Amanda Lewis, Tracking Giants

Tl;dr: this sensibly proportioned little volume does exactly the job Lewis wants it to, even if it’s not the job I wanted it to do, and readers looking for a small story about trees (and/or someone who comes to really, really appreciate trees) should be very happy with Tracking Giants.

Dear reader, I promise that I’ll get to Amanda Lewis’s Tracking Giants: Big Trees, Tiny Triumphs, and Misadventures in the Forest eventually in this … essay? perambulation? tangle?

Whatever it is that I’ve ended up writing, and it's the longest post to date among the 700-plus here at Book Addiction HQ, it was meant to come out as a review, but maybe that won’t become clear before you pull the chute and depart. Though things will get awkward for part of the time, and I’ll seem distracted, I really will get there.

Alternatively, if you just can’t bear to keep walking with me, then the section title you’re looking for is “Something not unlike an actual review.” I won’t mind if you skip ahead, because like most of what I post here, this was mostly written for myself anyway, so I could continue trying to make sense of my own reading experiences.

It’s just that it took vastly more self-reflection than it should have before I could figure out why I was resisting unaccountably this book the way I was, and that’s why I’ve ended up with a shaggy, multi-trunked, candelabra-topped hash of a “review.”

Instead of, you know, an actual review, something that might be useful for a potential reader of Tracking Giants.

Books and the secret-handshake effect

How do books get chosen? I mean, how do regular humans make their own reading choices, and how do books get selected for official recognition? The answer is “connections,” which for most of us means word of mouth and randomness, as well as the vagaries, delights, and agonies of our personal histories and preferences. (It has little to do directly with book reviews, but don’t tell anyone.) For people inside BookWorldᵀᴹ, well, the word “connections” in this context is a little more complicated.

Bear with me (or skip ahead two more sections, because You Were Warned), but this means it’s story time.

I’ve been unofficially leading an in-person book club since June 2007 (Beer & Books, with our unofficial motto of “keep your priorities straight!”). Ten times a year, our group of guys meets somewhere for beers, usually a pub or bar, sometimes a restaurant, to talk about that month’s chosen volume and to catch up on each other’s lives.

Our book selection method is simple. When we’re out of titles, we have a meeting where each member brings a couple of options. Their first choice goes on the list, unless it’s been read by multiple members already; if there’s pushback against it, then maybe the proposer will change his mind, but that’s rare. The only rule is that you can’t have read the book you’re proposing. You can read/watch/listen to reviews, summaries, and interviews; it can be by an author you know well; it can be from a series where you’ve already read every other volume; but you can’t have read the book itself.

Since every book’s nominated without having been read, every single month the book’s sponsor faces the risk that nobody will like the book, not even them. But nobody minds, because it’s structural, and besides, it just means that we’ll have something else to rib someone about literally for years. (“This won’t be another Cutting for Stone, will it?”: that’s from 12 years ago, and he’ll still flush when you bring it up.) We all have our own preferences, too, so it’s possible that you’ll struggle every rotation with That Guy’s choice: and I’m very much That Guy for some of the club members. I’ll normally choose a local BC book from a small press, with some sort of environmental inflection, and it’s a niche that not everybody wants to get stuffed into.

And so in the spring of 2023, when we connected at the then-new Victoria outpost of a Vancouver vegan chain restaurant, it turned out that nobody else liked the book I’d chosen, and neither had I. It happens.

But the thing is, this particular book was new and celebrated, enough that I was blissfully confident before I cracked the spine. Like, more than a hundred Goodreads reviews, virtually every one of them positive; from a larger regional publisher that’s tended to have some mass success (though not lots, admittedly); on the Globe 100, as one of what the Globe & Mail decided were 2022’s 100 best books; one of the three “literary fiction” nominees for the Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writers Prize: none of this is in any way Amanda Lewis’s fault, but that’s what happened to what I will always insist was a very weak first novel written by a successful and (it seems) popular BC editor.

Beer & Books have struggled at times with critically buzzed books, including prize-nominated ones like our first-year debacle with Clara Callan, enough that “it hasn’t been nominated for an award, has it?” is a core part of the club’s doubt / mockery lexicon. (When co-founder Doug and I were interviewed many years ago by Sheryl MacKay for CBC’s North by Northwest, Doug wanted to make sure listeners knew we looked with deep distrust at awards lists!) On the other hand, we’ve been unanimous in our appreciation for some award-winning titles, like John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce or Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, so things are complicated.

