“What trees do in their own quiet way is allow us to think about scale,” writes Verlyn Klinkenborg in the introduction to “Wise Trees” (Abrams, $40). “In our world, we’re dwarfed, outlasted, even humbled by trees. What little modesty we have as a species may depend partly on that fact.”
The culmination of two years of traveling, Diane Cook and Len Jenshel’s photography book “Wise Trees” offers an arboreal tour of the world where background scenery becomes the centerpiece. When documenting historic and landmark trees across five continents, the photographers sought out “inspirational trees — ones that had witnessed history, survived calamities, or were the focus of spiritual veneration” and found over 60 examples from around the globe.
In Tokyo, married couple Cook and Jenshel photographed the child-giving gingko. More than 700 years old, the tree is thought to grant fertility to women who worship the goddess Kishimojin-do. (Despite its association, as a dioecious species, this particular gingko is male.) The photographers caught the child-giving gingko in autumn, when it blankets the grounds of a Buddhist temple with yellow leaves.
The origins of other hallowed trees — all visually arresting — are murkier. California’s Hallelujah Junction, on a flat stretch of U.S. Highway 395, would be unremarkable save for the shoe tree, named for the dozens of old shoes — many scrawled with wishes — dangling from its branches, like sneakers hanging from a telephone wire. “This is the American version of a wishing tree,” the photographers write.
Not every example in “Wise Trees” is so joyous. The photographers are careful to include trees with dark histories, like a killing tree in Cambodia and a hanging tree in Texas, and those that serve as reminders of solemn events, like the survivor trees of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These trees are wise not because they fulfill hopes, but because they have born witness.
In Santa María del Tule, Mexico, the 137.8-foot circumference of El Árbol del Tule’s trunk grows in the town center and is old enough to have witnessed the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Depicted in “Wise Trees” ringed with schoolchildren to convey a sense of scale, its story embodies a slice of Oaxacan history. To the indigenous Zapotec people, the tree symbolizes life; thought to have been planted more than a thousand years ago, it defiantly towers over a nearby Roman Catholic church built by the Spanish in the 18th century.
Trees as sources of life appear in myths and stories across cultures and religions. Humanity’s relationship to trees is symbiotic — they help to provide the air we breathe — and some of the most inspiring photographs in “Wise Trees” show our increasingly rare deference to nature.
In the hills of West Bali, a tree known as Bunut Bolong shares a characteristic with certain California redwoods: a paved road runs clear through its center. As a sacred banyan tree, however, villagers continue to worship Bunot Bolong. Black and white cloth lining its tunnel represents the Hindu principle of universal balance between light and dark: To drive through it is a reminder of harmony on both a spiritual and physical level.
Similarly, a store conducts daily business around the sweet shop tree in Varanasi, India. In Cook and Jenshel’s photograph, saffron-colored cloth adorns its indoor trunk, which is also hung with plastic bags. The trunk shares space with, among other things, a refrigerator and a ceiling fan.
Cook and Jenshel call these “landscapes of complexity — where nature and humanity converge.” In light of climate change, they remind readers of the importance of honoring that convergence. “Trees can live without us,” they write, “but we cannot live without them.”