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Kids climb trees. Then they grow up and climbing trees is one of the things of childhood they put away. Except some don't give it up. Some keep it as a hobby, and some even make academic careers from climbing trees. Richard Preston is the hobbyist kind. He is better known as a nonfiction author of such bestsellers as _The Hot Zone_ and _The Demon in the Freezer_, scary nonfiction books about dangerous diseases. He has turned his attention to tree-climbing, done by him and by professional and amateur tree enthusiasts in _The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring_ (Random House). There are still scary stories here, because this isn't the sort of tree climbing that kids do. These climbers take special equipment and haul themselves up the redwoods, 35 stories high. Sometimes they fall, but the risk of the endeavor does not seem to the attraction. They have a romantic obsession with the big trees; some of them have harnessed the obsession into academic papers and college careers, but others just climb to do so. The tree canopy sounds like an enticing place, as Preston describes it, "a world between the ground and the sky, an intermediary realm, neither fully solid nor purely air, an ever-changing scaffold joining heaven and earth, ruled by the forces of gravity, wind, fire, and time." Understandably, most of us aren't going to visit there, and most of us aren't going to meet the climbers who are smitten by the canopy, but Preston's lovely, enthusiastic descriptions of the climbers and the climbed make this an enticing report from a foreign world.

Botanists estimate that the bigger ones are over two thousand years old. Many of the tree climbers here are motivated to find the one tallest tree (and by the end of the book, they do find it, but no tree and no record stands forever). How tall a tree is would seem to be something easy to measure, but measuring a tree that is 360 feet tall to within an inch is a technical challenge. The only real way to measure the height of a tree for documentation of record-breaking is to go up with a measuring tape. There is more to such climbs, though, than breaking records. No one had suspected, before people started climbing in the canopy and spending time there, that there was "what amounted to coral reefs in the air". Not just redwoods are up there, but whole ecosystems based upon the trees, consisting of plants and animals that never come down, or that die if they do come down. There are ferns, huckleberries, earthworms, and salamanders up there, and even other trees; hemlocks, laurels, spruces, and Douglas firs have all been found growing with roots hundreds of feet in the air. The enthusiasts who scale these heights use specialized gadgets and ropes. A hammock called a Treeboat is used for overnighting in the trees, but it is a good idea to keep an extra rope on yourself in case you roll out of bed during the night. Preston has had to keep some of his secrets; the locations of some of the trees and groves he describes are given only in general terms to keep them from being tourist sites. Recreational climbing will damage a tree; "a stray kick of a climber's boot, and centuries' worth of soil and plants could be knocked off a branch." One of the most experienced climbers keeps his rope techniques classified, as he does not want recreational climbers to take advantage of them.

It isn't all biology and technology here. The humans involved are more than just tree-huggers. One is famous for finding the biggest trees, but has an intense and crippling fear of heights. Steve Sillett climbed a redwood for a lark when he was nineteen, and has been climbing and writing scientific papers on the trees and the creatures they contain for the past thirty years. Marie Antoine, a tomboy who climbed trees as a girl, did similar research, specializing on Lobaria itself. Sillett and Antoine are the stars of the book, eventually dating high up in the branches; lovemaking in a Treeboat sounds complicated. There was one big problem when they eventually got married: "The problem was to find a minister who could climb a redwood." Preston himself describes his own process of learning to climb, and that of his family who took too it. "I think it's very likely that we were the first tourists ever to visit Scotland to climb trees," he writes, and they were the first to explore the canopy of the Scotch pines there. There are plenty of ecological lessons here, whether in Scotland or California, most of them having to do with how humans have been bad for the huge forests that used to cover the temperate zones. The climbers, however, have the sort of love and respect for the trees, and the interest in learning about their biology, that may help preserve and expand the current protected stands. Let us hope Preston's informative book helps, too.
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on April 28, 2007
My wife and I are voracious readers and often settle for books that are OK, but not noteworthy. Every so often a jewel pops out of nowhere and The Wild Trees is just such a book.

We were early readers of The Life of Pi, and feel this book is just such a read. Editorially, they are miles apart, but both books surprise you by just being wonderful and refrshing.

Within 30 pages of the start, you will be breathless, and then the character development begins. There is the poor son of a billionaire, a wonderful love story and of course the trees. The wonderful magnificent trees. And, it's all true.

I just bought 12 copies to send to my reading friends and just felt it would be a good thing to let others know.

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With the publication of The Wild Trees, Richard Preston has added one more magical book of nonfiction to the impressive list of books he has written.

This book, an exploration of the miniature world of the coast redwood trees of northern California, will imprint on your mind an indelible picture of the bounteous nature.

These gentle behemoths, the largest and tallest living things on our planet, the "blue whales of land", are awe-inspiring indeed. But they are also fragile, says the author. The largest of these trees has a thirty feet wide trunk, and it is more than three hundred fifty feet tall. The author explores the world of these wild trees with the help of Steve Sillett and Marie Antoine, a couple, both of them botanists, and Michael Taylor, a son of a wealthy real estate developer, and a small group of botanists and amateur naturalists.