But when I looked at this novel’s actual Goodreads reviews, it became clear that the Goodreads system had been at least mildly gamed. At that time, more than half its reviews were by people who’d never reviewed a single other book, and though I exaggerated on Twitter, a very large number of reviewers stated specifically that they were personally acquainted with the author.

“While I might be biased since the story is set in my hometown of Vancouver and [author] is my esteemed colleague and a highly respected member of Editors Canada (the Editors’ Association of Canada), I believe this book is so good that it should be nominated for the BC Book Prize, if not the Giller Prize (the top award in Canadian fiction).”

And that’s just a terrible, terrible assessment of an at-best average novel.

Anyway: the attention swallowed up so recently by that book, whose success came from its promotion by so very many people deeply embedded within the BC literary scene, attention and success that should’ve gone to literally any number of more deserving novels, had me gunshy about reading another first book written by a successful BC editor. I mean, so many books get published, even in my little eco-BC niche, that I’ll never read everything. It’s fine to have shortcuts when I make choices, right? There has to be something that makes me pick up one book rather than another, and it’s hard to know what that’ll be, so it’s fine if….

But actually, no. I’ll never read that author’s second or future novels, and I’ll forever distrust those whose blurbs are on the cover, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Holding that novel’s success against Amanda Lewis was petty and stupid, especially since she has undoubtedly been involved in the editing of numerous books I’ve loved. (If I remember, I mean to check the acknowledgments sections of some, just to confirm some suspicions! And I enjoyed the closing paragraph of her own acknowledgments section, too.)

If I’ve visited the Red Creek Fir multiple times, and if I’ve suffered myself from severe burnout, then how can I possibly justify holding back from the story of someone who decides to fight her own burnout through visiting as many of BC’s biggest trees as possible?

The curse of expectations

So then I started reading Tracking Giants, and I had a pretty good sense for what I wanted to find in a book that begins in full quest mode to visit as many big trees as possible in BC, or more specifically as many Champion trees as possible.

Champion trees are judged to be the biggest of their species, in whatever region we’re dealing with. Every city in Canada could have its own Champion trembling aspen, for example, though that’s a complicated species to choose; each province could have its own Champion aspen; the country could have its own Champion; but another country’s Champion could be larger than Canada’s. In BC, these and other very large trees are tracked, to the best of everyone’s ability, by the BC Big Tree Registry, currently operating as a project of the UBC School of Forestry.

I grew up in a logging family, more or less. One of my uncles was involved in finding one of the two enormous burls discovered near Port McNeill in the mid-70s, though I’m not sure which one. My father worked his whole career in forestry, from tree-planting and driving a grader in the 1960s through grading lumber in the 1980s and 1990s to scaling and weighing in the 2000s, most of it at the Adams Lake mill. In one of the films about the 1993 Clayoquot protests, one of my cousins is just about the first face you see in the crowd scene that opens the film, but it has been taken down multiple times for alleged copyright violations; enjoy this one instead.

I’ve taken friends on full-day trips in search of big trees, including down logging roads1: closer to home, those include Avatar Grove, Big Lonely Doug, the San Juan Spruce, the Harris Creek Sitka Spruce, and the Red Creek Fir. For me, they’re remarkable elements in their forest ecosystems, rather than monuments on their own, and I think partly that’s from growing up in the woods myself, able to cycle and walk as a kid from my house to the top of Squilax Mountain. Of course, that’s why Big Lonely Doug is so striking, rising as it does 70 metres (230 feet) into the sky from the middle of a clearcut; Beer & Books enjoyed our trip there so much, after reading Harley Rustad’s book of the same name, that I made a print Google Books photo album to commemorate the event.

And yes, you’re right, exactly, that’s my point. So far, this entire section of my non-review “review” is entirely about me. It hasn’t said anything at all about Amanda Lewis or her book.

Precisely that degree of self-centredness in my initial reading is why I failed to grasp what Tracking Giants was really about, and why the book didn’t work for me until I let go of my unfounded expectations (much like I had to release my petty reluctance to read it at all).

To be clear: I very much hope I’ll get the chance to read a nonfiction book whose author actually visits many of this province’s Champion trees.

Maybe it’ll be about their persistence through climate change, published in 2038 so they can hearken back to Michael Christie’s fictional Greenwood; maybe it’ll be a “what would Grant Hadwin think about all this, then?”, after the spirit of John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce; maybe it’ll be a heartwarming relationship story, or a story like that of Ralph Edwards and Crusoe of Lonesome Lake, or some sort of take on the many latter-day explorer/settler couple books from the 1960s and 1970s, or even (a man can dream) something that comes from and speaks to the Indigenous past, present, and history of what’s currently called British Columbia.

