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Photographing Some of the World’s Oldest and Wisest Trees

Landscape photographers Diane Cook and Len Jenshel spent over two years traveling the world to photograph its most remarkable trees.

"El Árbol del Tule": Montezuma Cyprus (Taxodium mucronatum), Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico (© Diane Cook and Len Jenshel)
“El Árbol del Tule”: Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum), Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico (© Diane Cook and Len Jenshel)

Landscape photographers Diane Cook and Len Jenshel spent more than two years traveling the world to discover its most remarkable trees. These are not only trees that are the biggest or oldest, although plenty of arboreal overachievers made it onto their itinerary. Cook and Jenshel sought to take portraits of trees that have a cultural, historical, or spiritual significance, from the Bodhi Tree in India cited as a descendent of the sacred fig and under which the Buddha experienced his awakening, to the haunting “Killing Tree” in Cambodia, against which children were bashed by the Khmer Rouge.

Wise Trees, recently released by Abrams, features over 60 trees on five continents documented by the married photography duo. “Every solitary, ancient tree is by definition a survivor, a sentinel from the past,” writes author Verlyn Klinkenborg in an introduction. “We tend not to say that what it has survived is us.”

Cover of <em>Wise Trees</em> (courtesy Abrams)
Cover of Wise Trees (courtesy Abrams)

Indeed, one is just a stump: the Discovery Tree in California, chopped down in the 1850s. A count of the felled giant sequoia’s rings suggested it was 1,244 years old. Over a century later, on December 10, 1997, activist Julia Butterfly Hill climbed into Luna, a coast redwood also in California. She remained in its branches for 738 days until an agreement was reached with the logging company to protect Luna and a buffer of trees around it. Other trees are symbolic survivors of disaster, such as the American elm that lived through the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the tiny Japanese white pine bonsai that witnessed the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, and the Callery pear at the World Trade Center, nursed back to health after 9/11 and replanted at the Manhattan memorial in 2010.

Each specimen in Wise Trees is accompanied with its story. The images by Cook and Jenshel, who are longtime collaborators on exploring everything from the volcanic landscapes of the United States to the Oregon Coast Aquarium, don’t always capture the entire tree from root to leaf. Instead, they frame some aspect of its form, or the way people interact with it. An interior shot of the Sardar Sweet Shop in Varanasi, India, shows how the store was built around a neem tree rather than having it cut down; a photograph of the Palaver Tree, a mango tree in Naunde, Mozambique, communicates how it acts as a center for village life, with kids playing beneath the shade of its branches. School children posed by the El Árbol del Tule, a colossal Montezuma cypress in Oaxaca, Mexico, suggest the scale of its over 137 feet in circumference trunk, while just the canopy of the rare Camperdown elm in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, is celebrated for its gnarled shapes.

“Trees can live without us, but we cannot live without them,” Cook and Jenshel note in a book essay. They add, “It is our hope that by paying tribute to their beauty, significant stories, and all the wisdom they have to impart, we can appreciate not only their role in our past, but also how crucial they are to our future.”

Pages from <em>Wise Trees </em> (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)
Pages from Wise Trees  (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)
Pages from <em>Wise Trees </em> (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)
Pages from Wise Trees  (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)
"The Child-Giving Ginkgo": Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), Zoshigaya Kishimojin-do Temple, Tokyo, Japan (© Diane Cook and Len Jenshel)
“The Child-Giving Ginkgo”: Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), Zoshigaya Kishimojin-do Temple, Tokyo, Japan (© Diane Cook and Len Jenshel)
"Bunut Bolong": Banyan (Ficus benghalensis), Asahduren Village, West Bali, Indonesia (© Diane Cook and Len Jenshel)
“Bunut Bolong”: Banyan (Ficus benghalensis), Asahduren Village, West Bali, Indonesia (© Diane Cook and Len Jenshel)
"Oklahoma City Survivor Tree": American Elm (Ulmus americana), Oklahoma City National Memorial, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (© Diane Cook and Len Jenshel)
“Oklahoma City Survivor Tree”: American Elm (Ulmus americana), Oklahoma City National Memorial, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (© Diane Cook and Len Jenshel)
"Tanzlinde": Linden (Tilia platyphyllos), Peesten, Bavaria, Germany (© Diane Cook and Len Jenshel)
“Tanzlinde”: Linden (Tilia platyphyllos), Peesten, Bavaria, Germany (© Diane Cook and Len Jenshel)
"The Ancients": Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva), Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, Inyo National Forest, California (© Diane Cook and Len Jenshel)
“The Ancients”: Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva), Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, Inyo National Forest, California (© Diane Cook and Len Jenshel)
"The Bodhi Tree": Sacred Fig or Pipal (Ficus religiosa), Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya, India (© Diane Cook and Len Jenshel)
“The Bodhi Tree”: Sacred Fig or Pipal (Ficus religiosa), Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya, India (© Diane Cook and Len Jenshel)
"Gion Weeping Cherry": Higan Cherry (Prunus subhirtella), Maruyama Park, Gion District, Kyoto, Japan (© Diane Cook and Len Jenshel)
“Gion Weeping Cherry”: Higan Cherry (Prunus subhirtella), Maruyama Park, Gion District, Kyoto, Japan (© Diane Cook and Len Jenshel)
"Ghost Tree": Sacred Fig or Pipal (Ficus religiosa), Bagahi Kumhapur, India (© Diane Cook and Len Jenshel)
“Ghost Tree”: Sacred Fig or Pipal (Ficus religiosa), Bagahi Kumhapur, India (© Diane Cook and Len Jenshel)
"The Wedding Oak": Escarpment Live Oak (Quercus fusiformis), San Saba, Texas  (© Diane Cook and Len Jenshel)
“The Wedding Oak”: Escarpment Live Oak (Quercus fusiformis), San Saba, Texas  (© Diane Cook and Len Jenshel)

Wise Trees by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel is out now from Abrams.

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