Book Reviews by Mario D. Vaden - 2009 - 2011
The Wild Trees
A Story of Passion and Daring: written by Richard Preston, pertains to forests including some of the largest known coastal redwoods of California. It's about people who find, study and climb them, combining adventure and science. The book gets 5 stars for the story. *****
In 2011, one of the book's characters provided an interesting bit of information: Hyperion the tallest redwood was discovered when the writing was near completion. And Preston added an extra chapter as the final pieces of the story fell into place.
To order that book or Forest Giants, scroll to the bottom or click: ordering
Most of the redwood and forest facts in Preston's book are accurate. The narrative and descriptions are picturesque and memorable. I hope this book becomes a classic. This Preston book is not exclusively about redwood adventure. Other forests are included like Eucalyptus at the Hume Plateau Skeleton Forest in Australia.
For those of you who read the book, recall that character Steve Sillett and others were said to be the first to ascend and enter old growth redwood canopy (p. 125, 131, 137, 157): predominantly for scientific exploration. Contrasting, an older climber Gerald Beranek, not mentioned in the book, reached the top of old growth by 1973. It seems appropriate to introduce this here.
Beranek was avid with a camera through his lifetime, enjoying and capturing beauty of redwood forests. See atreestory.com. Although his earlier old-growth climbs were not scientific, the 1970s and 1980s climbs are likewise historical passion and daring, and a very interesting piece of northern California culture and history. Beranek is also an author of some very substantial books.
Image: Gerald Beranek - 1970's / 1980's climber.
Preston's book is one that someone either likes or does not. Most readers should enjoy it. And I don't' recall many middle ground reviews. It can hold attention for hours. Some folks have called it a bit choppy, but "rugged" seems more appropriate to describe it. The style feels like a good storyteller sharing an adventure while sitting around a campfire.
It's worth adding that Preston did an excellent job of keeping track of facts. I've read short news articles about record conifer discoveries, where writers had difficulty keeping the facts straight. Not blaming them ... it should be a challenge to grasp new concepts. I'm just saying that Preston did very well. Because he did not invent the entire story from scratch. That would have been easy. He mixed-in a ton of existing facts and information, and that's not usually an easy task.
The main characters are Steve Sillett and Marie Antoinne who become redwood canopy researchers, and Michael Taylor, a naturalist and explorer who discovers the tallest known redwood with Chris Atkins, another man with passion for tall redwoods. The visual aspect of the book is comprised of black and white illustrations by Andrew Joslin. One intricate drawing of a redwood called Iluvatar offers a sense of scale.
I've been to several of the groves described, and realize that Preston enlarges the truth sometimes, but that doesn't ruin the story. Just realize that the redwoods and climbing are romanticized, and Preston wrote for shock and awe. It seems that wherever a superlative could be used, it was. But that may be what makes it such a good story to read. Seriously, it's fun to read.
One remarkable aspect are the statements about how the scientific or research community had been ignorant for so many years about the biodiversity that existed up in the oldest of the big redwoods. If that's true, the scientific community missed some golden opportunities. Because for decades, loggers had been felling old growth redwoods to the forest floor along with tons of lichens, canopy soil and epiphytes. Samples would have been easy to come by, ready for collection. Although fallen species were no longer in prime habitat for study, the existence would be realized.
Image: Michael Taylor - Lost Man Creek, with laser rangefinder - 2009.
The content covers a wide range: friendships, mentors, how trees function, emotional grief, climbing techniques, danger, logging history, rainforests, childhoods, a wedding up in redwoods, and discovery of champion trees. Nearly fatal falls, engagements and leeches overseas. Even at full price when The Wild Trees was released, it was worth the read.
The story begins along the south Oregon coast, where 3 college students, Marwood, Scott and Steve, pull over in a Honda "Crypt" to stretch and watch sea birds. That first chapter "Nameless" soon describes Steve and Marwood free-climbing hundreds of feet up an old growth redwood: beginning with a running leap into a smaller redwood, using it like a ladder. Then, a flying leap at seventy feet high to the lowest limbs of the bigger redwood. With no safety gear, they reach the top of the canopy where ripe huckleberries provided a snack and a maze of limbs offered seating with panoramic view of the forest. This is where the adventure begins.
By the second chapter "The Kingdom" before they climbed back down, author Richard Preston is already educating the reader about how redwoods grow and develop. And the lessons about redwoods, plants and epiphytes are woven from cover to cover.
The third chapter "Island in the Lake" goes back 7 years to another climb: solo in a balsam fir. The location is Treaty Island in Lake of the Woods, near the city Kenora, Ontario, and Marie Antoinne is the one climbing. She is going up an evergreen on her grandparent's property, who live there in a 22 room mansion: their hotel in the 1950s, with hidden passageways. Down the hill from it is the Cottage, where Marie lived with her parents. This chapter brought memories. My mother was born in Kenora, and in my youth she took me there to spend 3 summers with my grandmother, at the home where my mother spent her youth. The lake is about 70 miles long with over 14,000 islands.
The last chapter ends with a group of climbers ascending an exceedingly tall redwood over the border in Redwood National Park. And it is not a free-climb. They are fully equipped on a small expedetion and National Geographic is tagging along to document a historical redwood climb.
Worth full price when first released, this is a lot of book now at an affordable price.
If the one chapter about the Skeleton Forest makes you curious about Eucalyptus or other big species Down Under, check out the Australia Champion Tree Registry.
Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast
Another fine book - mostly about forests and giant conifers - is Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast by Robert Van Pelt.
My first reading of Forest Giants was on a plane flight to visit a friend. The interesting photos and information kept me busy for half the trip, both ways. The book gets 5 stars. *****
This book about the largest conifers along the west coast is in itself a giant of a book. The contents are remarkable.
Robert Van Pelt has a long professional history working in forests, and the content of Forest Giants stretches no words. It shoots straight from the hip, and is very interesting for those who enjoy Pacific coast conifers.
Image: the photo to the right is Sir Isaac Newton. Image taken by Mario Vaden in 2009. This is one of the large coast redwoods in Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast. Van Pelt includes large color images too. In his book, Van Pelt wrote that the burl weighs over 20 tons.
Forest Giants is not a story, but it's not like a text book either. It's an excellent collection of nice big photographs of many largest known conifers of the west coast region: California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia.
Robert Van Pelt is a very good illustrator too. Many pages include his drawings along with the photographs, providing a sense of scale. The sketches are exceptional.
There is a lot more than just photos. Van Pelt provides a lot of information about climate, habitat and characteristics of the different species. And a fairly thorough explanation is offered about how to measure trunk diameters and height.
Robert Van Pelt is mentioned in The Wild Trees, and was interviewed by Richard Preston. Van Pelt is basically a colleague or associate of Sillett and Antoinne, characters of Preston's book.