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The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daringby Richard Preston
"I wondered, would Preston's latest book, The Wild Trees: The Passion and the Daring, a nonfiction work about the scientists who devote their professional and personal lives to the study of botany, offer sufficient thrills to hold my interest throughout? The answer is a decided yes. Wild Trees owned me almost from the start....This is a journey that I encourage you to take." Larry Sears, The Christian Science Monitor (read the CSM review)
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"[Signature]Reviewed by John VaillantIn this radical departure from Preston's bestsellers on catastrophic diseases (The Demon in the Freezer, etc.), he journeys into the perpendicular universe of the world's tallest trees. Mostly California redwoods, they are the colossal remnants of a lost world, some predating the fall of Rome. Suspended in their crowns, hundreds of feet above the forest floor, is a primeval kingdom of plants and animals that only a handful of people have ever seen. Now, thanks to Preston and a custom-made tree-climbing apparatus called a 'spider rig,' we get to see it, too.According to Preston, it wasn't until the 1980s that humans made the first forays into the tops of 'supertall' trees, in excess of 350 feet high. The people who pioneered their exploration are a rarefied bunch — equal parts acrobat, adventurer and scientist. The book revolves around botanist Steve Sillett, an exceptional athlete with a tormented soul who found his calling while making a borderline suicidal 'free' climb to the top of an enormous redwood in 1987, where he discovered a world of startling complexity and richness. More than 30 stories above the ground, he found himself surrounded by a latticework of fused branches hung with gardens of ferns and trees bearing no relation to their host. In this Tolkienesque realm of sky and wind, lichens abound while voles and salamanders live and breed without awareness of the earth below. At almost the exact moment that Sillett was having his epiphany in the redwood canopy, Michael Taylor, the unfocused son of a wealthy real estate developer, had a revelation in another redwood forest 200 miles to the south. Taylor, who had a paralyzing fear of heights, decided to go in search of the world's tallest tree. Their obsessive quests led these young men into a potent friendship and the discovery of some of the most extraordinary creatures that have ever lived. Preston's tireless research, crystalline writing style and narrative gifts are well suited to the subject. Sillett, Taylor and their cohorts, who include a Canadian botanist named Marie Antoine, are fascinating, often deeply wounded characters. Their collective passion and intensity have illuminated one of the most vulnerable and poorly understood ecosystems on this continent. Preston adds a personal twist by mastering the arcane tree climber's art of 'skywalking' and partnering with Sillett and Antoine on some of their most ambitious ascents. As impressive as this is, Preston's cameo appearance disrupts the flow of the main narrative and somewhat dilutes its considerable power.John Vaillant is the author of The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed (Norton) and winner of the Canadian Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction (2005)." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"When he sticks to science [Preston] is without rivals in his ability to relate complex biological systems to a lay audience." Chicago Sun-Times
"What Preston offers is a glimpse into the lives of these angel-headed hipsters, who took root, found meaning and flourished in a digitized, cataloged and oversubscribed world. Turn the pages and you'll find your obsession growing with theirs, until finally their zonked-out wonder becomes your own. So rest easy, drop your ropes and climbing gear and wrap your arms about this book. It's easier than hugging a redwood." Los Angeles Times
"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." Booklist
"As illustrated by Andrew Joslin, whose plain line drawings of redwood structure are astonishing, The Wild Trees presents its subjects as 'the blue whales of the plant kingdom.' 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." Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"The Wild Trees reads like a fast-paced magazine article, more Outside magazine action than forest floor poetry. Read it and you'll want to head for the coast to contemplate these magnificent trees for yourself." The Oregonian (Portland, OR)
"[W]hen Preston includes his own personal climbing exploits, it comes off as unnecessary and self-serving. When he sticks to science, though, he is without rivals in his ability to relate complex biological systems to a lay audience." Chicago Sun-Times
"Preston was clearly moved by his experiences — the thoughtful and engaging narrative is informed by a satisfying touch of spirituality — and he brilliantly shares his ardor for the arboreal. (Grade: A-)" Entertainment Weekly
"The Wild Trees is an entertaining account of the tallest redwoods and the amazing wild gardens that flourish in the treetops. It's also the story of some young people who became so emotionally attached to the trees that they redirected their own lives." Seattle Times
"[A]n absorbing, precise, pleasurable new book that is perfect for, well, reading aloft — if not in a tree, then at least in a hammock under one....Like a good glass of wine, the eccentrics in his story pair well with the outer limits of nature." Cleveland Plain Dealer
About the Author
Richard Preston is the bestselling author of The Hot Zone, The Demon in the Freezer, and the novel The Cobra Event. A writer for The New Yorker since 1985, Preston is the only nondoctor to have received the Centers for Disease Control's Champion of Prevention Award. He also holds an award from the American Institute of Physics. Preston lives outside of New York City.
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