All good storytellers find ways to win audiences at the outset and then keep them engaged till the end. It is just this skill that has been the key to Richard Preston's success as a writer. His earlier books ("The Hot Zone," "The Demon in the Freezer," and "The Cobra Event") were medical mysteries in which he proved a master at using complex scientific information to bait a gripping narrative hook.
Still, I wondered, would Preston's latest book, The Wild Trees: The Passion and the Daring, a nonfiction work about the scientists who devote their professional and personal lives to the study of botany, offer sufficient thrills to hold my interest throughout?
The answer is a decided yes.
"Wild Trees" owned me almost from the start. Preston dedicates the book to his brother, asking, "Remember the tree we used to climb when we were boys?" I had my own answer clearly in mind. Anyone who has ever climbed a tree eager to experience the magic of the world seen from its heights will be grabbed by the story Preston presents.
Two of the book's central characters, Steve Sillett and Marie Antoine, are each introduced by a tree-climbing story.
Marie Antoine is first seen as a 4-year-old climbing a "green and bright and fragrant" balsam fir growing beside the family mansion in Ontario, Canada. She travels 40 feet into the air and revels in the secret world she discovers. No adult sees her.
Sillett, instead, is 19 when he and two companions leave college classes behind in Oregon and head to a grove of wild growth redwoods in Northern California, many of which are 3,000 years old. Sillett spies a tree 30 stories high, the top of which is beyond view. But to even begin climbing it, he must first climb an adjacent 50-foot redwood as a starting point. Using no climbing gear, he reaches the top of this smaller tree and then leaps across, grabbing a branch dangling from its much higher neighbor.
Did I mention that Sillett, like many of the other men and women we meet in this book, suffers from acrophobia?
Preston takes the reader on a compelling journey into a world experienced only by a limited number of scientists and outdoorsmen (Preston himself included). The forest canopies of the earth hold roughly one half of all the species that exist in nature. Preston calls trees "the earth's secret ocean ... inhabited by many living things that don't even have names, and are vanishing before they have even been seen by human eyes." As a species, the modern redwood is believed to be 20 million to 50 million years old – in other words, perhaps as much as 80 times older than modern man. "Wild" trees (the kind that fascinate the seekers in this book) are trees that are believed never to have been climbed by man. No wonder this secret, dreamy world has the power to fascinate.
Sillett, Antoine, a third dreamer named Michael Taylor, and others have spent the past two decades in rarely visited backwoods areas in coastal northern California, in part consumed by a drive to find and climb the mythical "tallest tree." Their passion for trees has shaped their lives, damaging some of their human relationships but forging others (as evidenced by the love story that blossoms late in the book).
The discipline of tree climbing and the equipment needed to complete it – which Preston describes in detail – can at times seem arcane. But that won't diminish the pleasures offered by "The Wild Trees." This is a journey that I encourage you to take.
• Larry Sears is a freelance writer in El Paso, Texas.