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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.)
"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... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) 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.D.s, 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 of tales. 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 in the woods 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 worshippers 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, author of six books and senior travel columnist for Suite101.com, frequently writes about fitness and adventure." Reviewed by H.W. BrandsRon CharlesMarilynne RobinsonTahir ShahJonathan YardleyAnnette Curtis KlauseRobert PinskyGrace Lichtenstein, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"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
"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
"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
"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)
"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
"[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
"[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
From the #1 bestselling author of "The Hot Zone" comes an amazing account of scientific and spiritual passion for the tallest trees in the world, the startling biosystem of Rthe canopy, S and those who are committed to the preservation of this astonishing and largely unknown world.
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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