I find it hard to describe this book without making it sound dull and boring. I've tried to tell my husband and he just looks at me blankly.
"It's about trees?"
"Well, yes, but it's interesting and it's about...trees."
Sometime in the late '80's, a few people who didn't even know each other decided to start exploring the remaining stands of redwoods. Michael Taylor believed that the biggest redwood had yet to be found, despite a National Geographic statement to the contrary made decades earlier. Steve Sillett became the first biologist to really explore and attempt to describe the redwood canopy. They each had friends who helped them and they eventually met each other and joined forces as they attempted to understand these ancient living things.
I was fascinated from the beginning. I do have that old biology degree that I mention every single time I read something even remotely scientific, but I am more interested in mammals than plants. I was so interested in the lives of these guys who were/are climbing 30 stories on some ropes in a freaking tree. I panic if I get above the second or third rung on a ladder. The descriptions of the canopy, their progress and trial and error as they tried to figure out how to do what no one really had done before, their personal setbacks and triumphs, I liked it all.
The author starts climbing with them and adding his own perspective maybe two-thirds of the way through the book. I was a little turned off by this at first. I don't know if the part of me that had "Don't ever use I in an essay" drilled into her head was horrified that a published author was breaking that cardinal rule or if I had a little bit of an attitude of "Seriously? You're talking about climbing an oak tree while these guy are climbing redwoods?" but I did get over it pretty quickly. The descriptions of what he saw firsthand were of course better than what he'd only been told about. I even got really interested when he goes on vacation in Scotland to climb in the few remaining ancient Highland forests.
I really kept meaning to look up some of the climbing techniques that these guys use just to see what they involve. They sound beautiful and graceful and scary as hell! I never got around to it while I was reading but I definitely will before posting this review.
My copy had a few illustrations, but I really wish there had been photos. Preston tried to be secretive about where the oldest, biggest trees are located in order to protect them from weekend climbers who might damage them, so maybe he was afraid that pictures would give away something about the location. Or maybe it was a cost decision. Either way, I would have like to have seen pictures.
If you're at all interested in the natural world or even explorers' lives, this might be a good choice for you. I'm doing a terrible job with this review but it was a surprisingly informative yet entertaining book.
Read an excerpt.
Find author Richard Preston on his website and Facebook.
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Read for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge, hosted here.
Author Richard Preston was present and climbing when this video was filmed. It's footage of Sillett measuring the world's tallest tree, Hyperion.
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