The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring

by Richard Preston

Hardcover, 2007

Call number

585.50 P



Random House (2007), Edition: 1, 320 pages


Hidden away in foggy, uncharted rain forest valleys in Northern California are the tallest organisms the world has ever sustained--the coast redwood trees. 96% of the ancient redwood forests have been logged, but the fragments that remain are among the great wonders of nature. The biggest redwoods can rise more than thirty-five stories above the ground, forming cathedral-like structures in the air. Until recently, the canopy at the tops of these majestic trees was undiscovered. Writer Preston unfolds the story of the daring botanists and amateur naturalists that found a lost world above California, dangerous, hauntingly beautiful, and unexplored. The deep redwood canopy is a vertical Eden filled with mosses, lichens, spotted salamanders, hanging gardens of ferns, and thickets of huckleberry bushes, all growing out of massive trunk systems, sometimes hollowed out by fire. Thick layers of soil sitting on limbs harbor animal and plant life unknown to science.--From publisher description.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member nbmars
I lived in a public housing project until I was eight years old. There were no trees in the project. When I was eight, my family moved to a free standing house on the south-west side of Chicago. The house was quite small, but it had at least 5 trees on the property. On my first day in the new
Show More
house, I could hardly contain my joy at the prospect of climbing trees. Within a week or two, I had climbed the three smallest trees to the highest branches that would support my weight. The three trees may have been young birches because they had clean white bark and a ladder like formation of branches. I could shinny up any trunk I could get my arms around, and so I did not have to be able to reach the first branch to climb a tree.

After a couple of months, I was able to try the second largest tree on the property. It was probably a catalpa, judging by the cigar-shaped pods that grew on it. It was quite a bit larger than the other three, and its bark would shed onto the clothes of anyone who would climb it. Because the first branches were much higher than I could reach, I had to shinny up the trunk abut ten feet to find a comfortable resting place, by which time my clothes would be filthy from the bark. Once I reached the first branch, however, it was a fairly easy climb to other sturdy branches about 50 feet in the air, a point that was well above any of the surrounding roof tops. Since the terrain in Chicago is as flat as a pancake, it seemed that I could see forever from my perch.

The fifth tree was a huge old oak whose trunk was simply too wide for my eight year old arms to circumscribe, and so I was never able to climb that tree.

Having been defeated in my efforts to climb a mature oak that might have been 80 feet tall, imagine how impressed I was to learn that a small group of intrepid climbers had learned to scale 360 foot California redwoods and Douglas firs to the very top. Richard Preston’s Wild Trees is the story of a quirky collection of botanists, arborists, and amateur tree climbers who embarked on a quest to discover and climb the tallest trees in the world. The term and title of the book, wild tree, refers to a previously unclimbed tree.

The heroes and heroine of the story are all archetypical “granola” types one finds in rural California and Oregon. Except for the author, the people in the book appear to be more interested in trees than in other people. In fact, I too found myself more interested in learning about the trees and the techniques of climbing them than about the interactions of the human characters.

The trees themselves, however, are thoroughly interesting. They are the largest living things on earth. Well, maybe their cousins, the sequoias, are a bit more massive, but the redwoods are taller. They are also the oldest living things. Some may have been saplings when Plato was lecturing in the Academy.

Determining which tree is actually the tallest turns out to be easier said than done. One reason is that logging companies cut down the tallest trees in accessible areas. The tallest remaining trees are in truly inaccessible areas where there are no roads and which require long bushwhacking hikes to reach. Another problem is that the tops are usually not visible to anyone standing near them—you have to be quite a distance away to see which tree rises above its neighbors.

The redwoods have a remarkable structure. The tallest ones have no significant branches (i.e., sturdy enough to hold a climber) below 100+ feet above the ground. But once you reach those branches, many of them are larger than mature oak trees. Redwoods often form multiple trunks at great heights. In fact, full grown trees of different species have been found sprouting from redwood trunks high above the ground. Those large branches or other trees can be extremely dangerous because they sometimes fall or are broken off by lightening. Think of the impact an 80+ foot long, multi-ton branch makes when it hits the ground after falling 150 or 200 feet!

Redwoods are remarkably resistant to fire. Even when they burn, their remains provide very fertile space for new growth.

