From ground level, a grove of redwoods can be awe-inspiring and even overwhelming. You can’t see where the trees end and are only presented with lengths of trunk. Imagine what it must be like to be at the top of one of these giants and able to navigate the limbs and branches and even to go from tree to tree (skywalking, they call it). Richard Preston’s book, The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring, propels us on a journey among the trees and into the lives of the individuals who explore these giant redwoods.
Some of the largest remaining stands of redwoods are along the California coast, trees that are two and three thousand years old. “The coast redwood tree is an evergreen conifer and a member of the cypress family. Its scientific name is Sequoia sempervirens. …No one knows exactly when or where the redwood entered the history of life on earth, though it is an ancient kind of tree, and has come down to our world as an inheritance of deep time.” The world’s forests have largely disappeared. Studying these relics and the species that inhabit them is of value in understanding the impacts of climate change and global warming on the planet.
Like the ocean depths that are out of sight and relatively unexplored, the treetops of redwoods sat undisturbed and unmeasured in any concerted way until the 1970’s and 1980’s. Climbing to the canopy using ropes and wearing a saddle was difficult enough. Creating the tools and the techniques to actually perch or sit at the top was another challenge altogether. The individuals who dare to tackle this heady, but dangerous, pursuit are mostly men and often degreed biologists. They are motivated, possibly even driven, to locate the tallest tree, to map an entire range, or to study the lichens that live high above.
In true New Yorker style (Preston is a staff writer), Preston combines science with the personal stories of Steve Sillett, Marie Antoine, Michael Taylor, and others. The book is an engrossing adventure story writ large, made more so by the gentle surprise, three-quarters of the way in, of Preston’s own tree climbing experiences in New Jersey and then with Sillett. Eventually Preston’s wife and three children get trained and together they climb in the Scottish Highlands.
Throughout, you share in the excitement of climbing ever higher and of sleeping in a Treeboat. You hold your breath as they gingerly walk upon a slender branch. You are in awe of the quiet and the beauty and are reminded of the opening line from Evangeline: “This is the forest primeval.” Forests worth appreciating and worth studying.