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

About rhapsodyinbooks

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