The first climbers into the canopy (the collection of high branches) found a previously undiscovered mini ecosystem of its own. It is home to many forms of lichen and smaller plants as well as some species of animals found nowhere else. The climbers encountered flying squirrels that had no fear of humans, never having encountered them. The canopies can be so thick and maze-like that the climbers occasionally had difficulty finding one another when they were in the same tree at about the same elevation. Old trees usually have substantial amounts of dead matter and often have large hollow spaces, which add to the perils faced by climbers.

The climbers had to develop new techniques and new equipment for their activities. They learned to shoot an arrow tied to a climbing rope over a large stable branch in order to obtain purchase for the climb. Other techniques are difficult to describe — I had trouble envisioning several procedures and tactics the author used. In fact, the author himself referred the reader to several Youtube posts where the methods were demonstrated.

This book opened up an exotic and fascinating world I didn’t even know existed. If I were much younger, I’d be tempted try my luck in the trees.

Rating: 4.5/5 for description of the trees and climbing technique and equipment.

2/5 for the interpersonal interactions of the characters.

Show Less
LibraryThing member lxydis
Fascinating topic--especially when it's about the trees--but Preston's writing is annoying, and this needed a ruthless editor. Do we really need all those rather tedious bios of the *parents* of the tree-explorers and how they tragically sit on the porch, smiling through their illness at their
Show More
delightful children as they scamper up trees? The guys' girlfriends, the mullet and the baggy pants of Michael Taylor or how fat he's getting? The way Preston writes about it, i don't really give a s**t.
Also, apart from the clichéed romanticizing of the geeks and their relationships (the, presumably fictionalized, conversations between them sound like a cheap novel rather than reporting) Preston has an irritating habit of defining something and then repeating it in sentence, which is annoyingly jerky as well as patronizing. E.g. "when a climber falls on a belay rope, it's called a 'whipper'. Steve took a huge whipper from the top of a tree." This sounds like a grade-school reading primer! A better writer (and editor) would say something like "Steve had taken a huge whipper of a fall from the top of a tree before the belay rope caught him."
The memorable article in the New Yorker which was an excerpt of this book was tighter and MUCH better. This book makes one long for John McPhee's elegant and erudite prose.
PS I listened to the audio version of this book, and the wooden, unrhythmic reader certainly did it no favors, though I think he must have been somewhat hampered by Preston's prose. I eventually had to switch to the book, which, being more skimmable, was bearable.
Show Less
LibraryThing member peacemover
In "The Wild Trees," Richard Preston transports the reader into the realm of the giant Redwood trees of Northern California. Some of these giants reach more than 300 feet into the sky. Up in the canopy among these massive, living behemoths there are entire ecosystems and unique species that
Show More
flourish right there atop these majestic living monuments.

Preston accounts both his initial curiosity and how his quest was launched, as well as his adventures up to the top of these great trees in vivid detail. Not only does he paint wonderful word pictures, he educates and advocates for these increasingly rare living giants. There is adventure, science, environmental advocacy, powerful story-telling, and even intrigue all right within the pages of this excellent book. Highly recommended!
Show Less
LibraryThing member Stbalbach
Another great book by Richard Preston. It tells the story of the first people to climb into the canopies of the redwoods. Amazingly no one had tried it prior to the mid-1980s, and only then by amateur rock climbers on a lark. They discovered a rich and vibrant ecosystem and created a whole new
Show More
field of study. The book intimately retells their careers and lives and discoveries.
Show Less
LibraryThing member mwhel
I'm amazed at how recently we as a society have become protective of these majestic trees. Such a small percentage of the old-growth redwoods remains today, and it would have all but vanished by now without the foresight and passion of a very small number of people. The setting of the book is
Show More
mostly in just the last couple of decades, when daring climbers first entered and started to explore the habitat of these canopies hundreds of feet up in air. The author tells numerous interwoven stories of the characters who pioneered exploration and scientific studies in this realm. Especially interesting are the exploits of those individuals who relentlessly sought out the biggest trees, and others who developed new climbing techniques to explore their upper reaches. Some of these narrowly escaped harrowing circumstances, and a few others weren't so lucky. Overall this book offers a good blend of science, history, adventure and storytelling.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Gwendydd
I found this book to be utterly disappointing. It wasn't at all what I expected it to be. I was hoping to learn a lot about the ecosystem that exists in the canopy of redwood trees. Instead, this book is about the personal lives of the people who first started climbing these trees, the passions
Show More
that drove them to do this, and the various techniques they learned and developed. The information they actually learned once they got into the trees takes up about 5 pages of the book.

