Friday, January 11, 2008

Big red tree grew up and out

Richard Preston came to national prominence with the Hot Zone. At once introducing Ebola to the American public and then telling the tale of how the horrific disease nearly broke out in the DC area, the book was a huge success, got the attention of President Clinton and briefly raised consciousness about public health.

His new book, the Wild Trees, has a much happier topic, although it retains the emphasis on danger. The narrative follows twenty plus years in the lives of people fascinated by trees, particularly the Redwoods of Northern California. Most of the book is about tree exploration. To call it tree climbing minimizes the danger, the wonder of discovery and the passion these explorers experience.

The book begins in the late 80s when college student Stephen Sillett, now a professor at Humbodlt State, feels compelled to climb a Redwood, something no one had done. He discovered that there was an unknown ecosystem at the tops of these trees and that he personally would devote his life to understanding them. Much of the book is given to his and to his eventual circle of friend's discovery of the tallest trees in California. Like many explorers in the past, these people are outsiders if only because their passion makes them and their choices peculiar to others. One of the greatest discovers of tall Redwoods was careful when he talked to botanists because he didn't want them to know he was a grocery clerk.

Sillett came close to dying once or twice in his first climb and a good deal of the book is about the danger of tree exploration and the development of equipment and techniques to make it safer. The experience of a survivor of a 100 foot tree fall (50 feet is normally the guaranteed death height) is brutal in it's detail. Preston seems worried that this book will inspire unready people to climb. He does make tree climbing sound exhilarating and worth experiencing, but he won't say where the various trees described in the book are and states that much training is required.

Preston writes for the New Yorker, which is a signal that he is one of the great non-fiction writers. His ability to communicate experience is put to great use in this book, as the exploration of giant trees is far beyond the experience of most readers and is not obviously interesting. Preston makes it intensely engaging by capturing the thrill and the almost religious elements of the activity.

The book is marred by being a tad long, despite being a short book. After a while, the stories of exploration become a bit similar and the emphasis shifts to personal relationships and the author's own tree climbing. These chapters aren't quite as interesting, but with that in mind, this is an excellent read and a reminder that there is much left to be learned about the Earth. Here is an excerpt of the book.

1 comment:

M. D. Vaden of Oregon said...

The book was great reading, aside from the dissapointment of no photos of those giant California redwoods.

But I've got that covered now, both for me, and others...

Grove of Titans and Atlas Grove redwoods

A fairly good assortment of pics between that page and the albums linked from it.


M.D. Vaden of Oregon