Review of “Wild Trees” by Richard Preston

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

I lived in a public housing project until I was eight years old. There were no trees in the project. When I was eight, my family moved to a free standing house on the south-west side of Chicago. The house was quite small, but it had at least 5 trees on the property. On my first day in the new house, I could hardly contain my joy at the prospect of climbing trees. Within a week or two, I had climbed the three smallest trees to the highest branches that would support my weight. The three trees may have been young birches because they had clean white bark and a ladder like formation of branches. I could shinny up any trunk I could get my arms around, and so I did not have to be able to reach the first branch to climb a tree.

After a couple of months, I was able to try the second largest tree on the property. It was probably a catalpa, judging by the cigar-shaped pods that grew on it. It was quite a bit larger than the other three, and its bark would shed onto the clothes of anyone who would climb it. Because the first branches were much higher than I could reach, I had to shinny up the trunk abut ten feet to find a comfortable resting place, by which time my clothes would be filthy from the bark. Once I reached the first branch, however, it was a fairly easy climb to other sturdy branches about 50 feet in the air, a point that was well above any of the surrounding roof tops. Since the terrain in Chicago is as flat as a pancake, it seemed that I could see forever from my perch.

The fifth tree was a huge old oak whose trunk was simply too wide for my eight year old arms to circumscribe, and so I was never able to climb that tree.

Having been defeated in my efforts to climb a mature oak that might have been 80 feet tall, imagine how impressed I was to learn that a small group of intrepid climbers had learned to scale 360 foot California redwoods and Douglas firs to the very top. Richard Preston’s Wild Trees is the story of a quirky collection of botanists, arborists, and amateur tree climbers who embarked on a quest to discover and climb the tallest trees in the world. The term and title of the book, wild tree, refers to a previously unclimbed tree.

The heroes and heroine of the story are all archetypical “granola” types one finds in rural California and Oregon. Except for the author, the people in the book appear to be more interested in trees than in other people. In fact, I too found myself more interested in learning about the trees and the techniques of climbing them than about the interactions of the human characters.

The trees themselves, however, are thoroughly interesting. They are the largest living things on earth. Well, maybe their cousins, the sequoias, are a bit more massive, but the redwoods are taller. They are also the oldest living things. Some may have been saplings when Plato was lecturing in the Academy.

Determining which tree is actually the tallest turns out to be easier said than done. One reason is that logging companies cut down the tallest trees in accessible areas. The tallest remaining trees are in truly inaccessible areas where there are no roads and which require long bushwhacking hikes to reach. Another problem is that the tops are usually not visible to anyone standing near them—you have to be quite a distance away to see which tree rises above its neighbors.

Looking up from under a redwood

The redwoods have a remarkable structure. The tallest ones have no significant branches (i.e., sturdy enough to hold a climber) below 100+ feet above the ground. But once you reach those branches, many of them are larger than mature oak trees. Redwoods often form multiple trunks at great heights. In fact, full grown trees of different species have been found sprouting from redwood trunks high above the ground. Those large branches or other trees can be extremely dangerous because they sometimes fall or are broken off by lightening. Think of the impact an 80+ foot long, multi-ton branch makes when it hits the ground after falling 150 or 200 feet!

Redwoods are remarkably resistant to fire. Even when they burn, their remains provide very fertile space for new growth.

The first climbers into the canopy (the collection of high branches) found a previously undiscovered mini ecosystem of its own. It is home to many forms of lichen and smaller plants as well as some species of animals found nowhere else. The climbers encountered flying squirrels that had no fear of humans, never having encountered them. The canopies can be so thick and maze-like that the climbers occasionally had difficulty finding one another when they were in the same tree at about the same elevation. Old trees usually have substantial amounts of dead matter and often have large hollow spaces, which add to the perils faced by climbers.

From the online description of “Canopy Researcher Training” at Cornell University

The climbers had to develop new techniques and new equipment for their activities. They learned to shoot an arrow tied to a climbing rope over a large stable branch in order to obtain purchase for the climb. Other techniques are difficult to describe — I had trouble envisioning several procedures and tactics the author used. In fact, the author himself referred the reader to several Youtube posts where the methods were demonstrated.

This book opened up an exotic and fascinating world I didn’t even know existed. If I were much younger, I’d be tempted try my luck in the trees.

Rating: 4.5/5 for description of the trees and climbing technique and equipment.
2/5 for the interpersonal interactions of the characters.

Published by Random House, 2007

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Kid Lit Review of “The Traveling Camera: Lewis Hine and the Fight to End Child Labor” by Alexandra S. D. Hinrichs

This free verse monologue told as if in Hine’s voice and using some of his actual quotes introduces kids to Lewis W. Hine, a man who became instrumental in helping to alter America’s child labor laws. Born in 1874 in Wisconsin, Hine first became a sociology teacher before realizing that the documentary photographs he took could be used as a tool for social reform.

As art critic Billy Anania observes, “Few American photographers have captured the misery, dignity, and occasional bursts of solidarity within US working-class life as compellingly as Lewis Hine did in the early twentieth century.”

