Uprooted. Georgia’s migrating trees

Irakli Dzneladze

Uprooted from its native red soil in Georgia’s western Ajaria region, the leafy, lone, 650-tonne giant sets sail towards its new home – and along its surreal journey, it turns into an Internet meme. In March 2016 images of an ancient Liriodendron tulipifera being transported upright by a makeshift barge along Georgia's Black Sea coast went viral on social media in the country, and beyond.

The tulip tree, as it is commonly known, was not Georgia’s first floating tree, nor was it the last. Since 2015  Bidzina Ivanishvili, the country’s wealthiest man and former prime minister, has been buying, removing and replanting trees from the western regions of Guria, Ajara and Samegrelo, to populate a vast dendrological park he is building near his local estate, in the village of Shekvetili.

 “It is my hobby and I really love big trees, giant trees are my entertainment,” he reportedly said, as the park's ancient greenery is slated to open to the public sometime between 2019 and 2020. The exact number is unknown but rumors picked up from workers who have been working on the process for years say as many as 50 trees have been replanted for the project.

Both the tycoon, who is also the founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, and the authorities claim that the process is legal and that the trees, legally purchased, will have a new life in an purposely-designed forest. Environmental activists and botanical experts, however, have criticised the practice, stating that it condemns the trees to death. They have a point: the roots of the 100-year old Internet star rejected the new soil’s green, and it dried up. As for the residents of the areas where the trees are eradicated, opinion remains divided.

Uprooting, transporting, and replanting the trees is a complex operation. Since 2016, Batumi-based photographer Irakli Dzneladze has been documenting the process. His photo essay, shot in summer 2018, provides rare close-ups of the intricate measures needed to displace two large tulip trees from the village of Tsikhisdziri and transport them to the sea - and from there to their new home. 

Basmachi (Gurami) Gvianidze’s house in Tsikhisdziri, in western Georgia, is close to where a tulip tree was uprooted in summer 2018. The 65-year-old farmer has been employed to help with the process. After the tree was uprooted, ground and ballast were thrown into the large hole to refill it. (January 2019)

Zviad Kvrikvaia (left), Jambuli Kvrikvaia (centre) and Melvudi (right, refused to give his surname) lead the delicate logistics related to moving the trees onto trucks, which then transport them to a barge for their trip down the coast.

Valeri Kokorchev’s house and the land around it in Tsikhisdziri were bought by former PM Ivanishvili in 2017 for an undisclosed amount. The property is close to the area where the tulip tree was eradicated and the area had to be dug up in order to uproot the tree. The process took almost four months, from March through June 2018.

Diggers spend weeks excavating the area around the selected tree.

Chosen trees are numbered. No information is available about how the selection process works, but residents say that foreign experts come from abroad and pick the specimen to be uprooted.

Excavators move the earth around the selected tree, creating an island.

Once the roots surface, a special technique is used to wrap and water them in order to protect them from drying out.

Wooden planks are placed around the “island” created by the excavators in order to hold the earth together while large iron pipes are constructed to cover the lower part of the tree.

An improvised platform is pushed under the tree to upload it.

Liriodendrons overlooking the Black Sea in Tsikhisdziri. Commonly known as the tulip tree because of their large, tulip-shaped flowers, liriodendron are large trees which can grow up to over 50 meters.

In order to transport these trees from their location down to the shore workers essentially have to create a road. Pipes are used to roll the tree and its roots to the platform so it can be transported to the barge.

Zimo, a construction company with business ties to former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, carries out the entire process.

The tulip tree starts its journey towards the sea.

Once the tree reaches the shore, it is loaded on a barge.

Local residents watch the tulip tree bidding farewell to its home in Tsikhidziri.

After a cruise along the Black Sea coast, the barge is moored by the village of Shekvetili, less than a kilometer from the dendrological park.

Transferring the trees is not a painless procedure as hills are literally cut through and roads are created to make room for the machinery to reach the shore.

In Tsikhisdziri new trees are being planted in the areas left empty following the uprooting process.

The entrance of the dendrological park in Shekvetili.

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Journeys, December/January 2018/2019

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