The Wild Trees

Richard Preston recognized a good story when he heard about Steve Sillett, ninja climbs and the quest for the tallest tree. He told the story effectively in “Climbing the Redwoods”, written for the New Yorker (ninja version here), and republished in Best American Science Writing 2006. He has managed to write it again, even better, as a full book, The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring. [Update – September 5/07. See “Upwardly Mobile” by Robert Macfarlane in the Guardian, September 1/07 for review of other books about climbing trees.]

There is a science story is how much botanists learned when they started to climb into the canopy of the fragments of the California Redwood forest. Botany and ecology reached into the canopy when Sillett, having learned arborists’ climbing techniques began to translate his passion for trees and climbing into scientific papers and the quest for the tallest living tree. Climbing tall trees was a good way to observe things that no one had seen or measured before. Sillett learned a lot, involved senior and established botanists, and published some big papers.

The passion comes, in part, from Preston himself. He learned to climb. He climbed with Sillett and his teams in California and Australia. He taught his children to climb, and he may have been the first tourist to visit Scotland to climb the remnants of the Caledonian Forest canopy. His enthusiasm for climbing is palpable when he writes of birds flying below a climber, and squirrels who nestle on humans, not recognizing humans in trees as a threat.  The passion also appears in Preston’s account of Steve Sillett and some of his friends – his wife Marie Antoine, his friend Michael Taylor. Preston presents them as alienated from their peers, fond of Tolkien and Dungeons and Dragons, vaguely Green, and drawn to climbing and trees for reasons that they never fully understood. They climbed for reasons that had little to do with science, but gained verifiable information, publicized their findings, and turned it into a successful set of scientific project. Sillett’s passion can be seen as an obsession, which alienated his first wife, who thought that he didn’t love her enough. I think Preston handled this part of the story well. He understands the language of relationships well enough, but he presented the facts dispassionately, without presenting Sillett, Taylor and others as the pained victims of ignorant, impatient and selfish partners and parents, or as obsessed with climbing at the expense of relationships.

The daring comes from the stories of how Sillett learned to climb – the friends and companions who cratered, and the medical asides that described how a falling branch runs down a climber’s rope, and what happens when a climber, a branch, a dead crown, or a giant tree, falls to the ground. There  is a scary scene when a party spend the night in the Dyerville Giant in a windstorm. Preston creates suspense by letting us know that the Giant fell, and fudging about whether he is fictionally recreating the thoughts of a (not) doomed party.

I have been a great fan of the Scots musician and singer Dick Gaughan, who has recorded several songs written by Brian McNeill. McNeill wrote several songs about Scots who emigrated to America and Australia. In 1998 Gaughan used a line from the chorus of McNeill’s song “Muir and the Master Builder“, “Redwood Cathedral” as the title of an album released on the Appleseed label in North America. The song is about John Muir, the eccentric  journalist and poet who publicized the High Sierras and conservation so effectively that he became a leading figure in building public support for the formation of the American National Park system. It’s a great song, and Gaughan’s performance brings out its quality. Fragments of the great redwood forests have survived in California, in spite of the best efforts of the modern logging industry, and Muir can justly be called one of the saviours of the redwoods. There is a line in the song that I hadn’t appreciated until I read The Wild Trees: “had a different fortune called, would you have done the same for Scotland the brave …” The Hibernian forest is dying. The last wolves in Scotland died in the 18th century and the Scottish red deer (same animal as the North American elk or wapiti) has proliferated. The red deer browse on the Scots pine, and it isn’t reproducing. The forest is dying, although conservationists are trying to bring it back by planting trees and fencing fertile and growing trees. (They could try shooting a more elk and bringing back wolves to the Highlands). I hadn’t known that, until I read Preston’s account of his own climbs in Scotland.

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