Even if I had been interested in the personal lives of the people who first learned to climb trees, I would have found this book annoying. There is basically no organizational structure. There are several main characters, and Preston skips back and forth between their stories, presumably in an attempt to create suspense, but all it does is create confusion. He also jumps around chronologically, which makes things even more confusing.
Show Less
LibraryThing member theageofsilt
It's like "My Dinner with Andre", but the fantastical and rambling narrative is all about giant trees and the folks who become obsessed with them. This nonfiction account follows the people who must climb and explore the redwoods of California, which are hundreds of feet high, despite the danger
Show More
obvious to a sane person. In the canopy, they find a mini-universe of salamanders which have never touched the ground, lichen never before seen by people and dirt, of all things. Fascinating stuff!
Show Less
LibraryThing member WinterWhisper
This is a spellbinding story of discovery. The almost unexplored world of California's Redwood canopy once thought to be almost lifeless, teams with beautiful hanging gardens of epiphytes, reefs of lichen, small animals, and undiscovered species of flora & fauna. This is a biography of the trees,
Show More
of the explorers who first began climbing them, & of discovery herself. Enjoy the adventure told in novelistic prose & detailing this enormous new world!
Show Less
LibraryThing member Bombadillo
OK, so I've always loved old, tall, and large trees. I expected to skip over the stories of the people to get to the top of the trees and find out how it was done. I did very little of that, however, as the bizarre assortment of misfits who discovered many new redwood giants and figured out how to
Show More
climb them are quirkily presented by Preston and the book makes a good case without whining about it for tolerating goofballs in our species as well as for preserving the remaining forest giants and their magical canopies. From the amazing first, free climb through a wasps' nest, to love in the canopy, to the fall you will find this book well written, engrossing, spiritual, and occasionally thrilling. The tops of these trees (above 250') open up into a virtual forest of limbs, complete with dirt, blueberries, and plant species endemic to this unique ecosystem, that was unexplored until this hodgepodge of students, botanists, convenience store clerk, et al "discovered" it only about 20 years ago.
Show Less
LibraryThing member mrtall
A bit of natural history, a bit of botany, a few profiles of obsessive tree-climbers, and a bit of first-person reportage on climbing, and you've got the essence of this book.

The subject matter -- exploring the redwood forests of northwestern California to find the biggest and tallest trees, then
Show More
climbing them to explore the world of their canopy -- is quirky and fresh, as are the sketches of the people who pursue these aims.

The only flaw here is Preston's occasional inability to balance the details of the characters' personal lives with their exploration of the trees -- there was just a bit more of the former than I'd have liked.

Never the less, a fascinating look at an almost unknown world. Recommended.
Show Less
LibraryThing member waldhaus1
Enjoyed the book. It gives some interesting insights to the tall trees which to me are one of the gradest things in the world. In the end it was a little too much about the author Richard Preston
LibraryThing member Bookmarque
I thought this book VERY choppy and hard to follow then I noticed that my iPod was shuffling things out of order. Bah. So I corrected it and things went smoother, but it still skipped around a lot and could have been better organized. The edition I listened to was an abridgement, so maybe that had
Show More
an effect. It was a loaner that I ripped to the computer, so what the hell.

That being said, I learned a lot. Not only that there is a specialized technique to climbing really big trees complete with its own rules and equipment. There are also people who dedicate their lives to finding the largest tree they can find. Apparently this is not as easy as walking in the woods. Redwood forests are almost impenetrable with brush and treefall and it’s a lot of work to find these mega-groves. But the rewards sound so spectacular. I was enchanted with the descriptions of being in the canopy. It’s a highly intricate, interconnected world of many species adapting to the unique structure of the life of trees. It sounded wondrous and magical and a bit scary. Scary also that they are disappearing. Heartbreaking actually. I’ve always been a sucker for trees. I learned a lot and realize that others love them, too.

