Seeds, Roots and Leaves

By Nora Krug
Sunday, November 25, 2007

THE TREE A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They MatterBy Colin Tudge Three Rivers. 459 pp. $14.95

"A tree is a big plant with a stick up the middle," Colin Tudge begins, bluntly, in The Tree, his ode to the woody perennial. Of course a tree is more complicated than that, but Tudge, the author of popular-science books like The Variety of Life and The Time Before History, has a gift for distilling things to their essence before building them up to their most complex. The heart of the book -- a tour of the world's tree species and a detailed account of how trees function and why we must save them -- could be the stuff of a dull botany textbook or a knee-jerk polemic, but in Tudge's hands it is anything but. Quirky and accessible, The Tree is enlivened by instructive anecdotes, a raft of fascinating trivia and Tudge's endearing personality.

An avid evolutionist ("I love the notion that we are literally related to all other creatures: that apes are our sisters, and mushrooms are our cousins"), Tudge treats his subject in human terms. "Trees do not dwell only in the present," he writes in an explanation of how they adapt to stresses such as climate and parasites. "They remember the past, and they anticipate the future." He is also prone to literary references (Shakespeare and Tennyson are favorites), so that reading The Tree is like being in the company of a kindly biology professor who has strayed into a literature seminar.

WOOD Craft, Culture, HistoryBy Harvey Green Penguin. 464 pp. $16

A 464-page book about wood may sound like the set-up for a quip about saving the paper it's printed on, but historian Harvey Green's in-depth look at the familiar material deserves serious consideration. Wood defies easy categorization. Billed as a "cultural history of wood," it is broad in its reach, examining not only how we have learned to use wood throughout history but also how the material has helped shape history itself. An analysis of the box, for example, explains how "coopered, nailed, wired, and stapled wooden boxes of various sorts were as much engines of economic development as were watercraft, the railroad, the steel and iron industries, water power, the steam engine, and electricity."

Leaving almost no stone (or board) unturned, Green explores nearly all things wooden, from the log cabin to the boat, the casket, the bow and arrow, the stringed instrument and the pencil. Exhaustive (and somewhat exhausting), Wood will, at the very least, make you rethink the chair you're sitting on.

From Our Previous Reviews

* Ron Charles praised The Ghost at the Table (Algonquin, $13.95), by Suzanne Berne, author of the Washington-based novel A Crime in the Neighborhood. Set during a holiday gathering in New England, the novel, he said, "is a witty, moving and psychologically astute story about siblings and the disparate ways they remember common experiences from childhood."

* Hugh Nissenson's novel The Days of Awe (Sourcebooks, $14), which centers on a 60-something Manhattan man and his family in the fall of 2001, is "a 9/11 story," Carolyn See wrote, though "the deaths in the towers are hardly even the point here, except that they press upon the characters the awful fact of extinction." Lessons such as this one make for a sobering but worthwhile reading experience, she said, "if you don't mind being terrorized by a narrative if it takes you to a greater understanding of what it means to be alive on this earth."

* Nearly 50 years after the publication of The Harmless People, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's enduring work on the San people of the Kalahari Desert in southwest Africa, Thomas revisits the tribe in The Old Way: A Story of the First People (Picador, $15). Tahir Shah called it "a work of impressive scholarship and, more important, a book that connects the dots linking us to the first stages of the human race."

* In The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (Penguin, $18), Niall Ferguson "offers a novel analysis of the causes of 20th-century violence," James F. Hoge Jr. explained. Though lengthy, the book is "a fascinating read," he added, "thanks to Ferguson's gifts as a writer of clear, energetic narrative history."

Nora Krug is a writer in Washington.

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