In the early 1900s, Hine traveled across the United States to photograph preteen boys working at dangerous jobs, as well as 7-year-olds selling newspapers on the street and 4-year-olds picking tobacco. Child labor was widespread and widely accepted. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that around the turn of the century, almost one-fifth of all children between the ages of 10 and 15 were working.

The “breaker boys” at a Pennsylvania coal mine, photographed by Hine in 1911. (Library of Congress)

The International Photography Hall of Fame recounted:

Eventually these images helped convince government officials to create and strictly enforce laws against child labor. The impact of these photographs on social reform was immediate and profound. They also inspired the concept of art photography, not because of the subject matter, but because the images showed a stark truth that dramatically differed from an emerging artistic character.”

Hine is shown as an adult in this book, but the focus is on the child laborers whose lives he documented with his pictures. Writing as Hine at the end of the narrative, the author states:

“Perhaps you are weary of child labor pictures. Well, so are the rest of us. But I propose to make the whole country sick and tired of the whole business, to make child labor pictures records of the past.”

In the Afterword, the author notes that more states passed better laws limiting child labor as a result of Hine’s pictures.

Back matter includes additional information about Hine and child labor; a time line for both subjects; sources; and a selection of actual photos by Hine.

Illustrations by Michael Garland give the impression of a historical moment in time, with soft images and a plethora of well-researched period details.

Evaluation: This picture book for readers 8 and up may hold surprises for young readers when they see how privileged kids lives are now compared to earlier times. They will also come away with an awareness about how art and imagery can affect perceptions and have tangible effects, a subject that can be expanded with a discussion of the uses of visual propaganda.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Getty Publications, 2021

Child laborers in glasswork. Indiana, 1908 by Lewis Hine

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Review of “Helgoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution” by Carlo Rovelli

This book functions as an introduction to quantum theory for beginners, and is quite lay-friendly. Quantum theory is that part of modern physics that explains the nature and behavior of matter and energy on the atomic and subatomic level, where a different and eerie set of rules apply.

The Helgoland of the title is the name of the island on which physicist Werner Heisenberg spent the summer of 1925 figuring out details of how the quantum level of nature might operate, expanding on the ideas of his fellow physicist Neils Bohr. Bohr had come up with a theory about the arrangement of particles in an atom. He used concepts from classical physics, like that of angular momentum, but proposed tweaks that would better explain what scientists knew about an atom’s behavior. Bohr suggested that the electron’s angular momentum around the nucleus was quantized, that is, it could only have certain discrete values. Furthermore, he made the revolutionary proposal that while electrons revolve in stable orbits around the atomic nucleus, they can jump from one energy level (or orbit) to another, a phenomenon we now refer to as a “quantum leap.” When an electron makes this leap, it either emits or absorbs a chunk of light called a photon, a concept contributed by Einstein.

Heisenberg fleshed out Bohr’s ideas, leading to other refinements by physicists including Max Born, Wolfgang Pauli, Paul Dirac, and Erwin Schrödinger. The quantum theory detailed by these scientists, while still not totally understood, has led to all manner of technological advances. We don’t know exactly how it works, just that it does. Indeed, as the brilliant physicist Richard Feynmann once said, “I think I can safely say that nobody really understands quantum mechanics,” and yet, scientists have used the theory successfully to develop nuclear energy (and bombs), transistors and semiconductors, GPS navigation, and so much more.

Rovelli, a theoretical physicist, divides this short but lucid book into two sections. First he explains the development of quantum theory the best he can. He delineates the ways in which quantum theory does not at all conform to the dictates of classical physics, the discovery of which caused a revolution in science.

In the realm of subatomic particles, as the online magazine Space.com puts it, things behave in a way that can seem totally contradictory to what we experience in the macroscopic world.

Screen shot from Dominic Walliman on YouTube explaining the different subdisciplines of physics

For example, in classical Newtonian physics, particles making up matter can be defined precisely and follow predictable trajectories. In the universe defined by quantum theory, particles are better understood using the mathematics of wave functions, by which one can only calculate probabilities, not certainties, of particular positions and momenta for particles. One reason probability works better: quantum objects behave differently when they are being observed. As a New York Times article explains:

“When we’re not looking, they exist in ‘superpositions’ of different possibilities, such as being at any one of various locations in space. But when we look, they suddenly snap into just a single location, and that’s where we see them. We can’t predict exactly what that location will be; the best we can do is calculate the probability of different outcomes.”

[I thought Rovelli a bit squeamish when he insisted on talking about the famous thought experiment of Erwin Schrödinger as involving a cat asleep or awake instead of dead or alive. It was, after all, just a thought experiment. I get that he likes cats, but the concept of “Schrödinger’s cat” is too well known for refashioning, in my view.]

Image by Gerd Altmann, via Pixabay via medium.com

That isn’t all, in terms of quantum-level weirdness. You may have heard the phrase “spooky action at a distance.” Coined by Einstein in 1947, this phrase describes another aspect of particles as revealed by quantum physics – they can become entangled with one another such that one particle can exchange information with another particle instantaneously, even if those two particles are separated by a great distance. Experiments have shown this to be true. You can see an explanatory infographic here.

