Richard Preston, The Wild Trees

Dude. You have so gotta read this book. I mean - dude!

I'm distrustful of my appreciation for this book, Richard Preston's creative nonfiction novel The Wild Trees. The characters are skilfully drawn; the dramatic moments are punched and tangy; the environmental cred of its heroes is difficult to argue. But somehow, it feels to me like a book destined to be a bestseller, taking an easy route through a difficult subject.

Charismatic megafauna: the term was coined to refer to the emphasis on glamorous species rather than keystone species (whales rather than plankton, or pandas rather than ... whatever wee important thing lives near pandas, I don't know). It's a mildly useful shorthand critique of certain environmental discourses, because it suggests a lack of depth in the discourse itself, rather like greenwashing.

I say this because redwoods, in Preston's handling of them, are charismatic megaflora. The largest living things on the planet, with the possible exception of subterranean mycelium complexes, the tallest redwood reaches almost 380 feet, while the biggest is 30 feet across at chest height. The people involved want to talk about lichen varieties, including some which grow only on the oldest known redwood tree and therefore might be linked to particular evolutionary cycles; they admire the huckleberry groves that grow three hundred feet above the ground, and the ability of redwoods to sprout roots from their tops to cannibalize their own water-holding rot; they remark upon bonsai trees of other species that grow atop these giants; they celebrate the sense of scale that the giants bring to their small human lives.

But really, there's a lot of gnarly climbing in this book, dude (intentionally ignorant phrasing, I hope?-ed.), and that's powerfully at odds with the environmental message Preston wants to convey on behalf of his subject trees and people. It's a fun and easy read, which are good things, but it's hard to pay full enough attention to the environmental commentary with the climbing bravado and the mythologizing of discoverers.

Mario Vaden has a very good page, with photo albums, on the Grove of Titans, and I strongly encourage you to go there. I'd place some of his photos here, but they're copyrighted, and without a fair use comment on his page, I'm not going to lift them. I will, however, refer you to YouTube, which includes a short video about the climbing of the very tallest redwood tree. Read the book, by all means, but frankly I'd rather see you donate the $16 ($19 in Canada) to a green organization.


fiona-h said…
off topic for this post, but... I am finally reading The Eyre Affair. Thanks for recommending/

You've been a busy blogger lately!
richard said…
I've been a busy reader for the last while - I've been a busy blogger only in the last few days!

And I'm glad you're reading The Eyre Affair: and that you've figured out html tags in comments ;-) Isn't Fforde a hoot to read?
David L. said…
I may take you up on the offer of giving $20 to the Raincoast Society... and then borrowing Preston's book from you! It has been on my wanna read list since seeing him interviewed, on The Daily Show, I think. Of course, the derring-do of the tree climbers made his book TV-worthy material.

Because Preston is a name widely associated with "The New New Journalism", last week I happened to be reading a paperback copy of The Hot Zone, his book about Ebola-like viruses. I've got an abbreviated attention span that often likes the sugar of adventure writing to make the medicine of environmental science go down, but even I found his first few chapters to be over the top in their gruesomely reconstructed scenes of a man dying from a mysterious virus -- crossing the line from scientific narrative into outright literary snuff. It made me hesitant about what hype I might encounter in The Wild Trees. Still, it sounds like an intriguing book. And I'd like to compare it to something like The Golden Spruce, by John Vaillant, which I found to be an almost perfect welding of mystery narrative and environmental history.
richard said…
David, whenever we manage to meet next for coffee, I'll do my best to remember to bring along The Wild Trees; it's in my office on campus now, so it shouldn't be too difficult.

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