Amanda Lewis didn’t write one of those non-existent books, and that’s fine, even if I want to read all of them. But for a while, somehow I didn’t realize that my reading of the actual book in front of me was being poisoned by my unreasonable expectations, and that’s 100% on me.

In short, if I was going to read this book properly, I needed to get over myself. Once I did that, I settled in for a really enjoyable read.

Something not unlike an actual review

(Lordy, 2000 words in, and only just now finally something review-like?!? I’ve gone full Knausgård this time.)

For the attentive pre-reader of this book, it’ll be clear that Amanda Lewis’ Tracking Giants: Big Trees, Tiny Triumphs, and Misadventures in the Forest won’t really be about trees, even though everything in it happens around trees and the search for them.

Everything in Tracking Giants hinges on the BC Big Trees Registry, more specifically, and the biggest specimen for each species, and yet it’s a strength of this book that Lewis keeps this hoard of data never more than a hinge in something much more interesting. As John Vaillant says on the front cover, this is a “book of journeys and quests,” much like on the back cover, Kyo Maclear calls it “a book about our relationship with trees.” I don’t know that either of those descriptions is quite correct, or quite adequate to Lewis’ complex little gem, but they’re close enough to do as cover copy.

At a difficult point in her life, Lewis steps back a bit from her editing work and what seems a mildly overwhelming life in Vancouver, which has followed some years of an even more overwhelming life in Toronto, in search of much-needed grounding. In conversation with various people, including author Kate Harris and author/scientist/mage Diana Beresford-Kroeger, because Lewis’ credentials in this conversation are impeccable, she hits on the idea of visiting as many trees as possible that have been identified as Champions—the tallest, largest, widest, etc—on the BC Big Tree Registry.

Quite rapidly, it becomes clear to Lewis that her project is doomed, at least in its original iteration. She’s not entirely comfortable hiking on her own, she doesn’t know how to distinguish between closely related tree species (or some that aren’t all that closely related), BC is a huge province to travel, and the Registry itself is an awfully long way from a roadmap to tree locations2. This turns out, though, to be something of a boon:

“I’d though I was embarking on an adventure in forest ecology, and I’d realized it was a creative project. I was going further by simply sticking with it, catching glimmers of beauty along the way. And once I knew I would fail at my quest to see all the Champion trees, I could finally focus on the experience, which would keep the project a source of enjoyment rather than a chore, a hobby rather than an obsession.” (pp120-121)

It would’ve been unreasonable to force a quest out of these materials, as Lewis recognized (both Lewis the character, and Lewis the writer), and I’m beyond delighted that she opted for this approach rather than some of the alternatives, some of which are pretty egregiously woo-woo. As a result of setting herself a more varied, less restrictive tree-related task, paradoxically she’s able to more narrowly delineate this book’s project, which gives Tracking Giants a great part of its charm.

In my high-school dorm at night, my three-year roommate David McKenzie would sometimes set a more or less philosophic topic of conversation, and one recurring such topic was the nature of perfection. What does “perfect” mean, is anything “perfect,” how can we imperfect beings know whether something’s “perfect”: we only stopped going back to the well, if I remember correctly, when we decided that something can only ever be perfectly itself. The example was a piece of carpet, because of course a piece of carpet can’t perfectly cover a stretch of floor, due to gaps between its threads etc, and yet AND YET the carpet perfectly covers that stretch of floor that it actually covers.

Tracking Giants is a piece of carpet, if you’re still with me. It’s not the grand tome I was not-so-secretly pining for,3 because it’s written at a deliberately human scale about human experiences:

“Staring up at that 94-meter Doug-fir in Sayward, while the ecologists and foresters milled about, I realized my life is a pleasingly small element of the larger picture, and recognizing my insignificance was my version of transcendence. It’s good to feel small…. My project was a Pop-Tart in the universal toaster.” (p.131)

I shudder at that closing analogy, which I include only because not everything about this book hits me quite right, but otherwise? Absolutely: that’s one of the reasons I go to the trees myself, and she articulates well that healing sense of scale. As the book rounds toward a close, she returns to this theme again:

“Rather than crossing off trees in a spreadsheet or building my brand or social capital, I am more interested in seeing where smaller dreams take me. Besides, capitalism weakens in the face of antiproductive goals like big-tree tracking for the hell of it—in other words, acts that are creative.” (p199)

Again: yes! That. Somehow I had failed to anticipate that this was the kind of thing I was going to find in this book, and initially I was ill-prepared (surprisingly so, to me at least) to be flexible with what I found, but that’s a terrific reason for us all to swap stories with each other. Once I relaxed into the reading experience, I really enjoyed my time in Lewis’ company, and I suspect that for all kinds of good reasons, it’s a book that’ll stick with me for quite a while.

