BookBrowse Reviews The Wild Trees by Richard Preston

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The Wild Trees

A Story of Passion and Daring

by Richard Preston

The Wild Trees by Richard Preston X
The Wild Trees by Richard Preston
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2007, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2008, 320 pages

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The spellbinding story of a tiny group of daring botanists and amateur naturalists who found a lost world above California in the canopies of the giant redwoods

The Dangerous Book For Boys (which published last year about the same time as Wild Trees in hardcover) might sound dangerous but is actually just good, clean, healthy fun. On the other hand, Wild Trees sounds like a walk in the woods but offers serious danger and adventure between its seemingly-benign covers. Hidden away in the temperate rain-forests of Northern California is a world just as unexplored as the deep oceans.  But unlike the deep oceans, you don't need hundreds of thousands of dollars of specialist equipment or lengthy expeditions to visit it, but you do need passion, perseverance and nerves of steel. Thirty years ago, perceived wisdom was that redwood canopies were virtual deserts devoid of life but, thanks to the life's work of a handful of souls, we now know that there is an abundance of life at the top of these ancient "supertall" trees, some in excess of 350 feet and 3000 years old.

It all started when Steve Sillett "free climbed" to the top of a huge redwood in 1987. On this first foray into the canopy of a redwood he was surprised to find huckleberry bushes growing and fruiting at 300+ feet. Since then, he and others have found all sorts of life, including more than 180 species of lichens (some previously unknown) and various small animals such as voles and salamanders.  Salamanders are a particularly extraordinary find because they absorb oxygen directly through their skin which must stay moist or they die - they thrive in the redwood canopies because it is estimated that an average 2.5 acres of redwood stores about 25-50,000 liters of water - both in the structure of the trees themselves and in fern mats that act as long term water storage units!

In addition Sillett et al have found various types of huckleberry bushes (related to blueberries), rhododendrons, a sprawling shrub called salal, currant bushes, elderberry bushes and even bonsai versions of other trees such as laurel, Douglas-fir, tan-oak and buckthorn. They've even found earthworms living in  canopy soil up to three feet deep that collects at the point where branch and trunk meet.

Preston's account of the exploration of this extraordinary world is a true-life adventure story that is at times terrifying, often moving and, occasionally, a little long winded. The reader comes away with a fierce appreciation for the trees themselves and their ecological significance, and a respect for the people who have not only devoted their lives to understanding more about these behemoths of the forest, but regularly risk their lives to climb these humbling examples of nature at its most magnificent.

One or two reviewers find fault with Preston for including himself in the story, feeling that it dilutes the power of the narrative. This reviewer didn't find this to be the case as Preston's tale of how he, and then his family, started to climb tall trees serves as a bridge in the reader's mind - from reading about the wild exploits of a self-chosen few, to contemplating that climbing a tall tree could be an achievable ambition if one was so inclined (which this reviewer, who is getting sweaty feet just thinking about it, is not!)

The text of Wild Trees is enriched by occasional line drawings beautifully illustrating the trees in whole and in detail. At first it was disappointing to see illustrations instead of photographs, until it dawns on one that the scale and density of these trees makes it very difficult for a photograph to do them justice in the way that the illustrations do. Having said that, a photo or two of the main players in the story would have been a welcome addition to the book. Happily, these can be found at the author's website which includes pictures of Steve Sillett, Marie Antoinette and others; and selected illustrations from Wild Trees.

This review was originally published in June 2007, and has been updated for the February 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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