"Heart-stopping adventure sport" and "botany" aren't words that are commonly found in a single sentence, but that combination is exactly what "The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring" delivers.
Author Richard Preston follows a dedicated (and some might say "crazy") band of young botanists as they climb into the canopies of the tallest trees on Earth: the coastal redwoods of northern California and southern Oregon. Using techniques taken from arborists, (aka tree surgeons), who in turn learned from rock-climbers, the botanists rely on rigs of ropes and carabiners to reach the 300-foot high crowns of these majestic giants, a feat never before accomplished. There, they find an entirely new ecosystem in the sky, a network of plants and animals utterly dependent on the giant redwoods for support and sustenance. These hanging gardens include huckleberry thickets bursting with fruit, miniature groves of ferns and lichen, the nests of owls and squirrels, and a species of spotted salamander, previously unknown to science, which goes through its entire life-cycle at the top of the trees.
Preston doesn't just bring readers to the tops of the redwoods; he also brings us into the lives of the passionate, courageous, and sometimes flawed people who dare to climb and do research in the crowns. Inevitably, there are tragedies. In an undertaking this risky, lives will be lost. Some scientists also find love while scaling the heights. All of them find their true calling in scaling and studying the most glorious expression of plant life that has ever evolved-a survivor from the age of the dinosaurs-the coastal redwood.
The author's writing style seems a bit disjointed at first; he darts backward and forward in time, introducing the main characters and places all in a jumble. Once the book picks up a head of steam, though, the reader is pulled irresistibly into the world of the tall forest. Preston's imagery is so vivid that you can feel the bark under your boots, your muscles straining as you inch your way up the rope, and the fresh clean wind on your face when you reach the top. You smell the evergreens, taste the huckleberries, and hear the angry chatter of squirrels disturbed in their nests. When something goes wrong, when a storm blows in or a branch breaks, your heart skips a beat, and you can see the too-solid ground rushing up to meet you.
Anyone who likes climbing, adventure, forests, or simply great adventure stories really should read "The Wild Trees." It's a narrative like no other.