In the latter part of the book, Rovelli examines different schools of thought about how to explain scientific discoveries about quantum theory.

One of them, that I found rather appealing, was “QBism,” short for Quantum Bayesianism. This particular approach holds that what we discern as reality reflects a concatenation of probabilities and beliefs about phenomena given our incomplete knowledge of the world. It takes its punny name from the early 20th century Cubism art movement, in which objects were analyzed, broken up and reassembled in an abstracted form to represent multiple viewpoints about the “truth” of the subject.

Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 by Marcel Duchamp

Rovelli’s own preferred interpretation is also rooted in the recognition that quantum experiments show that matter is not well-defined. He proposes that everything can be understood as relational. That is, nothing exists outside of the context of its interactions. Indeed, one of the earliest findings of quantum physicists, as indicated above, was that the very act of observation affects the properties of electrons. For Rovelli, this seems to lead inexorably to an adoption of the teaching of the 3rd century Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, who wrote that “there is nothing that exists in itself, independently from something else.”

Evaluation: I wasn’t so convinced by Rovelli’s philosophical conclusions, but I appreciated the way in which he makes quantum theory so understandable. And his anecdotes from the history of quantum physics were quite enjoyable. He is one of the most successful “popularizers” of physics for good reason.

Strong: 4/5

Published in the U.S. by Riverhead Books, 2021

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Kid Lit Review of “Breaking Waves: Winslow Homer Paints the Sea” by Robert Burleigh

Winslow Homer, born in 1836, became a famous American landscape painter and printmaker, best known for his marine subjects. He is considered one of the foremost painters in 19th-century America and a preeminent figure in American art, and he was largely self-taught.

The author addresses the question that interested Homer and will interest readers as well: how can paint and canvas tell the true story of what you see before you? Burleigh writes that Winslow didn’t know the answer, but knew he must keep trying to find it with respect to ocean views.

He never tired of wandering the coast in Prouts Neck, Maine, and gazing at the ocean, noticing all of its changes throughout the year. He moved between the coast and his studio, trying to capture what he saw.

Although there is narration that includes quotes from Homer’s diaries, most of the story is told through the gorgeous watercolors of Wendell Minor. Homer used watercolors on a regular basis (albeit not exclusively), and is considered to have had a revolutionary impact on its use as a medium.

Minor’s illustrations mimic Homer’s palette and effectively show different aspects of the shore that so fascinated Homer.

Backmatter includes “More About Winslow Homer” (notably, unlike many author’s notes, written in a style accessible to younger readers), a bibliography, and a hypertext-linked guide to where to see his work.

Evaluation: This introduction to a great American artist for kids 4 and over also serves as a look at how artists work, and indeed, how hard they work, in order to create something out of what inspires them.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Neal Porter Books, Holiday House, 2021

Shore and Surf, Nassau
1899, by Winslow Homer, Met Museum of Art, public domain

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Review of “Arabella” by Georgette Heyer

The star of this Regency romance is Arabella Tallant, one of eight children of a vicar without much fortune. Thankfully for Arabella, she has a well-placed godmother in London – Arabella Bridlington, after whom she was named – who offers to sponsor her for a London season, i.e., the opportunity to snag a well-placed husband. As for Lady Bridlington, she has no daughters, and welcomed the opportunity “of chaperoning a young protégée to the balls, routs, and Assemblies she herself delighted in.”

On the way to London after a carriage mishap, Arabella and her chaperone stopped and asked for succor at a posh hunting lodge as they waited for repairs. They overheard their host, the young and handsome but apparently full-of-himself Robert Beaumaris, telling his visiting friend Lord Fleetwood that he was sick of women contriving to trick him into marrying them for his fortune. Upon hearing this, Arabella decided she would pretend to be fabulously wealthy and complain about all the fortune-hunters who have plagued her.

Beaumaris, also called the Nonpareil reflecting his influence in society, was possibly wise to Arabella’s deception, but he was amused by her. He decided to show her favor in London, thus assuring her popularity. Indeed, she was soon fielding marriage proposals, albeit mainly from men clearly after her money.

In the meantime, Beaumaris found he was more than just amused by Arabella in spite of his usual resistance to women, even as Arabella warmed up to him, in contrast to her initial repugnance.

The plot moves in a predictable but fun manner as the season progresses and Arabella is ever more plagued by a bad conscience over her lie.

In the course of the story we get to know the “ton,” or upper crust of society, which is consumed not at all by work but rather by gambling, parties, and shopping. Heyer also introduces reader to a lot of the “flash” argot popular at the time, and can’t resist adding a gratuitous antisemitic slur, as she often does in her books, marring an otherwise pleasant and diverting story.

Evaluation: Heyer’s books occasionally bog down, especially when it comes to the rapturous descriptions of men’s clothing. In addition, as indicated above, she can vitiate the reader’s good will because of her antisemitism. Otherwise, her stories have the (apparently timeless) appeal of the Regency period; a generally plucky female heroine and a handsome male protagonist; and a predictably happy outcome.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published originally in 1949, and republished frequently thereafter. The edition I read was the Kindle Edition published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2018

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