I was not so enchanted by the character of Steve Sillett. He sounds like an egotistical jerk with very little understanding of how the real world works and a callous disregard for people. Practically he seems helpless and destitute of common sense. Tree-wise he’s brilliant and luckily he’s discovered a way to make it pay. Otherwise I can easily see him as a disillusioned college professor grinding out his existence in some backwater school, desperately looking for publication and affirmation. A right smug little prick.

Overall, Preston does a pretty good job of description and characterization. The scene portraying a climber’s plummet to the earth from about 80 feet up was very visceral. He could use some organizational help and also needs to shy away from some of the more sensational language he uses. He strays into tabloid a bit too easily.
Show Less
LibraryThing member timepiece
This was even more engrossing than I thought it would be when I came across the title (I know not where). The description of what can be found in the canopy was fascinating, and the narrative, multi-biography style made it an easier read than a lot of non-fiction (which can tend toward the dry).

Show More
have a new ambition to learn to climb large trees, and to spend the night in a tree. It sounds delightful (the described night during the storm notwithstanding).

I would highly recommend this to anyone interested in conservation, in botany, in forests, or just in unusual settings. Or anyone who likes rogue scientists, which I think most of these guys would qualify as.
Show Less
LibraryThing member dele2451
I purchased this book earlier this summer at park visitor center before hiking into three of the redwood forests mentioned in this book. Even without the book, my week of hiking through the redwood forest trails was an awe-inspiring, life changing event but I wish I would have had the opportunity
Show More
to digest the book before my trip so I would have had a better understanding of the many wonders I was seeing. My compliments to Mr Preston on his resolve to tell this story (and for mastering the difficult climbing skills necessary to bring the story to ground level) and for making the science portions so accessible for the non-botanists/biologists in the population. Some of the personal-relationships-gone-wrong tidbits seemed slightly (very slightly) gratuitous, otherwise I would have bumped up my rating even higher. It's a very inspiring and informative read and you don't have to be a scientist, or even an environmentalist, to enjoy it--a definite recommend.
Show Less
LibraryThing member EowynA
A quick read, but vividly told. The first tale of Steve Sillett and Marwood Harriss freeclimbing a redwood to the top made my tummy clench in a vicarious fear of heights. Preston is particularly good at making the experience of climbing immediate and real. He also pulls together the various people
Show More
who have interacted with these trees and tells their stories. But central to the book is the place of these millennium-old trees. He notes that the ecology of the canopy is one of great biodiversity, but one that becomes more diverse as the whole grove ages, and thus a tree of only 500 years hasn't had a chance to accumulate the full complement of lichens, and ferns, and even epiphytic bushes and trees that a true old-growth forest accumulates. This is a window on time as much as the volume of previously unexplored habitat. But the stories of leaping from tree to tree are still scary. Do you see the two climbers pictured on the cover? I didn't for weeks.
Show Less
LibraryThing member galpalval
As I've been reading, I have to resist the temptation to not read the end of paragraphs to see if these obsessed climbers live through their climbs. Amazing! Love this book. Lichens rock!
LibraryThing member midlevelbureaucrat
This book takes place in my backyard, my office, and among people I already know. More adventure tale than a revealing of the majesty of northwest California's redwood forests, it is, nonetheless, a book for anyone with a passing interest in the timeless mysteries of these ancient forests.

I know
Show More
(not well, mind you) a couple of the main characters in the book and Richard Preston portrays them mostly as they're known around here. The valiant lead, Steve Sillett, a young, driven, and clever biologist unlocks the mysteries of the redwood canopy while those within his circle learn to live with his drive and ego. I spoke with Sillett a few weeks ago about his reaction to the book. He was clearly uncomfortable with the amount of personal information (a failed marriage, his wife's troubled childhood, joining the exclusive 300' club) but says he had no editorial control over the book. But, he acknowledges that if a popular book by a well-known author brings folks to a better understanding of the endangered redwood forests, then perhaps those personal revelations may serve a greater good.

Preston focuses less on the wonder of the redwoods, however, than on the adventure of climbing up and into the tallest trees on earth. The uniqueness and timelessness of the redwood ecosystem is lost in the emotional and technical thrill of climbing into (and occasionally falling out of) the 360-foot canopy.