This book will open your eyes to the grandeur of these trees. And it will show you the small world of insects, mosses, lichens, wandering salamanders and other small animals, ferns and plants and bushes such as huckleberry and even small trees, all living and thriving on the branches and trunks of these coast redwood trees. Exploring the canopy of these wild trees is an arduous task indeed; to climb a tree one must carry a heavy load of very long ropes and climbing gear. The author took lessons in climbing a tree at a tree-climbing school in Atlanta.

While we can all rejoice that quite a few of these sequoias are allowed to live for now in Northern California and also a couple of other parts of our country, we should always remember that ninety-six percent of the ancient redwood trees have been felled by the logging industry. What are left, writes Richard Preston, are "like a few fragments of stained glass from a rose window in a cathedral after the rest of the window has been smashed and swept away."

Combining the splendor of nature with the magic of his pen, the author has written a book filled with thrilling adventure and charming anecdotes. Written in mellifluous prose with exceptional clarity, parts of the book read like a romance novel. And some parts read like a horror novel also, full of scary situations. This book will make you shake your head with awe, and fill your heart with a renewed respect for not only the giant sequoia trees, but also for all living things in nature.
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This brilliantly written story combines science and trees and climbing into one long adventure that makes the reader happy and brings these great trees to life. Redwoods are massive, the tallest trees int he world and the tallest one has recently been discovered at 379 meters by Michael Taylor, a tree surfer and avid climber who pioneered new climbing techniques. This book explores not only his story but that of many others who have come to love the Redwoods and understand them.

The trees themselves are more than 2,000 years old, at least the oldest are and there is much we can learn about our world through them. They contain up to 50% of all the new species being discovered in the world today in their living canopies. A veritable ecosystem grows up in the canipy of the tree, so that there are in fact mini-climate zones within the trees expanse.

This book evokes the granduer and majesty of the natural environment and those that have pioneered studies and also climbing and other mavericks and wonder-lusts.

A brilliant, rollicking book.

Seth J. Frantzman
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on May 6, 2007
[Edited to add: Read The Hidden Forest by Jon Luoma instead--a much better book.] The Hidden Forest: The Biography of an Ecosystem
Richard Preston's book, Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring, is really a story of obsession and recklessness. It is clear that, for both the author and the subject of the book, the quest for knowledge is just an excuse for adrenaline addiction. While Preston does give us glimpses of the interesting and intricate biology of the canopy of the redwood forest, and of other forests, I would like to have learned much more about these plants and animals. I would also have appreciated knowing far less about many of the people in the story, especially Steve Sillett. I found myself skipping over the melodrama and the self-destruction so I could get to the good parts about the trees.

At the beginning of the story, Steve Sillett is a dangerous idiot who doesn't even know how to check the oil in his car. He free-climbs a giant redwood with the full knowledge that what he is doing is illegal and very likely to kill him. As the story progresses and Sillett becomes a professor of botany, you think he might have learned something. When Richard Preston asks to be taken up into the canopy, 350 feet above the forest floor, Sillett seems to have the good sense to say no. He says, "Not only are the redwoods sensitive to damage from climbing but the whole habitat of the redwood canopy is fragile." And, refering to the safety of the climber, he says, "These trees are gnarly. There are places in the Atlas Grove where I can't justify the risk of letting anyone climb." Just a few pages later, Sillett is leading the amateur climber up into the canopy. When they go to Australia to "study" the tall trees there, they are told by the local climbing expert that not only should they not climb the trees while it's windy, they shouldn't even be in the forest on a windy day, due to the significant hazard of dead wood falling and killing someone. Of course, Sillett leads Preston and his wife on a climb high into the canopy on a very windy day while the trees are rocking. There are about a dozen points in the story where Sillett could easily have been killed. That he didn't die doesn't make him heroic, only lucky.

This would have been a great book if it had been about the trees. Instead, the story glorifies the "spirit of adventure," which is actually just plain foolishness, of the author and the subject. Sillett says of the redwood canopy, "If people start climbing around in it for recreational reasons, it will inevitably be damaged." The hero treatment that Preston gives Sillett will only encourage young adventurers to do exactly what he says they shouldn't. The book proclaims it is about the love of these magnificent trees, but I fear it will do more damage than good.

I have walked through the redwoods, and it was one of the best days of my life. There was an amazing amount to see while sticking to the trail. If I can see a 340 foot giant from the trail, do I really need to bushwhack and damage the ecosystem to see a tree that's 30 feet taller? This book should have cultivated a love of the trees for their own intrinsic beauty, and for what they can teach us about our world. Instead it pitches the trees as a playground for adventure, and this attitude is bound to lead to habitat damage.
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on April 23, 2007
I saw Mr. Preston on the Daily Show and thought his book might be an interesting read - boy was I surprised. The book was unlike anything I had ever read. I liked to climb trees as a boy and now that I'm retired I enjoy hiking alone in the forest. I have hiked in the redwood forests described in the book but had absolutely no clue what was really above me.

