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It's Wild Up There
on April 12, 2007
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.