By Thomas Curwen
The Los Angeles Times
The adventurous careers of a crew of coast redwood lovers.
Hugging a coast redwood Sequoia sempervirens, the tallest species of tree on Earth is harder than it seems. Oh, sure, you can attempt a ground-floor embrace, but considering the sheer majesty of these creatures, that's a mere peck on the prom queen's cheek compared with the pleasures awaiting you aloft.
But be warned: Foreplay is arduous. Just to encounter one, you'll need to bushwhack your way through some of the most unforgiving terrain on the planet, hauling ropes and climbing gear. Nor is every suitor accepted. It helps if you don't mind heights, cherish a dark sadness deep in your soul and have more than a glancing familiarity with the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Once you've trunk-walked, branch-walked and sky-walked your way some 35 stories above the ground like Spider-Man gone grunge, you can wrap your arms completely around the trunk, interlock fingertips, drink in the moist, spongy, lemony-fragrant wood and secretly consummate your desire. Not that anyone in Richard Preston's "The Wild Trees" actually does this, but such lusty abandon (down to an account of lovemaking in a forest canopy) abounds in this book.
Having ditched the bio-gothic, epidemiological sensationalism of "The Hot Zone" and "The Demon in the Freezer," Preston has turned to a tale of romantic obsession: Call it biophilia, if you like or, more precisely, dendrophilia. Standing in for young Werther is a motley collection of college students; once smitten by the coast redwood, they have never escaped its charms. They have a few dalliances along the way, with the giant Douglas firs in the Pacific Northwest and Eucalyptus regnans in southern Australia, but once you've known redwood love there's apparently no turning back.
It began in 1987. A 19-year-old junior at Reed College, Steve Sillett, decided as a lark to climb a redwood, and somewhere past the yellow jackets, the bowel-loosening panic and the 120-foot mark, a spark went off in his mind that has burned brightly ever since. He felt "as if he had gone inside the body of a living organism, with uncounted other organisms living inside it," Preston writes of this epiphany. "The fear of heights finally left him, and was replaced by a feeling of almost indescribable wonder."
Meanwhile, just down the road, Michael Taylor, a junior at Humboldt State University, cut classes to join a busload of tourists visiting Redwood National Park. Enraptured by redwoods from the age of 10, Taylor wandered among these public groves, arching his neck, squinting into the sun, sensing the vast wilderness surrounding him. Soon he was mounting expeditions in the hidden notch valleys of Northern California's fog-drenched coast. His goal? To track down and measure the tallest tree on the planet.
Beginning with the reckless abandon of youth and ending, in Sillett's case, with a $780,000 grant from the National Science Foundation these misanthropes mature in the presence of their passion, evolving into articulate and dedicated overseers of primeval forest. Nor are they alone. Preston sketches stories of other dendrophiliacs: one who sailed over forest canopies in a hot-air blimp; another who numbered tree leaves with a Magic Marker; yet another who fell 100 feet out of a Douglas fir and lived to tell about it. He catches us up on Sillett's second wife, Marie Antoine, who climbed trees as a girl, developed a scholarly interest in a species of lichen called lettuce lungwort (Lobaria oregana) and could never really explain why trees fascinated her. "It had something to do with the lure of secret places high above the ground," Preston opines. "(P)laces you have to climb to."
Freud be still. It is precisely this inchoate feeling that animates the lives of these people and makes their battles seem all the more poignant. When Sillett's first wife divorces him, realizing that trees matter more to him than marriage and children, he goes Brando, shaving his head and eyebrows, flunking 46 percent of his botany students at Humboldt State, living on Snickers, sushi and whole-grain muffins. When Taylor becomes estranged from his father, the chairman and CEO of a real-estate investment company, he takes a job selling cutlery, then rare coins, then clerking in a grocery store, then repairing NicoDerm machines anything to support his habit.
That Preston got into their lives at all is an accomplishment, given their monomania. But the secret of his success becomes evident: He went native. One afternoon after sneaking into Sillett and Antoine's garage, he made a shopping list of what he'd need to get into the trees himself. He took lessons at a tree-climbing school in Atlanta and eventually brought his wife, three children, two brothers and his parents deep into the canopy.
When it comes to tree love, redwoods are the largest girls at the dance and something of an acquired taste. Indeed, evolutionary psychologists tell us that the most beloved trees are the ones shaped like acacias, with broad and graceful canopies an affection traceable to our primate beginnings, when we found sanctuary among the branches, away from marauding beasts.
Redwoods, however, succeed by excess. Looking like oversized tuning forks, they have an appetite for growing, not sending up just a single trunk but in time (a very long time, as it turns out) spawning multiple trunks that grow parallel to one another. This architectural complexity, replete with columns, voussoirs and flying buttresses, creates a forest unto itself some 350 feet above the ground.
The redwoods' range today begins at a creek in Big Sur and extends 14 miles north of the California-Oregon border. It is of course a mere shadow of what used to be. Logging operations on the coast in the last century cut down 96 percent of the primeval redwood forest, Preston writes, and what is left, he mourns, is "like a few fragments of stained glass from a rose window in a cathedral after the rest of the window has been smashed and swept away."
Sillett and Taylor make the best of this shattered world. In one particular fragment of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park named the Atlas Grove ("the Sistine Chapel of the world's forests," according to Preston), they begin one of the more ambitious projects in the history of forest-canopy science. Enlisting Sillett's students and running weekend field trips, they create a natural history of the canopy, a painstaking catalog of the redwood ecosystem 250 feet above the ground something that the trees' forbidding height had until then precluded.
In this and other such canopies amid the soil mites, the wandering salamanders, the secret aquifers, the red tree voles, the rhododendrons, the currant bushes, the wart lichen, the leprosy lichen, the dragon fire and fairy puke they debunked the misconception that the upper reaches of these forests are as barren of life as a desert.
What it means
"The forest canopies of the earth are believed to hold roughly half of all species in nature," Preston tells us, often equating the world in these branches with the uncharted depths of the ocean. The fecundity of nature, he suggests, is nearly a match for the ignorance of humans. We've heard it before, but it's worth repeating: In even the most overlooked and neglected corners of the Earth, life has blossomed in myriad forms. In ignoring this, we diminish ourselves and jeopardize our future.
But neither science nor moralizing drives this story. Forget about how we're homogenizing the Earth's biosphere; forget about the human need to be awed by something bigger than ourselves.
These are sentiments that have often been expressed. What Preston offers is a glimpse into the lives of these angel-headed hipsters, who took root, found meaning and flourished in a digitized, cataloged and oversubscribed world. Turn the pages and you'll find your obsession growing with theirs, until finally their zonked-out wonder becomes your own.
So rest easy, drop your ropes and climbing gear and wrap your arms about this book. It's easier than hugging a redwood.
Thomas Curwen is an editor at large for The Los Angeles Times.