Hidden away in foggy, uncharted rain forest valleys in Northern California are the largest and tallest organisms the world has ever sustained–the coast redwood trees, Sequoia sempervirens. Ninety-six percent of the ancient redwood forests have been destroyed by logging, but the untouched fragments that remain are among the great wonders of nature. The biggest redwoods have trunks up to thirty feet wide and can rise more than thirty-five stories above the ground, forming cathedral-like structures in the air.
Until recently, redwoods were thought to be virtually impossible to ascend, and the canopy at the tops of these majestic trees was undiscovered. In The Wild Trees, Richard Preston unfolds the spellbinding story of Steve Sillett, Marie Antoine, and the tiny group of daring botanists and amateur naturalists that found a lost world above California, a world that is dangerous, hauntingly beautiful, and unexplored.
The canopy voyagers are young—just college students when they start their quest—and they share a passion for these trees, persevering in spite of sometimes crushing personal obstacles and failings. They take big risks, they ignore common wisdom (such as the notion that there’s nothing left to discover in North America), and they even make love in hammocks stretched between branches three hundred feet in the air.
The deep redwood canopy is a vertical Eden filled with mosses, lichens, spotted salamanders, hanging gardens of ferns, and thickets of huckleberry bushes, all growing out of massive trunk systems that have fused and formed flying buttresses, sometimes carved into blackened chambers, hollowed out by fire, called “fire caves.” Thick layers of soil sitting on limbs harbor animal and plant life that is unknown to science. Humans move through the deep canopy suspended on ropes, far out of sight of the ground, knowing that the price of a small mistake can be a plunge to one’s death.
Preston’s account of this amazing world, by turns terrifying, moving, and fascinating, is an adventure story told in novelistic detail by a master of nonfiction narrative. The author shares his protagonists’ passion for tall trees, and he mastered the techniques of tall-tree climbing to tell the story in The Wild Trees—the story of the fate of the world’s most splendid forests and of the imperiled biosphere itself.
Reviewed by John VaillantIn this radical departure from Preston's bestsellers on catastrophic diseases (The Demon in the Freezer, etc.), he journeys into the perpendicular universe of the world's tallest trees. Mostly California redwoods, they are the colossal remnants of a lost world, some predating the fall of Rome. Suspended in their crowns, hundreds of feet above the forest floor, is a primeval kingdom of plants and animals that only a handful of people have ever seen. Now, thanks to Preston and a custom-made tree-climbing apparatus called a "spider rig," we get to see it, too.According to Preston, it wasn't until the 1980s that humans made the first forays into the tops of "supertall" trees, in excess of 350 feet high. The people who pioneered their exploration are a rarefied bunch equal parts acrobat, adventurer and scientist. The book revolves around botanist Steve Sillett, an exceptional athlete with a tormented soul who found his calling while making a borderline suicidal "free" climb to the top of an enormous redwood in 1987, where he discovered a world of startling complexity and richness. More than 30 stories above the ground, he found himself surrounded by a latticework of fused branches hung with gardens of ferns and trees bearing no relation to their host. In this Tolkienesque realm of sky and wind, lichens abound while voles and salamanders live and breed without awareness of the earth below. At almost the exact moment that Sillett was having his epiphany in the redwood canopy, Michael Taylor, the unfocused son of a wealthy real estate developer, had a revelation in another redwood forest 200 miles to the south. Taylor, who had a paralyzing fear of heights, decided to go in search of the world's tallest tree. Their obsessive quests led these young men into a potent friendship and the discovery of some of the most extraordinary creatures that have ever lived. Preston's tireless research, crystalline writing style and narrative gifts are well suited to the subject. Sillett, Taylor and their cohorts, who include a Canadian botanist named Marie Antoine, are fascinating, often deeply wounded characters. Their collective passion and intensity have illuminated one of the most vulnerable and poorly understood ecosystems on this continent. Preston adds a personal twist by mastering the arcane tree climber's art of "skywalking" and partnering with Sillett and Antoine on some of their most ambitious ascents. As impressive as this is, Preston's cameo appearance disrupts the flow of the main narrative and somewhat dilutes its considerable power.John Vaillant is the author of The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed (Norton) and winner of the Canadian Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction (2005).
The Wild Trees
This has become one of my favorite books. I loved reading about the personal journeys of these characters, and I plan to visit California eventually to see the redwoods.
The Wild Trees
I purchased this book because it was written by Mr Preston. I have enjoyed all of the books I've read which were written by him. I quickly read the description and assumed this book was fiction and about people who lived in trees. I was wrong. This book is much more complex, and absolutely factual. From the beginning to the end it was interesting and exhilarating. It was a real page turner. I accidentally learned many facts while thoroughly enjoying this exciting story. I highly recommend this book.
Preston is truly the master of narrative non-fiction, breaking down and building up mind blowing concepts from the tiniest indiscriminate hot viruses to 370 foot ancient trees with oceanic plankton living in their crowns. Each book teaches me something new and this is one of his best works.