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The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring

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The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring Cover

ISBN13: 9780812975598
ISBN10: 0812975596
Condition: Standard
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Excerpt

1

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 junior at the University of Arizona, twenty-one years old, visiting Oregon during fall break. He took up his binoculars and began to study a flock of shorebirds running along the surf.

The interior of the Honda Civic was made of blue vinyl, and the back seat was piled with camping gear that pressed up against the windows. The pile of stuff moved and a leg emerged, followed by a curse, and a third young man struggled out and stood up. "Mardiddy, this car of yours is going to be the death of us all," he said to Marwood Harris. He was Stephen C. Sillett, the younger brother of Scott Sillett. Steve Sillett was nineteen and a junior at Reed College, majoring in biology. He was shorter and more muscular than his older brother. Steve Sillett had feathery light-brown hair, which hung out from under a sky-blue bandanna that he wore tied around his head like a cap. He had flaring shoulders, and his eyes were dark brown and watchful, and were set deep in a square face. The Sillett brothers stood shoulder to shoulder, looking at the birds. Their bodies were outlined against decks of autumn rollers coming in, giving off a continual roar. Scott handed the binoculars to his younger brother, and their hands touched for an instant. The Sillett brothers' hands had the same appearance-fine and sensitive-looking, with deft movements.

Scott turned to Marwood: "Marty, I think your car should be called the Blue Vinyl Crypt. That's what it will turn into if we fall off a cliff or get swiped by a logging truck."

"Dude, you're going to get us into a crash that will be biblical in its horror," Steve said to Marwood. "You need to let Scott drive." (Steve didn't know how to drive a car.)

Marwood didn't want Scott's help with the driving. "It's a very idiosyncratic car," he explained to the Sillett brothers. In theory, he fixed his car himself. In practice, he worried about it. Lately he had noticed that the engine had begun to give off a clattering sound, like a sewing machine. He had also become aware of an ominous smell coming from under the hood, something that resembled the smell of an empty iron skillet left forgotten on a hot stove. As Marwood contemplated these phenomena and pondered their significance, he wondered if his car needed an oil change. He was pretty sure that the oil had been changed about two years ago, in Alaska, around the time the license plates had expired. The car had been driven twenty thousand miles since then, unregistered, uninsured, and unmaintained, strictly off the legal and mechanical grids. "I'm worried you'll screw it up," he said to Scott.

Steve handed the binoculars to his brother and climbed into the back of the Blue Vinyl Crypt. "Dudes, let's go," he said. "We need to see some tall redwoods."

They planned to go backpacking in one of the small California state parks that contain patches of ancient coast redwood forest. None of the young men had ever seen a redwood forest. Steve seemed keyed up.

The coast redwood tree is an evergreen conifer and a member of the cypress family. Its scientific name is Sequoia sempervirens. It is sometimes called the California redwood, but most often it is simply referred to as the redwood. No one knows exactly when or where the redwood entered the history of life on earth, though it is an ancient kind of tree, and has come down to our world as an inheritance out of deep time. A redwood has furrowed, fibrous bark, and a tall, straight trunk. It has soft, flat needles that become short and spiky near the top of the tree. The tree produces seeds but does not bear flowers. The seeds of a redwood are released from cones that are about the size of olives. The heartwood of the tree is a dark, shimmery red in color, like old claret. The wood has a lemony scent, and is extremely resistant to rot.

Redwoods grow in valleys and on mountains along the coast of California, mostly within ten miles of the sea. They reach enormous sizes in the mild, rainy climate of the northern stretches of the coast. Parts of the North Coast of California are covered with temperate rain forest. A rain forest is usually considered to be a forest that gets at least eighty inches of rain a year, and parts of the North Coast get more than that. A temperate rain forest has a cool, moist, even climate, not too hot or cold. Redwoods flourish in fog, but they don't like salt air. They tend to appear in valleys that are just out of sight of the sea. In their relationship with the sea, redwoods are like cats that long to be stroked but are shy to the touch. The natural range of the coast redwoods begins at a creek in Big Sur that flows down a mountain called Mount Mars. From there, the redwoods run up the California coast in a broken ribbon, continuing to just inside Oregon. Fourteen miles up the Oregon coast, in the valley of the Chetco River, the redwoods stop.

The coast redwood is the tallest species of tree on earth. The tallest redwoods today are between 350 and close to 380 feet in height-thirty-five to thirty-eight stories tall. The crown of a tree is its radiant array of limbs and branches, covered with leaves. The crown of a supertall redwood has a towering, cloudy, irregular form, and the crowns of the tallest redwoods can sometimes look like the plume of exhaust from a rocket taking off.

