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Big Trees of Thanet

Text by Fiona Parry The series began with a photograph of a huge holm oak growing on a street corner in central Margate. The image centres on the oak’s magnificent crown of glaucous leaves rising above and obliterating a three-story building behind. Growing out of a patch of scrubby grass and surrounded by concrete, it’s hard to imagine how its roots found room to explore: how they source enough nutrients, water and oxygen to sustain this living giant. “It was interesting how many people said to me they hadn’t noticed that tree,” says Tait. “Once you see them, you start seeing them.” This new body of work, Big Trees of Thanet, as Tait puts it, “started to take on a life of its own,” as she tuned into the existence and appearance of these usually overlooked trees growing on the urban streets where she lives. And by rights, the trees in Thanet should stand out more, because they are sadly few and far between: Thanet is the district with the lowest tree canopy in the whole UK. This latest body of work, especially on first look, does have a different tone. With trees rather than human subjects at its heart, the work seems slower and more static, more conceptual and less spontaneous. However, for Tait, the process of creating it was exactly the same: “I’d see an image and I’d have to take it – I’d be driving and I have to screech to a halt, pull over and take the photograph.” Urban trees live without the supportive network of their kin or the reciprocity of mycorrhizal fungi, without sufficient water and in severely compacted ground – not to mention the pollution, salt spray, and even the frequent burns from dogs’ peeing at their trunks. Trees “growing along the streets and between houses have to fight for their lives,” writes the forester Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Lives of Trees; they “have to go it alone under the harshest conditions.” As a body of work, the visual contrasts and relationships between the trees and the urban environment become heightened and strange. In one moment the dense and finely textured masses of leaves shine out in all their aliveness, in another they become abstracted blobs, drawing your eye to everything that surrounds them. In these images, as with others, Tait tunes into the idiosyncrasies of the urban environment, the words and signs, colour relations and repetitions: a wonky street sign or a bright green bin complete an image. In dialogue with Tait’s larger body of work of the coastal town where she lives, this series becomes part of a portrait of a place: its human and animal inhabitants, its streets and occasionally its coastline, its political and cultural life, and now its trees. Notably, though, only one image includes the sea. By default, a project focused on trees – especially those in the right conditions to grow big – has produced an in-land portrait of a seaside town. In urban environments, "the stresses the trees must bear are so great that most of them die prematurely,” writes Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Lives of Trees. It is miraculous then, that these big trees of Thanet continue quietly to live. This body of work invites us to notice the urban trees. It celebrates their strength and sheer survival – their joyous, peculiar and tenacious growth, against the odds and through the cracks: these extraordinary giants alongside whom we are lucky enough to live. Fiona Parry

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