The book describes a whole world that almost all humans are unaware exists. Reading this book was like reading about some far away, and just discovered, planet.

There are books, and then there are "BOOKS" - this is a "BOOK"!!!

Thanks Richard

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on April 21, 2007
Mr. Preston has made a career from writing thrillers about killer diseases (The Hot Zone -- 1994; The Demon in the Freezer -- 2002; The Cobra Event -- 1997). In "The Wild Trees", the author shifts direction and writes about the the Redwoods trees of California (hence the title). While not the thriller like his earlier books, it is interesting about a little known topic. The heart of the book is about the lives of the eccentric scientists who climb the Redwoods for exploration. It is a good read on a cool spring night.
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on May 8, 2007
Speaking as someone who loves to climb trees, I can only imagine the rush that would come with scaling one of the venerable giants Richard Preston ably describes in this enchanting book. However, as someone who also respects nature and wishes it to endure, I can only hope those who read this book don't come away inspired to actually seek out the redwoods and use them as tools in a quest for an adrenaline thrill. The plain fact is, even though they are ancient in the extreme, the redwood forests are delicate environments, and human presence is the most perilous threat the trees have faced in perhaps twenty centuries of existence. If there's a criticism I have for this book, it's that Preston could have focused less on adventure and even more than he did on biology, as the fact that here on earth these awe-inspiring trees actually exist is subject matter enough.

Still Preston did a lot right. Giving readers magical descriptions of the tallest trees on earth and the biomes they support, The Wild Trees is the sort of book that awakens the imagination and bestows appreciation of the glory of the living cathedrals that are the redwood forests, these kingdoms of trees, many pre-dating Christ, beings with the capacity to outlive our own era by millennia. Telling the story of these giants, Preston uses worshipful prose that evokes what it surely must be like to stare upward into the canopy as just the right "bloom" of sunlight strikes the morning mist and falls like water through to the ground.

I would have liked less glorification of the interloping climbers who dared (in multiple meanings of the word) to reach the top of even the most imposing of redwoods but Preston, who also wrote a chilling book called The Hot Zone, which was about the world's little known close call with a deadly disease outbreak in the 1990's, knows how to make a potentially staid topic more than interesting and perhaps felt these elements were needed in order to reach a broader audience.

The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring is a book that I think will stick with a reader and provide deeper appreciation for our natural treasures. Most of all, after reading this book, I now wish I'd have gone and visited these trees when I was in northern California last summer. Maybe someday...
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on October 9, 2008
As a Certified Arborist, I was very eager to read this book. I spend most of my working hours aloft, in trees, so this book was right up my alley (tree). Unfortunately, the author's lack of interesting character development and a rambling narrative style made me not like this book, at all. It was tough to make it through. Indeed, what little character development there was made me dislike most of the climbers in this book. I was especially annoyed with the individuals who illegally climbed the big trees as younger men and then, once they had made some measurements and published a few scientific papers on that subject, soon became reactionary elitists who kept the trees to themselves and their colleagues via secret maps and such. What a bunch of garbage. Yes, only they (conveniently) deemed themselves worthy of climbing the tall trees. Also, as a skilled rope climber these past many years, I found myself laughing out loud at the terms this author used to describe well known climbing techniques. Double crotching became "sky walking," lanyard ropes/second lines became "spider lines" and other such silliness. In all fairness, since the author is a recreational climber it is fairly obvious that he is using the terms that he learned from his climbing instructors. Those instructors saw a way to cash in on the public's interest in tree climbing and so they took the techniques from the pros and gave them their own more romantic/picturesque names. Another annoying thing is that the true pioneers in our business are missing, entirely, from this book. A reader of this book, new to tree climbing, would think that climbing began in the 1980's with the rec climbing movement. In reality, professional arborists and big timber workers have been roping their way up trees before that. It would have been nice to see some of the true climbing pioneers like Beranek and his contemporaries mentioned in this book. All in all this book was a disappointing, boring read.
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VINE VOICEon June 10, 2007
Some of this book was more soap operatic than I thought it needed to be but overall it was a fascinating portrait of obsession--and thank goodness for that obsession for without it we'd be bereft of one of nature's true treasures. The book was a lovely tribute to the passion of those who find worth in what is truly an amazing organism. This book gave me a much deeper appreciation for the redwoods and that impresses me because when I visited Muir Woods I felt plenty of awe.

Preston's writing is at its most beautiful when he's telling the story of Marie Antoine. His writing was both evocative and touching and laid the foundation for Antoine's later fascination with trees. Another strength lies in the fact that Preston makes no judgments about the people about whom he writes and he does a wonderful job of conveying that they're real, complex people and he holds a mirror to the fact that though their obsession may seem foreign to most, we are all prey to our own obsessions, whatever they may be.

I found the ending of the book to be quite sad as well as a very subtle call to action. If we, in our insatiable quest for power and cheap goods, do not protect the gifts with which nature provides us, we will lose them forever.
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