Book Shelf: The Wild Trees: A Story Of Passion And Daring

November 15, 2007


By Richard Preston
Random House, $25.95

Tree canopy research is still a young science, partly because it's difficult to get into the canopy to see what's there, and also because until recently, scientists hadn't thought to look.

When Washington state-based biologist Nalini Nadkarni decided in the late 1970s to climb into the Costa Rican forest canopy for her work, she ran into a great deal of opposition from fellow researchers. "People said, 'What do you mean, you're going up into the trees? There's nothing up there. That's just Tarzan and Jane stuff,'" she told Richard Preston, for his new book "The Wild Trees."

Serious exploration of the world's tallest trees, California redwoods, wouldn't begin until 1987, when the main protagonists of "The Wild Trees" – Steve Sillett, then a junior at Reed College, and Michael Taylor, then a junior at Humboldt State College – realized the redwood forests were virtually unknown, in the ecological sense, both from the air and on the ground. Their obsession to learn more about these ancient giants later would take control of their lives.

Their exploration of the redwood canopy makes for a fascinating tale. Sillett maps the three-dimensional intricacies of the canopy and Taylor discovers the world's tallest tree. Preston also tells how their lives unfold under the spell of the redwoods. He does a wonderful job of interweaving intriguing science (though I would have liked more), love stories (including, yes, lovemaking in a tree), and the occasional bit of thriller, including an account of how one tree climber fell more than 100 feet to the ground, which tree climbers call "cratering," and lived to tell the tale.

If there's any weakness in The Wild Trees, it's the difficulty in visualizing how Sillett and others climb trees. This is an unusual failing for a "McPhino," or a graduate of John McPhee's Princeton University writing course, which Preston is. I found the photographs on Preston's website ( helpful in overcoming this one little flaw in the book.

Preston also describes his own forays into tree climbing. He accompanies Sillett and other researchers on a pioneering climb of mountain ash trees (Eucalyptus regnans) in southeastern Australia. It's a terrific tale – the only drawback might be that you decide that you, too, need to reclaim your primate past and learn how to climb tall trees.

Nancy Bazilchuk is a freelance environment and science writer based in Trondheim, Norway.

**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2007 issue.

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