Botanists make a distinction between the height of a tree and its overall size, which is measured by the amount of wood the tree has in its trunks and limbs. The largest redwoods, which are called redwood giants or redwood titans, are usually not the very tallest ones, although they are still among the world's tallest trees-they are typically more than three hundred feet tall. Today, almost no trees of any species, anywhere, reach more than three hundred feet tall, except for redwoods. The main trunk of a redwood titan can be as much as thirty feet in diameter near its base.

Many people who are familiar with coast redwoods have seen them in the Muir Woods National Monument, in Marin County, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. The Muir Woods, which is visited by nearly a million people every year, is a tiny patch of virgin, primeval redwood forest, and it is like a small window that reveals a glimpse of the way much of Northern California looked in prehistoric times. Though the redwoods in the Muir Woods are hauntingly beautiful trees, they are relatively small and are not very tall, at least for redwoods. The redwoods you can see in the Muir Woods are nothing like the redwood titans that stand in the rain-forest valleys of the North Coast, closer to Oregon. They are the dreadnoughts of their kind, the blue whales of the plant kingdom.

Nobody knows the ages of any of the living giant coast redwoods, because nobody has ever drilled into one of them in order to count its annual growth rings. Drilling into an old redwood would not reveal its age, anyway, because the oldest redwoods seem to be hollow; they don't have growth rings left in their centers to be counted. Botanists suspect that the oldest living redwoods may be somewhere between two thousand and three thousand years old-they seem to be roughly the age of the Parthenon.

The road became the California Coast Highway, and the Sillett brothers and Marwood Harris drove past Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, in Del Norte County. They didn't stop to look at the redwoods there. They went through Crescent City, a tired-looking town. They passed a Carl's Jr. fast-food restaurant, and a lumber mill, and bars and taverns, dark in daylight, where you could get a beer for a dollar and maybe get a fractured skull for nothing.

The redwood forests around Crescent City had been logged. The road went past stretches of open land covered with bare stumps, and past seas of young redwood trees growing on timber-company land, which looked like plantations of fuzzy Christmas trees. Here and there on the ridges were a few last stands of virgin, ancient redwoods, looming above everything else. They looked like Mohawk haircuts.

The road entered Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and the highway was suddenly lined with extremely tall redwoods. Steve Sillett began thrashing around in the back of the Crypt. "Stop the car! I'm getting out."

Marwood pulled off to the side of the road. Steve squeezed out of the back seat and took off, running into the forest. Scott and Marwood waited in the car.

"What's he doing?"

"He's looking at the trees."

"Oh, God."

They rolled down the windows. "Steve! We're not there yet! Get back in the fricking car!"

Twenty miles farther down the road, they came to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. The park occupies a sliver of wrinkled terrain, eight miles long and four miles wide, lying along the Pacific Ocean on the northern edge of Humboldt County. The North Coast along those parts is covered with rain forests, and the forests are often hidden in clouds and fog. The beaches along the North Coast are made of gray sand, gnawed by waves the color of steel. The beaches rise into bluffs, which become the California Coast Ranges, a maze of ridges and steep, narrow valleys, clad with deep temperate rain forest. The forest is dominated by coast redwoods.

As they entered the park, Steve was hunched over, staring at a map. Marwood slowed to a crawl. Trucks whipped past them. Steve ordered Marwood to stop, and he pulled off the highway and rammed the Blue Vinyl Crypt into the underbrush, to get it out of sight. They were planning to camp in some wild spot among the redwoods, but it is illegal to camp in the redwood parks except in a few public campgrounds, and they didn't want the rangers to notice their car.

They put on their backpacks and hurried along a trail that went westward, climbing toward a ridge and the ocean, passing through a redwood forest. The trees had stony-gray bark. They looked like the columns of a ruined temple. The ground was made up of rotting redwood needles, and it was covered with sword ferns-tall, stiff ferns- growing chest high. Everywhere there were spatters of redwood sorrel- small, emerald-green plants with heart-shaped leaves.

The trail came to the crest of a ridge and dropped down into a valley that opened toward the ocean. As they went over the ridge, the sound of trucks on the highway faded away. A hush came over the world, and it grew dark. There was no sunlight at the bottom of the redwood forest, only a dim, gray-green glow, like the light at the bottom of the sea. The air grew sweet, and carried a tang of lemons. They became aware of a vast forest canopy spreading over their heads.

Steve Sillett moved out ahead along the trail, and Marwood Harris followed close behind him. Scott Sillett lingered, holding his binoculars in his hands and looking and listening for birds. It was so quiet in the redwood forest that he could hear the sound of his breathing. The trunks of the redwoods were grooved pedestals extending upward into hidden structures. He imagined that they were silent ruined towers of Middle-earth. Birds were moving in the canopy, but the birds were few and were quiet, for they don't sing in the autumn. He was hoping to see a varied thrush.

"Scott, we need to keep moving." Steve was standing up ahead, tapping his foot restlessly.

