Could any tree steal my heart from pines? For this girl from the Great Plains, a logical candidate would be that tree of all trees, the giant redwood. In true armchair naturalist fashion, I’ve read about them often and with delicious longing, notably while studying Frederick Law Olmsted to write a children’s book. In 1863, Olmsted fled the political miseries of developing Central Park for a job managing California’s largest gold mine, but once there, he escaped labor disputes and financial strains by taking his family to caper among Big Trees near Yosemite. And of course the bard of the High Sierra has written rhapsodies on redwoods: “These kings of the forest,” said John Muir, “the noblest of a noble race rightly belong to the world. . . we cannot escape responsibility as their guardians.”
Given such a deep, though admittedly vicarious, relationship with redwoods, I confronted mixed emotions upon learning about Richard Preston’s new book, The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring. Sure, I’d love to spend more reading time with trees Preston rightly labels “the largest and tallest individual living organism that has ever appeared in nature since the beginning of life on earth.” But could Richard Preston, author of the best-selling bio-thriller on the Ebola virus, The Hot Zone, do justice to these sublime conifers?
Wild Trees’ early chapters focus on human players in the forest drama, starting from an unplanned, unassisted ascent by college students motivated not by botanical science but “tree lust.” This forestry school grad yearned for more and sooner about the biology and ecology of Sequoia sempervirens-- how do they grow so tall? Why are they so geographically restricted? What other plants and wildlife contribute to a redwood ecosystem? Writing more about the obsessed than the objects of their obsession, I assume, is Preston’s deliberate strategy to attract readers not immediately inclined toward tree books. Eventually, I saw merit in the approach, especially in the humor department (see especially the New York Times Review, “Where the Redwoods Grow, the Oddballs Also Flourish.”).
And at last, Preston won me over when he donned climbing gear to ascend the trees himself. The author explores alongside scientists and skilled amateur climbers an uncharted world 38 stories above the ground, a place he likens to “coral reefs in the air.” Suspended on spider ropes, he marvels first hand over fire caves high in massive trunks, glens of huckleberries growing 200 feet up, and hanging ferns in magical sky gardens. The authenticity of Preston’s own evolving passion is confirmed when his children join him in the treetops—though the family tackles Scotland’s ancient Caledonian pines and other lesser specimens. Photos on Preston’s Wild Trees webpage bring readers closer to that part of his story, and the book is effectively illustrated with distribution maps, sketches of champion trees, and selections from scientists’ field notes. To hear Preston speak about Wild Trees and his personal adventures, listen to one of his April 2007 radio interview with Diane Rehm. Or, to see how Preston parries Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, check here.
Again perhaps to lure a wide audience, Preston writes little about the ongoing harvesting of old growth redwoods and even less about the decades-long fight to protect the eons-old trees. To learn about the campaign and how you can help, contact Calilfornia’s Save the Redwoods League. Let’s hope that Muir is right; we must not escape responsibility as their guardians.
P.S. Muir loved pines too. He wrote, ”I drank the spicy, resiny wind, and beneath the arms of this noble tree I felt that I was safely home.”