High in the Trees

High in the Trees What can you learn about ecosystems from the top of a 100 meter redwood?By Andrea Gawrylewski ARTICLE EXTRASSPRING BOOKSStem Cells on ShelvesAn Awkward SymbiosisThe Death of Faith?Bloody IsleThe Enchantment of EnhancementBooks about BodiesNew Lab ManualsIn Brief The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring, By Richar

Andrea Gawrylewski
Mar 31, 2007

High in the Trees

What can you learn about ecosystems from the top of a 100 meter redwood?
By Andrea Gawrylewski


The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring, By Richard Preston, 320 pp., Random House, $25.95

At thirty stories up, in the expansive, intermingling tops of West Coast redwood trees, Stephen Sillett, a renegade tree biologist and aerial fungus guru, was one of the first to describe an unanticipated ecosystem brimming with life in the mid 1990s. His story, and the story of the other "big tree" fanatics, is the stuff of Richard Preston's new book, The Wild Trees.

However, in an unfortunate waste of the very material he might claim to treasure, Preston doesn't manage to...

The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring, By Richard Preston, 320 pp., Random House, $25.95

At thirty stories up, in the expansive, intermingling tops of West Coast redwood trees, Stephen Sillett, a renegade tree biologist and aerial fungus guru, was one of the first to describe an unanticipated ecosystem brimming with life in the mid 1990s. His story, and the story of the other "big tree" fanatics, is the stuff of Richard Preston's new book, The Wild Trees.

However, in an unfortunate waste of the very material he might claim to treasure, Preston doesn't manage to capture either the meaning or significance of such discoveries. The laborious first half of the book traces the childhoods of the main characters, none of which provides any insight into why Sillett and his friends would choose to pull themselves by nylon ropes 100 meters into the air, protected by barely more than skateboarding helmets.

Preston finally describes Sillett's tree missions, but he spends no time detailing the work that Sillett's crews accomplished. For example, in his mapping project of a stand of trees called Atlas Grove, Sillett's research team of more than a dozen people catalogued the faunal and floral inhabitants of one tree, called Illúvatar, and its 220 secondary trunks - trunks as wide as the base trunk that begin growing hundreds of feet up. Preston gives a vague account of what that project produced; he lists a fern garden, 55 new species of tree mite, and not much else. If that's all they found, why did Preston bother writing a book about it?

Don't expect any outside commentary on the significance of complex ecosystems in temperate forests either. World-renowned canopy biologist Margaret Lowman is mentioned for her work in tropical forests (another thrilling childhood tale), but there's no thoughtful analysis of the comparisons between her work and Sillett's. Preston lets the scientists of The Wild Trees off the hook with cliché and banality instead of saying anything about exploring some of the last virgin territory on earth. "These trees can teach us how we can live," says Sillett. "We can be hammered and burned, and we can come back and be more beautiful and intricate as we grow."

Please.

Andrea Gawrylewski is a staff writer at The Scientist who studied dendrochronology and tree-climate response as a graduate student at Columbia University.