LMcGuff, September 05, 2012
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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.