Summary and book reviews of The Wild Trees by Richard Preston

The Wild Trees

A Story of Passion and Daring

by Richard Preston

The Wild Trees
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2007, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2008, 320 pages

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Book Summary

Richard Preston unfolds the spellbinding story of Steve Sillett, Marie Antoine, and the tiny group of daring botanists and amateur naturalists that found a lost world above California, a world that is dangerous, hauntingly beautiful, and unexplored: The world of the largest and tallest organisms the world has ever sustained – the coast redwood trees.

Hidden away in foggy, uncharted rain forest valleys in Northern California are the largest and tallest organisms the world has ever sustained–the coast redwood trees, Sequoia sempervirens. Ninety-six percent of the ancient redwood forests have been destroyed by logging, but the untouched fragments that remain are among the great wonders of nature. The biggest redwoods have trunks up to thirty feet wide and can rise more than thirty-five stories above the ground, forming cathedral-like structures in the air. Until recently, redwoods were thought to be virtually impossible to ascend, and the canopy at the tops of these majestic trees was undiscovered. In The Wild Trees, Richard Preston unfolds the spellbinding story of Steve Sillett, Marie Antoine, and the tiny group of daring botanists and amateur naturalists that found a lost world above California, a world that is dangerous, hauntingly beautiful, and unexplored.

The canopy voyagers are young–just college students when they start their quest–and they share a passion for these trees, persevering in spite of sometimes crushing personal obstacles and failings. They take big risks, they ignore common wisdom (such as the notion that there’s nothing left to discover in North America), and they even make love in hammocks stretched between branches three hundred feet in the air.

The deep redwood canopy is a vertical Eden filled with mosses, lichens, spotted salamanders, hanging gardens of ferns, and thickets of huckleberry bushes, all growing out of massive trunk systems that have fused and formed flying buttresses, sometimes carved into blackened chambers, hollowed out by fire, called “fire caves.” Thick layers of soil sitting on limbs harbor animal and plant life that is unknown to science. Humans move through the deep canopy suspended on ropes, far out of sight of the ground, knowing that the price of a small mistake can be a plunge to one’s death.

Preston’s account of this amazing world, by turns terrifying, moving, and fascinating, is an adventure story told in novelistic detail by a master of nonfiction narrative. The author shares his protagonists’ passion for tall trees, and he mastered the techniques of tall-tree climbing to tell the story in The Wild Trees–the story of the fate of the world’s most splendid forests and of the imperiled biosphere itself.

VERTICAL EDEN

NAMELESS

One day in the middle of October 1987, a baby-blue Honda Civic with Alaska license plates, a battered relic of the seventies, sped along the Oregon Coast Highway, moving south on the headlands. Below the road, surf broke around sea stacks, filling the air with haze. The car turned into a deserted parking lot near a beach and stopped.

A solid-looking young man got out from the driver's side. He had brown hair that was going prematurely gray, and he wore gold-rimmed spectacles, which gave him an intellectual look. His name was Marwood Harris, and he was a senior at Reed College, in Portland, majoring in English and history. He walked off to the side of the parking lot and unzipped his fly. There was a splashing sound.

Meanwhile, thin, somewhat tall young man emerged from the passenger side of the car. He had a bony face, brown eyes, a mop of sun- streaked brown hair, and he wore a pair of bird-watching binoculars around his neck. T. Scott Sillett was a ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews

New York Times - Janet Maslin

Mr. Preston writes that “in order to see a giant tree you need a magnifying glass,” and this book is fascinating in its keen, inquisitive account of the redwoods’ biosphere.

New York Times Book Review - Kate Zernike

…however tall, dark and important the redwoods may be, a tree has only so much personality, and it takes more to sustain 300 pages. The Wild Trees is best when Preston portrays the collection of characters drawn to the canopy—the Southern California skateboarder, say, or the coupon distributor who posits that global warming may be making the redwoods taller.

Publishers Weekly

Signature Review. [The botanists'] collective passion and intensity have illuminated one of the most vulnerable and poorly understood ecosystems on this continent.

Booklist - Donna Seaman

Preston's hands-on perspective, suspenseful chronicling of the adventures of these vividly portrayed redwood experts, and glorious descriptions of the tall trees' splendor and ecological significance make for a transfixing read.

Reader Reviews

M. D. Vaden of Oregon

Should be a classic according to M. D. Vaden
Some folks have said that The Wild Trees reads a bit choppy. I felt the same at first, but have a better way to explain it. The book reads comparably to sitting around a campfire sharing a story, but in writing. It is one of few books that I hope ...   Read More

M. D. Vaden of Oregon

The Wild Trees: Informative & Superlative Storytelling
The Wild Trees was interesting to me because I work with trees, have been in the redwoods, and even vacationed where one of the main character's wives was born. The best part of the book for me, was the forest information, most of which can be ...   Read More

M. D. Vaden of Oregon

The Wild Trees, Entertaining, Informative
As one who explores in forests, and works with trees, I found the book very informative. As for being non-fiction - it's at least 99% non-fiction. Although I do challenge Preston's claim about one grove discovery on page 82 of the book, based on ...   Read More

Ted

Readable Science
An exciting read which also presents a great amount of botanical and scientific information in a very palatable manner. We read it before we went to northern California and appreciated the extra insight we had into the Redwood Forests.

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Beyond the Book

Did you know?

  • The coast redwood is the largest and tallest individual living organism on the planet. The edible fungus known as honey mushroom, or Armillaria, is is far larger (the largest known mass occupies 300 square miles of the Blue Mountains) but doesn't qualify as an "individual" organism.

  • In most trees the branches are smaller at the top than at the bottom. Redwoods are the opposite, becoming increasingly complex with increasingly massive branch structures at the top.

  • Humans are the only primates who, as a species, don't spend time in trees.

  • The General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park is the largest (by volume) tree in the world - that we know of.

  • The largest tree in ...

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