THE WILD TREES
A Story of Passion and Daring
By Richard Preston
Random House. 294 pp. $25.95
Richard Preston, best known for The Hot Zone, the terrifying tale of the Ebola virus, is a science writer with an uncommon gift for turning complex biology into riveting page-turners. In The Wild Trees, he hoists himself into a gentler subject: old-growth forests, mostly redwoods, that have managed to evade the timber industry's blades and still live along the coast of northern California. Preston assures us that, amazingly, until the past two decades the ecosystem formed by the intertwining limbs of these ancient, gargantuan living things had never really been studied.
Preston introduces us to several researchers, most prominently botanist Stephen C. Sillett, who are probing the mysteries of the skyscraper-high forest canopy. In addition to Sillett, there's Michael Taylor, a millionaire's son and speed-chess champion who is afraid of heights but downsizes his life to work as a grocery clerk while he searches for the world's tallest tree, and Marie Antoine, who at the age of 8 lost her mother to cancer and became a scholar of lichens. Eventually, Preston, who took up tree-climbing as a respite from writing, joins them up in the treetops.
Preston invokes the spirit of, among others, Darwin, Audubon and Jacques Cousteau as he makes the case that Sillett and the others are master explorers who have begun to reveal the enchantment and majesty of the world's largest living things, some of them thousands of years old. And a reader can't help but compare these skywalking Ph.Ds, inventors and oddballs with mountaineers such as Whymper, Mallory, Hillary and Norgay who challenged the world's highest peaks, especially as the tree climbers bestow appropriately grand names on their discoveries: Atlas, Gaia, Icarus, Helios, Hyperion, the Screaming Titans.
In his rich metaphorical style, Preston makes us feel the forest undergrowth tearing at the explorers' clothes, the wind swaying the "Treeboats" they sleep in, the bees stinging their faces as they make epic ascents of behemoths. Stands of virgin redwoods that survive amid clear-cut stumps are like "Mohawk haircuts." When a middle-aged redwood loses its top spire, it is "a little like a man going bald." The expansive crown of a really old tree "can look like a thunderhead coming to a boil." Redwoods "as tall as an office building" are balanced in a "pancake of roots" so shallow one looks like "a pencil standing in mud."
This ambitious narrative has multiple interconnected branches. Preston instructs us in the history of old-growth forests, explains forest-floor and canopy ecology, tells how gadgets and techniques to climb were invented and introduces recreational tree-climbing as a sport. Throughout, he weaves in the personal stories of a crew that includes the studious, the brave and the eccentric.
Like the forest canopy itself, The Wild Trees is a tangled but rewarding labyrinth. There's the story of the climber who professionally shouts "Headache," the signal for a falling object, as he tumbles from a branch nearly 100 feet off the ground. And of Sillett, whose first girlfriend leaves him because he is so preoccupied with redwoods. He breaks down sobbing as he reveals his despair to Taylor. Then Sillett meets Antoine; they consummate their union in an acrobatic act of treetop lovemaking and later have a wedding aloft with everyone, including the minister, roped and harnessed.
Ultimately, what distinguishes these climbers from other explorers is that they don't simply play Tarzan and Jane or ascend a redwood "because it's there," as Mallory famously said of Everest. "This forest gives us a glimpse of what the world was like a very long time ago, before humans came into existence," Sillett tells Preston. "These trees can teach us how we can live. We can be hammered and burned, and we can come back and be more beautiful as we grow."
As is the case in mountaineering books, these expeditions do get a little repetitious. But more problematic is that the author, having joined the redwood explorers' club, now hopes his readers will never see the objects of the climbers' obsession. He says he honors the "tradition of botany" by not revealing locations of rare trees or groves. But having inspired reverence for them, isn't he motivating new worshipers to find them? And isn't it a bit selfish to be the lone outsider to experience them and then to slam the door to this treetop Eden behind him? ·
Grace Lichtenstein is the author of six books and senior travel columnist for Suite101.com..