Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Wild Trees

Richard Preston

Steve Sillett was a 19 year old college student when he and a friend made a free climb, without any ropes, mechanical aids or safety devices, to the top of a medium sized redwood tree. Sillett was fascinated with the tall trees and became a biologist in order to study them. The Wild Trees s the story of how he learned to climb into the crowns of giant trees and his study of the surprisingly complex ecology found in the treetops.

Sillett learned to climb more safely, first by using the climbing spurs used by lumberjacks. A rope is passed around the trunk of a tree and the climber old onto both ends, leaning back against the rope and sets the sharp spikes on his boots into the bark of the tree, to climb. This is very damaging to a tree but lumberjacks cut down the trees they climb.

Sillett next learned to climb the way arborists do. Arborists throw the weighted end of a rope over a branch, secure the rope and then climb the rope, using mechanical "ascenders" a harness called an arborist's saddle and an arrangement that allows them to use the strength of their legs to climb up the rope. Arborists have methods and gear which allow them to move from tree to tree like spider man once they have reached the crow. Sillett became expert in these techniques.  He and Marie Antoine, a biologist studying lichens for her doctoral thesis when the met, were married in the top of a grove of redwoods.

In the tops of redwood trees, Sillett found ferns, huckleberry bushes and small trees, growing in tons of soil that has built up over the centuries in the crotches of branches and in hollows in their trunks.  As you can imagine there are birds in the redwoods, but there are also animals, lizards, flying squirrels and crustaceans, a kind of  tiny shrimp or krill from the north Pacific which has adapted to living 300 feet above the ground.

Part of the story of The Wild Trees is the search for the world's tallest tree. Michael Taylor, the son of a wealthy California real estate developer, who also developed an obsession with the redwoods, spent years searching for the tallest redwood tree, pushing through the thick underbrush into remote areas. He becomes acquainted with Steve Sillett and they work together to identify remote groves of redwoods to study and explore. Taylor suffers from  fear of heights.

Although the tallest trees we know of today are redwoods, Preston speculates in the book that there may have been Douglas fir trees more than 400 feet tall until commercial logging cleaned out the choicest old growth forests early in the 20th century. There are also Australian mountain ash trees over 300 feet and they may have also been much taller in the past. We may never know which species was the tallest in a state of nature. Nobody payed that much attention when they were being cut down.

This post is in the 45th
Book Review Blog Carnival

keywords: biology, trees, redwoods, botany, technical climbing


  1. National Geographic just put their video online recently, which includes Sillett climbing a few redwoods. I embedded that video in my own redwood page.

    The Wild Trees is also a fine read the second time through too.

    MDV - Oregon

  2. That National Geographic video can be found here.

    That's what I'm talkin' about!


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