One of my favorite places in the world has always been California's most remote regions, far away from the crowds and traffic, the foggy Northwesternmost coast of Eureka and Arcata and Crescent City. Redwood country. It's a long ways from anywhere – five, six hours at least from San Francisco along some really winding roads. The chilly damp, grey-skied and very green forests aren't for everyone, but every time I've visited friends and vacationed there, I feel like I'm visiting somewhere I belong.
Part of that big appeal is the redwoods, utterly epic giants of trees that are so big they become your environment rather than just part of it. You can walk through a redwood forest and not even see the tops of most of the trees. It's a cool place, full of much mystery, and so Richard Preston's great book The Wild Trees is like a travelogue of another planet – the world that exists on top of the redwoods. A few years back Preston wrote a fascinating New Yorker article following those who explored the redwood canopy – 200, 300 feet above the ground, where unknown to science until only a few years ago, entire ecosystems had formed in the crowns of redwoods. There are epiphytes (plants growing on the redwoods), soil formed over decades, species of animals unknown to science, and much more. Preston later expanded that article into this deeply evocative book.
The Wild Trees is a must for anyone interested in how much we still don't know about the natural world. He digs into the stories of those spellbound by the redwoods, a handful of dreamers, botanists and adventurers who've been scaling the redwoods, searching for their secrets. Gradually folks like Humboldt University professor Stephen Sillett realize just how little anyone knows about the inaccesible peaks of tall trees, and that hidden in the foggy remote canyons of Northwestern Cailfornia are trees that are the tallest in the world.
Preston – who wrote The Hot Zone a few years back – balances history, ecological musings and his own growing fascination with redwood country. He puts you right there as his cast scale redwoods with impossible skill – relying on a single rope or two to hold their life dangling 300 feet in the air. I seriously doubt I'll ever climb one of the world's tallest trees, but Preston's tense, spare prose put me right there in the canopy. (And harrowingly brings home what it'd be like to fall in one terrifying scene.) A New York Times review puts it well – "Preston combines the thrill of exploration with the quirkiness of those who choose it as their lives’ work."
He's clearly awed by the redwoods, but avoids too much new-agey tree-hugging sentiment in favor of letting the facts speak for themselves: "Botanists think that the oldest redwoods may be somewhere between two thousand and three thousand years old. They seem to be roughly the age of the Parthenon." And estimates are that since people began buzzing around, about 95 percent of the coast redwoods are gone. The Wild Trees is an invitation to a world most of us will never see, a reminder that there's a heck of a lot more going on in this big blue marble than we can imagine.