In sum, Tracking Giants isn’t the book I wanted, and I don’t know that it’s the book I needed, but I think it’s the book that Amanda Lewis meant. As such, it’s been a joy for a great many readers, and I can’t imagine it’ll find many readers like me who are as (like I said) unaccountably resistant to a book that turned out in the end to fit very neatly into my wheelhouse.

And yet a caveat, because somehow I can’t stop writing


And this will almost certainly read like unnecessary griping, the two strands of this section, so be warned.

First, I want to go back to Lewis’ declaration of intent with this smaller project, that turns into Tracking Giants: “I could finally focus on the experience, which would keep the project a source of enjoyment rather than a chore, a hobby rather than an obsession.”

It’s stupid, obviously, for me to doubt Lewis’ sense of herself. But I’ve been stupid several times in this review already, so why stop now?

I don’t know that Lewis fully recognized this “experience,” based on how she goes on to characterize it: the options weren’t only these odd binaries of pleasure trip or burden, hobby or obsession. Again and again in this book, she edges up toward what feels like starting to talk about the pursuit of meaning, then moves elsewhere. (I’ve flagged a few of those in the previous section of this post, in fact, as bits I really appreciated.) The opening and closing of the second-last chapter, “Secular Pilgrimage,” are some of the clearest examples, and I assume that the chapter itself is meant to cover that ground, but for me, “Secular Pilgrimage” is about meaning and the Big Tree Registry, about meaning and trees; I wanted more of Lewis’ sense of meaning for herself in all this. I’m not a big individualist, and we’re nothing without our community, but for me this book—whatever else it might be—gave us readers one stage of the story of Amanda Lewis’ life with trees, thoughts about trees, relationships with trees. And I wanted, more directly, more of what it meant for her.

Sue me.

As I’ve said already, genuinely I’m delighted that she didn’t follow a more Aquarian path, and I think that her small-scale project goal does a great job of activating and enacting what her final chapter postulates: “capitalism weakens in the face of antiproductive goals like big-tree tracking for the hell of it—in other words, acts that are creative” (p199).

But oh, what I wouldn’t give for another seven or twenty-seven or thirty-seven pages of precisely that sentence, and its implications.

Second, am I wrong to think that Amanda Lewis is a more talented, more accomplished nature-writer than she realizes?

Her early-chapters description of the ravine running through the neighbourhood of Royal Heights, where she grew up in Surrey, BC, were such a delight (see pp39-41, e.g.), and of course—of course!—she had been reading My Side of the Mountain at the same time she was living in the ravine as much as in the city around it. In much the same way, I loved her descriptions of the nature around her apartment during the early months of the COVID lockdown, when as in so many other places, Vancouver’s residents came to notice once again the nature living robustly around them (see pp161-163, e.g.). Honestly, I’d be right on board to read whole books that grow from those kinds of shards that flash out at us readers on the way by, and they’d be precisely the kinds of books that sustain the remarkable British nature-writing sector. We need more of them from British Columbia.

In sum, I volunteer to be first in line to read and blurb Amanda Lewis’ next book, which I kind of hope will be about the feral turkeys of Gabriola Island. Maybe next time, I can avoid crushing in advance my chance of genuine happiness through an unseemly, indeed stupid focus on my own hopes for the book’s topic and approach.

But I get in my own way an awful lot. So I wouldn’t bet on it.


Lewis’ sister is correct that around forestry types, it’s probably wiser to call them FSRs, or forest service roads. I call them “logging roads” not out of spite, but because I’m old, I’m the writer, and I’ve only ever heard my own forestry family members call them “logging roads.”


In part, it’s intentional that the BC Big Tree Registry is a bit challenging to use. If everyone knows where something special is, then everyone will want to visit, and then everyone will tread on its roots and damage its bark and shred its local ecosystem. Historical records, in particular, tend to be vague and imprecise, even misleading, where the tree was nominated by someone who feared for its survival (or was jealous of others’ being able to see Their Tree without earning the right).


Or should I say, “grand fir tome”? And “pining for,” classic, amirite? But before you blame me, notice that Lewis uses “milled” in the quotation right under where this footnote’s attached.


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