Wise Storytellers

From Adam and Eve’s Biblical expulsion from the ­Garden of Eden to Sir Isaac Newton’s inspiration to formulate the laws of gravity, the apple tree has ­certainly been a central character in stories that ­matter. Unlike Newton, Diane Cook and Len Jenshel cannot pinpoint a eureka moment that set their ­photography project, Wise Trees, into ­motion. How several observations led to one of their most ­remarkable art pieces, and how it shows that each tree tells its own story and why we should listen to it.

“Gion Weeping Cherry” / Higan Cherry (Prunus subhirtella)

Cook Jenshel Trees
Maruyama Park, Gion District, Kyoto, Japan. // Copyright: Diane Cook & Len Jenshel

Our image of the celebrated weeping cherry tree was made during the annual yozakura – the ritual of viewing cherry blossoms at nighttime. This tree has its very own sakura-mori, or “cherry tree doctor.” To ensure it lives a long, healthy life, he prescribed a protective veil of wires to keep out birds that might spread disease – or eat the delicious cherry blossoms. We found the story of a tree having its own doctor, and the idea of the Japanese taking such extraordinary measures to ensure the long life of a revered tree quite special. And that notion prompted us to begin seeking out other trees that had remarkable stories to tell.

“Shitala’s Tree” / Neem (Azadirachta indica)

Nanghan Bir Baba Temple, Varanasi, India. // Copyright: Diane Cook & Len Jenshel

One of India’s most sacred trees is the neem, this one is living in the center of a temple built to honor the Goddess Shitala – bringer of good health and prosperity. To facilitate a more personal relationship with Shitala, who is embodied within the tree, worshippers have adorned the tree with a richly patterned red cloth and a brass facemask. The neem tree, in addition to its role in Hindu religion, it figures quite prominently in everyday life – and is referred to as the “village pharmacy.” Twigs from the tree are used as toothbrushes, the sap is used as a digestive medicine, and the leaves are used in food storage to repel insects.

“El árbol del tule” / Montezuma Cypress (Taxodium mucronatum)

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Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico. // Copyright: Diane Cook & Len Jenshel

In the central square of a small town in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, grows “El Árbol del Tule,” an enormous Montezuma cypress tree. Experts believe it is at least 1200 years old – making it the oldest Montezuma cypress in the world. It also has the widest girth of any tree on the planet, measuring a staggering 138 feet in circumference, and to show that clearly we asked a group of school children to pose for us. Over the centuries the swamplands around the Montezuma cypress have disappeared, as the needs of the region’s ever-expanding population had led to a drop in the water table. Also, the health of the tree was being imperiled by significant pollution from the adjacent heavily trafficked Pan-American Highway. The Mexican government acted to save the life of the tree by digging a special well, and diverting that major roadway.

“Tomb Raider Tree” / Stranger Fig (Ficus gibbosa)

Ta Prohm Temple, Angkor Archaeological Park, Siem Reap, Cambodia. // Copyright: Diane Cook and Len Jenshel

After the fall of the mighty Khmer Empire in the fifteenth century, this temple and all the others in the Angkor complex were abandoned and neglected for centuries. Once the domain of powerful Khmer kings the temples were soon devoured by the jungle. For centuries the roots of the trees worked their way into the stonework, which was built entirely without mortar. When French archaeologists arrived in 1907 to begin a restoration of the temples, they started by clearing the jungle and rebuilding the structures. However, when they got to Ta Prohm, they were so taken aback by the beauty of the tree roots, entwined with the temple structures, they simply worked to stabilize the stonework – leaving the trees in place.
Today these trees have gained even greater notoriety, thanks to their appearance in the 2001 action-fantasy film “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” Tour guides refer to it as the “Angelina Jolie tree.”

Read the complete text from Diane Cook & Len Jenshel in topos 103.