The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring by Richard Preston. New York: Random House. 2007. 320 pages.
In The Wild Trees, Richard Preston delves into the lives of giant trees, primarily coast redwoods, and some of the people who seek and study them. The adventure starts well with three footloose college students, a beater car, and the open road before them. The first man disappears within pages of his introduction, and the second surfaces only sporadically later. The author starts to narrow his interest to the third, Steve Sillett, and then the college dropout son of a millionaire, Michael Taylor. After a four-year-old Canadian girl makes her appearance, her story begins to dominate the narrative.
When he isn’t elaborating on Sillett’s childhood with his grandmother; Taylor’s origins and the trouble with his father; and Marie Antoine’s entire childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood (whether the recounted experiences are relevant to the greater story or not), Preston weaves in interesting facts about the biology of giant trees and old-growth redwood forests, including what was and wasn’t known about them.
At some point, I recognized Preston’s style from The Hot Zone, another novel-like depiction of science. I wondered how he could make redwoods and other tree giants as gory as Ebola, but I soon found out when he describes what happens to a human body that has the misfortune to plummet from one of the world’s tallest trees. (Hint: During a fall, the body is weighted toward the head like an arrow.)
The strength of The Wild Trees is not only its emphasis on the age, size, and beauty of coast redwoods and other giants, but on the ecosystems that thrive within their trunks and branches. When a single redwood giant is cut down, an entire community of plants, fungi, and animals is lost, including amphibians that in theory shouldn’t be living hundreds of feet off the ground. There’s also a spiritual loss as well. Scientists like Sillett and Antoine and explorers like Taylor have more than a dispassionate interest in their subjects; they are spellbound by them, compelled to find them (Taylor) and climb and study them (Sillett and Antoine).
Preston loses his way in minute depictions of details. Human interest adds to any tale of science, but I would have preferred fewer intimate details about Michael Taylor’s every job and relationship issue (such as his career as a knife salesman) and Marie Antoine’s happy, then sad childhood and more about how the redwoods evolved, what has been discovered about them, the threats to them and how they’re being addressed, and the passion Sillett, Antoine, Taylor, and others have toward them. Sentences such as, “A helicopter from the Life Flight Network touched down on a nearby road, and the team carried Hillery to it, and he was loaded into the helicopter and it lifted off and flew toward Portland” distract from the horror and drama after a man falls 100 feet out of a tree.
Despite the depth of background, Preston never quite gets to the heart of Sillett’s personality and character, rendering him as uninteresting as a man who climbs trees hundreds of feet tall can be.
Preston knows how to choose a good story, even if he does need an editor to keep him focused on what’s compelling. The Wild Trees is educational and informative, and if you’re like me you’ll want to learn more about coast redwoods and other giants while we still have them.
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
3 November 2016