Scott watched his younger brother disappear down the trail. He thought that there was something fragile about Steve. Steve was a restless person, driven, passionate, intense, and he always seemed to be running out of time. He concealed his insecurity and sensitivity in a shell of prickliness and a weird sense of humor. Steve had a gloomy streak, and a tendency to be moody, to become angry and depressed, as if he had a hidden wound that oozed and could never heal. He also had an impulsive, generous nature, and his kindheartedness could get him into trouble.

The Sillett brothers had grown up sharing a bunk bed in a little bedroom in a duplex house with a neat yard in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Scott had claimed the top bunk, because he was older, and Steve had slept in the bottom. As children, they had invented a private language, which no one else could understand, and they still sometimes spoke it with each other. It sounded like some kind of bizarre German. Their father, Terence B. Sillett, had majored in mathematics in college but had been unemployed for a number of years. Before he stopped working, he had been a salesman. He had sold insurance, real estate, and auto parts, and he had also worked as a chimneysweep, but he had developed spiritual longings. Eventually, he grew a beard and began meditating and spending a lot of time reading books on reincarnation and Hinduism and esoteric forms of Christianity. "I wanted to understand what the being called Christ was," Terence Sillett explained to me once.

The boys' mother, Julianna Sillett, discussed matters with Terence, and they decided to switch roles. She became the full-time money- earner in the family. She was a registered nurse, and she got a job working in the labor-and-delivery room at a hospital in Harrisburg. Terence stayed at home during the day and took care of the boys and their sister, Liana, the youngest of the Sillett children. He did the grocery shopping, cooked meals for the children, made their school lunches, supervised their homework, and he tucked them into bed when their mother was working the night shift at the hospital. Alcohol became a steady companion of Terence Sillett.

From the Hardcover edition.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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SAF, January 2, 2013 (view all comments by SAF)
This reads like a mystery as researchers search for giant Redwood trees in northern California. A testament to the passion to learn and discover.
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Alice Royer, January 1, 2013 (view all comments by Alice Royer)
An exciting book about climbing trees over 350 feet which have incredible canopies, some with crustaceans from the sea, bushwhacking through wild stream beds, wonderful people living in the Pacific North West, and stories about forests in other parts of the world.
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LMcGuff, September 5, 2012 (view all comments by LMcGuff)
The Wild Trees chronicles the development of redwood tree canopy studies, focusing on the personalities of the people driven to search for the tallest trees in the world, and then to climb them to see what’s up there.

The personalities are interesting, it’s true. Finding the tallest tree in the world isn’t enough of a driving interest to receive funding, so the initial research is done on the weekends by a convenience store clerk. However, his persistence in this search brings him into contact with others, such as Stephen Sillett, and together they discover a completely new world.

It used to be thought that forest canopies were just the leaves and branches of the trees, maybe some bird nests, but nothing very interesting. Just about every canopy, at every level, is a startlingly diverse ecosystem. Preston compares the experience of the original tree climbers to that of Jacques Cousteau, discovering a new world with his scuba equipment.

The book is described as “narrative nonfiction,” which means Preston uses some of the story telling tools of fiction to build an arc. And there were times when I felt genuine tension in reading the book. I can guess the general circumstances of even a very well-done thriller, but there were times reading this book I had no idea how an event would turn out. We’re carried through the lives, loves, and losses of all the people involved in this research.

Having said that, I’d have liked the book to focus more on the science and a little less on the personalities. At least a guide for further reading (or viewing -- there have been TV documentaries about Sillett and canopy research). I liked that scientific research isn’t all glamorous (particularly anything involving Australian leech forests) and that scientists sometimes have messy personalities. But I would have liked more about the canopy itself.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780812975598
Author:
Preston, Richard
Publisher:
Random House Trade
Author:
Various
Subject:
Trees & Forests - General
Subject:
Plants - General
Subject:
Ecology
Subject:
Forest canopies.
Subject:
Coast redwood - California, Northern
Subject:
Coast redwood - Ecology -
Subject:
Plants - Trees
Subject:
General science
Subject:
Nature Studies-Trees
Subject:
Earth Sciences
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
February 2008
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
3 MAPS; 10 ILLUSTRATIONS
Pages:
320
Dimensions:
7.94x5.16x.70 in. .50 lbs.

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Related Subjects


Science and Mathematics » Botany » Trees and Shrubs
Science and Mathematics » Environmental Studies » Forests
Science and Mathematics » Geology » Earth Sciences
Science and Mathematics » Nature Studies » General
Science and Mathematics » Nature Studies » Trees
Science and Mathematics » Physics

The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring Used Trade Paper
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Product details 320 pages Random House Trade - English 9780812975598 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "[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.)
"Review A Day" by , "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." (read the CSM review)
"Review" by , "When he sticks to science [Preston] is without rivals in his ability to relate complex biological systems to a lay audience."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "[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."
"Review" by , "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-)"
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "[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."
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