The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring
California’s northern coast holds many secrets. The foggy landscape is full of imposing mountains, windswept beaches, and valleys that rival the hollows of the Smokies in terms of narrow inaccessibility. Bigfoot is rumored to live in the area, and somewhere the world’s tallest living being, a coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) named "Hyperion," stands witness to the passage of more than two thousand years.
The last remaining coast redwoods are mostly protected in a handful of state parks, and one national park , along a stretch of northern California ranging from Crescent City near the Oregon border to the Mendocino area roughly 100 miles north of San Francisco. More than 96 percent of the redwoods are already gone, cut down by loggers. The parks protect the last vestiges of a mysterious, unexplored ecosystem that rises more than 35 stories into the sky.
Into this ecosystem strode Richard Preston, the critically acclaimed author of such nonfiction thrillers as The Hot Zone, and The Demon in the Freezer. From his time there he wrote a groundbreaking nonfiction narrative, The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring, in 2007. The text chronicles the mesmerizing adventures of the few scientists and amateur botanists who study the coast redwood trees.
In his text Mr. Preston depicts the fascinating exploits of the intrepid scientists, from their college days (when most of the North Coast was simply a blank spot on the map), to 2006, when they discovered Hyperion, the world’s tallest living organism.
Among the small, close-knit group was Steve Sillett, who as a college student started climbing redwoods with just his hands and is now considered the foremost expert on the trees, and Marie Antoine, his wife and a scientist in her own right.
And then there was Michael Taylor – perhaps the most unlikely participant of them all. Mr. Taylor’s father is a real estate king in Southern California, but after a falling out Michael has only a job as a supermarket clerk to support himself and his redwood escapades.
As the scientists and others grow closer, they start to refine their climbing techniques – to the point that they are able to string hammocks more than 300 feet in the air. Ignoring what some would consider common sense (i.e. – don’t climb to a point where you can’t see the ground), Mr. Preston and the others enter into the magnificent realm of the redwoods and deepen their own friendships.
But Mr. Preston does more than just explain the intricacies of the voyagers’ relationships. The redwoods literally come alive through his masterful storytelling, and readers will find themselves unable to close the book as the trees take on their own personalities, becoming sentient beings.
The evocative, enigmatic canopy of the redwoods was just as unexplored as the mountains surrounding them when Dr. Sillett and others started their trek into botanical history in the late 1980s. Now, while the locations of individual trees are well-kept secrets to protect them, the veil has been lifted on the lush, towering garden of the canopy.
Mr. Preston transports his readers into the sky, allowing them to discover the ferns, berry bushes, mosses, lichens, "fire caves," and massive trunks that exist at the redwoods’ tops, where the branches, trunks, and everything else fuses to create the most complex living beings in the world – one tree alone, Iluvatar, has more than 220 separate trunks that stretch more than 90 meters into the air.
As they move about this living, wooden realm the travelers find new species of plants and animals growing in the redwood canopy, including salamanders and other creatures that live out their entire lives more than 300 feet above the ground.
Mr. Preston’s superlative novel will leave any reader spellbound, and wanting more. There is a taped lecture of Mr. Preston available on iTunes for free, and a trip out to the North Coast is doable on even the slimmest of budgets (fly Southwest to Sacramento and then take Amtrak train and bus connections to any of the gateway communities in the area).
While climbing the redwoods is unethical at best, and illegal at worst, Redwood National and State Parks opens its borders to anyone for more grounded exploration.
Mr. Preston does not reveal where any of the giant sentinels that he mentions are growing, but by carefully reading the text, and with some luck, you just might be able to find the Atlas Grove, Grove of Titans, the Helios Grove, or others, although it is a major taboo to reveal the trees’ locations or take photographs that could do so.
The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring is a daring, brilliant book that crafts an enthralling tale out of one of the quirkiest of topics. It is the tale of men and women who spend days on end climbing trees more than 35 stories off the ground, of ancient, majestic beings destroyed before humanity could even fathom the gigantic ecosystem that sits up in the sky.
Most of all though, Mr. Preston brings this place, a place that most people will never know and never experience, into the living rooms of America. His text will inspire you – to journey to the land of the redwoods, to try to unlock their secrets, and to protect this splendid place known as Earth.
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.