ranger Rick, National Geographic World and Outdoor Photographer, and he has authored over seventy articles about nature and photography in regional, national and international magazines. He was a contract photographer for the USFWS at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge for over a decade, and has worked as a freelance photographer for the MN DNR, including features for the Conservation Volunteer magazine. His book, Minnesota Wildlife Impressions, was published by Farcountry Press in 2008. Find more of his wonderful work on his website.
South Dakota-based recording artist Bryan Akipa plays and makes traditional Dakota red cedar flutes. He has 5 solo albums. Song of the Aspen, featured in this video, is the title track of his 2004 CD. Akipa received a Grammy nomination for his 2008 CD release, “Songs from the Black Hills,” and his work has been recognized with several Native American Music Awards. A member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, in 2016 he received the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts—the National Heritage Fellowship—which is awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). He travels widely for performances and speaking engagements. Listen to an NEA Art Works podcast featuring Akipa, and check out his website. Sincere thanks to Mr. Akipa for granting Agate permission for this use of his song.