Book Review: The Wild Trees – by Richard Preston

Hidden in the largely uncharted rain-forests of Northern California are the largest organisms in the world, the giant coast redwood trees.

In this non-fiction book, Preston writes about a group of young botanists and nature lovers, or, more precisely, tree lovers, who set out starting in 1987, with little more than juvenile passion, to climb redwood trees and learn about them.

As we follow their endeavors, risking their lives everyday, we realize just how treacherous climbing of giant trees actually is. To get access, you shoot a line with a bow and a weighted arrow over a strong – you hope – branch high on a tree, at least 75 feet up, and work your way up a climbing rope using an ascender. Then, once amongst branches, you secure yourself, similarly to the way rock climbers do, to the tree, and you continue to work your way up. Once in the canopy, there are ways to traverse horizontally into neighboring trees, since the branches usually interlock, forming a whole ecosystem high above the forest floor, largely even out of sight from the ground.

Deep in the canopy is a vertical universe filled with mosses, lichen, spotted salamanders, hanging gardens of ferns, grottos in “armpits” of trees, complete with dirt and other plants that have lived there for sometimes thousands of years, totally untouched by any human. There are tickets of huckleberry bushes, all growing out of the massive trunk systems that have fused and formed flying buttresses, sometimes carved into blackened chambers hollowed out by fires called “fire caves.”

And the people doing the exploring are a handful of scientists and unlikely and colorful characters. A laborer and grocer, dropped out of school, that never found a purpose in life, turns out to be the leading, and completely respected, finder and cataloguer of the world’s tallest trees.

In this book, Preston follows this surprisingly small number of individuals from 1987 through 2007, as their careers build, as they conquest the canopies, as they climb to the world’s very tallest trees, reaching almost 380 feet.

The tallest redwoods are, by design of these explorers, kept a tight secret, lest they be destroyed by an influx of tourists. It comforts me to know that they know where the groves of the giants are and they are not telling anyone about them.

It is frightening to learn how much the logging companies, encouraged also by the policies of the current administration in Washington, are encroaching on the remaining redwood forests. Knowing that it takes 500 to 1,000 years to grow an old growth forest back, and that the oldest trees are over 2,000 years old, this is an unbelievable treasure that we have here in California. It is mind-boggling when I recognize that we are risking all this so we can have a redwood deck behind our house.

Reading “The Wild Trees” has made me aware of a whole different world that I knew nothing about. I am a hiker, and I am casually fascinated with nature, but I knew very little about the ancient and elusive world of the tall tree ecosystems. I followed the human side of the story, and I learned a great deal about the wild trees.

Rating - Four Stars