25 October 2007

"The Wild Trees", by Richard Preston


Richard Preston’s The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring takes place in our backyard. Its main characters are people some of us know. For those reasons alone, we should all read this book. More importantly, we are now encountering people who have already read this New York Times bestseller. A few weeks ago, I had my first-ever direct question on reiterated trunks in the redwood canopy fostered by a visitor’s pre-vacation reading of this book.

Preston’s portrayals of the main characters are familiar to us. We’ve met these men and women as they pursue their passions in our parks. The leading man, Steve Sillett, a clever young biologist, unlocks the mysteries of the redwood canopy while those within his circle learn to live with his drive and ego. There’s Michael Taylor, the wayward son of an LA aristocrat, whose passion for finding the tallest redwoods is exceeded only by his fear of heights. Preston inserts himself as a character too. After joining the elite community who climb redwoods and other tall trees, he travels the world introducing his family to the unique sport.

I spoke briefly with Dr. Sillett a few weeks ago on his reaction to the book. He is clearly uncomfortable with the amount of personal information revealed––a failed marriage, his wife's troubled childhood, and initiating the exclusive 300- Foot Club. (He says he had no editorial control over the book.) But he acknowledges that if a popular book by a well-known author brings a better understanding of the endangered redwood forests, then perhaps the personal revelations serve a greater good.

As the subtitle suggests, Preston delivers more an adventure tale than a study of majestic ancient redwood forests. In this story, the trees are a verdant stage for adventure, rather than an adventure leading to an appreciation of the trees themselves. The unique and timeless redwood ecosystem is lost in the technical, recreational and emotional thrill of getting oneself into (and occasionally falling out of) the world’s highest forest canopy.
Those of us who live and work beneath the redwoods know this book will entice others to seek high adventure in the delicate, untrammeled world unveiled by Sillett’s research. SWAT-style guerilla climbing is part of the thrill, Preston discloses. Some will surely follow Preston’s lead into the highest branches of these ancient trees seeking only an adrenaline rush from awesome height and extreme physical accomplishment. Worse than the invasion of the primeval quiet, is the thought of finding their broken bodies lying among shattered epicormic branches at the feet of the towering monarchs. This possibility, once generally unconsidered, feels more probable than before the book was published.

This book is not about wild trees, but read it anyway. Preston carries you along on an adventure in a unique wilderness. The story is as engaging as the characters. Preston’s prose compels you through to the conclusion. In the end however, it's unfortunate that the redwoods serve as a mere backdrop for those driven and daring enough to scale their awesome heights, rather than standing as the rightful centerpiece of this story.

1 comment:

mdvaden said...

Well someone better leave a comment - how about me?

Stumbled upon your blog during redwood tree Googling.

Your wrote that Dr. Sillett seemed uncomfortable with personal details that were put in the book...

Sounds like a sensible view. I think that Preston may have "shot his mouth off" a bit too much about not just personal stuff, but about the trees.

For example, a chunk of what I needed to find the titans myself, was supplied by Preston's book...

The proof...

M. D. Vaden's hunt for Titan Redwoods

I first read an online excerpt of one chapter, then the book, then a week later went and found the grove. It was not without hard work, and I have extensive hiking experience in Jed Smith Redwoods, but Preston's book simplified things.

Actually, there were other leaks on the internet, that clued-me-in. But those leaks got sealed. I emailed a few folks with websites, and they already edited to remove clues that help pin-point the location.

The good part, is that I'm not the type of person who is going to publish the grove's location with a hyperlink embedded with GPS coordinates on Google Earth.

On that page link provided, the GPS link only goes to a spot near Simpson Reed Discovery trail.

Not sure what park you work in. But if in "Jed Smith", if you happen to see a 2008 burgundy Chev extended cab with 3 aluminum tool boxes around all but the tailgate - that's yours truly.

Often, I'm more busy photographing mushrooms, than I am the trees. If you look at my album via that page, you will see the fungi album.

Anyhow, enjoyed your book comment. One of the more sensible ones I've seen about the book. Most people just mimic or copy the promo stuff.

M. D. Vaden of Oregon