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The Wild Trees
Cover of The Wild Trees
The Wild Trees
A Story of Passion and Daring
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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...
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...
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  • 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 canopyvoyagers 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.

    From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpts-

  • Chapter One VERTICAL EDEN

    NAMELESS

    One day in the middle of October 1987, a baby-blue Honda Civic with Alaska license plates, a battered relic of the seventies, sped along the Oregon Coast Highway, moving south on the headlands. Below the road, surf broke around sea stacks, filling the air with haze. The car turned into a deserted parking lot near a beach and stopped.

    A solid-looking young man got out from the driver's side. He had brown hair that was going prematurely gray, and he wore gold-rimmed spectacles, which gave him an intellectual look. His name was Marwood Harris, and he was a senior at Reed College, in Portland, majoring in English and history. He walked off to the side of the parking lot and unzipped his fly. There was a splashing sound.

    Meanwhile, thin, somewhat tall young man emerged from the passenger side of the car. He had a bony face, brown eyes, a mop of sun- streaked brown hair, and he wore a pair of bird-watching binoculars around his neck. T. Scott Sillett was a junior at the University of Arizona, twenty-one years old, visiting Oregon during fall break. He took up his binoculars and began to study a flock of shorebirds running along the surf.

    The interior of the Honda Civic was made of blue vinyl, and the back seat was piled with camping gear that pressed up against the windows. The pile of stuff moved and a leg emerged, followed by a curse, and a third young man struggled out and stood up. "Mardiddy, this car of yours is going to be the death of us all," he said to Marwood Harris. He was Stephen C. Sillett, the younger brother of Scott Sillett. Steve Sillett was nineteen and a junior at Reed College, majoring in biology. He was shorter and more muscular than his older brother. Steve Sillett had feathery light-brown hair, which hung out from under a sky-blue bandanna that he wore tied around his head like a cap. He had flaring shoulders, and his eyes were dark brown and watchful, and were set deep in a square face. The Sillett brothers stood shoulder to shoulder, looking at the birds. Their bodies were outlined against decks of autumn rollers coming in, giving off a continual roar. Scott handed the binoculars to his younger brother, and their hands touched for an instant. The Sillett brothers' hands had the same appearance-fine and sensitive-looking, with deft movements.

    Scott turned to Marwood: "Marty, I think your car should be called the Blue Vinyl Crypt. That's what it will turn into if we fall off a cliff or get swiped by a logging truck."

    "Dude, you're going to get us into a crash that will be biblical in its horror," Steve said to Marwood. "You need to let Scott drive." (Steve didn't know how to drive a car.)

    Marwood didn't want Scott's help with the driving. "It's a very idiosyncratic car," he explained to the Sillett brothers. In theory, he fixed his car himself. In practice, he worried about it. Lately he had noticed that the engine had begun to give off a clattering sound, like a sewing machine. He had also become aware of an ominous smell coming from under the hood, something that resembled the smell of an empty iron skillet left forgotten on a hot stove. As Marwood contemplated these phenomena and pondered their significance, he wondered if his car needed an oil change. He was pretty sure that the oil had been changed about two years ago, in Alaska, around the time the license plates had expired. The car had been driven twenty thousand miles since then, unregistered, uninsured, and unmaintained, strictly off the legal and mechanical grids. "I'm worried you'll screw it up," he said to Scott.

    Steve handed the binoculars to his brother and climbed into the back of the Blue Vinyl Crypt. "Dudes,...

About the Author-

  • Richard Preston is the bestselling author of The Hot Zone, The Demon in the Freezer, and the novel The Cobra Event. A writer for The New Yorker since 1985, Preston is the only nondoctor to have received the Centers for Disease Control's Champion of Prevention Award. He also holds an award from the American Institute of Physics. Preston lives outside of New York City.
    www.richardpreston.net

Reviews-

  • Publisher's Weekly

    February 19, 2007

    Reviewed by
    John Vaillant
    In 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).

  • Library Journal

    February 15, 2007
    LongtimeNew Yorker writer Preston has moved away from the topic of killer viruses, which he explored inThe Hot Zone andThe Demon in the Freezer, and on to the lofty subject of canopy biology. Unlike Margaret Lowman'sLife in the Treetops andIt's a Jungle Up There, which describe her own canopy research around the world, this book tells the story of people who have been drawn to study giant trees, interspersing facts about coastal redwoods and other giant trees with the life stories of canopy biologists whom Preston later meets and helps. At first, the narrative is somewhat disjointed, but eventually all the pieces fall into place, and Preston gives us a good understanding of why people are drawn to the study of tall trees and forest canopies. More than just a field guide, a scientific treatise, or a tribute to trees, this book covers history and people, reading more like a story than dry general science. Recommended for all public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/06.]Margaret Henderson, Virginia Commonwealth Univ., Richmond

    Copyright 2007 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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