Many of us who live and work in the redwood forests know instinctively that this book will encourage others to attempt dangerous climbs into the delicate, untouched world that Sillett and cohorts, through Preston, have unveiled. Others will follow - guerilla climbing is part of the game, Preston reveals - and find their way into the highest branches of these ancient trees seeking only the recreational thrill of great height and athletic accomplishment. Worse still, is the thought of finding their broken bodies lying the bottom of these forever-living giants. This possibility, once generally unconsidered, feels greater now than it did several weeks ago before this book was on the shelves.

Read this book, anyway. It is well-written and Preston carries you along for the adventure. Preston's story is engaging, as are his main characters. Though I know some of the story behind the scenes, I was still compelled by his prose to read through to its conclusion. In the end, however, it's unfortunate that the mighty redwoods are a mere backdrop for those daring and curious enough to climb their awesome heights, rather than the centerpiece of this story.
Show Less
LibraryThing member corrmorr
This was such a fascinating book that I had trouble putting it down.
Preston climbs trees. Using his own experience, he meets, follows, documents and finally participates with some of the most experienced tall tree climbers in the country. We know their fear, bravery, dedication, and knowledge. We
Show More
learn of hidden biomes, appreciate the significance of scientific discovery, and worry about the future of the trees.
Show Less
LibraryThing member cindysprocket
Just to say I have been fortunate enough to see Giant Redwoods. Which made this book a real treat.
LibraryThing member dogrover
A scatter-shot series of intimacies, by turns awkward and magical. Preston's narrative is captivating when on-topic, and maddening when not.If you have ever been to the redwoods, and stopped for even a moment to consider what you're looking at, you will find something fascinating here. There are
Show More
hidden cathedrals, groves rooted in earth that has never touched the ground, sun-drenched huckleberry bushes 300 feet off the forest floor, and tiny shrimp-things swimming blissfully where no river has ever reached.The many digressions, though, reveal the author's struggle to focus. While interesting in their own right, lichens, relationship trouble, eucalyptus groves in Australia, and an unrelated character surviving a fall from an unrelated tree all lessen the impact of this unrealized work of beauty.
Show Less
LibraryThing member GMac
The best-selling author of The Hot Zone takes a close-up look at the world's tallest trees, the coast redwoods that grow only in the coastal regions of California, and at the previously unknown ecosystem that the trees form high in the air in the forest canopy, profiling the scientists and
Show More
researchers that study this unique, labyrinthine ecological niche
Show Less
LibraryThing member mdkoets
Fantastic read. Puts you right there in the trees, where sane people wouldn't go!
LibraryThing member KrisMcG
Fascinating, dramatic story of the people obsessed with climbing the tallest trees int he world.
LibraryThing member BookConcierge

The book is subtitled: A Story of Passion and Daring and that is the best description. It reminds me of Krakauer’s book Into the Wild in that Preston describes young men who are brilliant and singular in pursuing their chosen field of study (tree botany), but awkward and distant from most
Show More
personal relationships.

Steve Sillett and Michael Taylor begin their studies completely independent of one another, but share the wonder and awe for the magnificent California redwoods and a determination to discover the world’s tallest tree. Along the way they discover entire ecosystems and new realms in biodiversity. Known among their peers in the field, they nevertheless shun the spotlight and are obsessively protective of the hidden groves where these giants live. That Preston gained their trust and wrote so eloquently about their quest (without revealing the details of the locations of these trees) is a testament to his skill and character as a journalist and writer.

He writes a nonfiction account that is fascinating and compelling. There were a few parts that dragged – mostly when Preston got involved in the story and outlined his own attempts (and that of his family) to learn tree-climbing techniques. Still, while I didn’t think this was as good as his earlier works (The Hot Zone and Demon in the Freezer), I was entertained and interested from beginning to end.
Show Less
LibraryThing member jpsnow
The tree climbers are an exclusive and sometimes reclusive segment of modern field scientists. Their passion for the rich biodiversity present in the sea above us is brought to life by Preston, who seems to have become a convert in the course of his research. I enjoyed this book as a science topic,
Show More
as a tale of exploration, and for the personal stories about the explorers who have illuminated the wild life of the big trees during the past 30 years.
Show Less





1400064899 / 9781400064892
Page: 0.8098 seconds