Life on Earth

Wild Trees

Exploring hidden extremes of life

In the search for the world’s tallest trees, a renegade band of nerdy, obsessive tree-finders discovered patches of wilderness in California and Washington that had never been explored. These areas were so rugged, so blocked with fallen timbers, and so useless otherwise, that they very likely have never been visited by humans before. The nerds began finding trees taller than any known, but no one believed them. In order to prove their claims, they invented ways to climb and examine these giants, and to measure them using lasers. Not only were these indeed the tallest trees in the world, but there was an entirely unknown arboreal ecology in these canopies, including other smaller trees that rooted only in the tops of the tallest trees. Eventually a bunch of maverick biologists joined the pursuit, and they lived, slept, and made love in the tops nearly 400 feet above ground. And sometimes they would fall out of the trees. Richard Preston, the author of the heart-thumping bestseller about the Ebola virus (Hot Zone), manages to tell this story of biological discovery as a summer page-turner. Who will die next? Fast-paced, exhilarating, enlightening — an intense biological thriller.

— KK

Wild Trees
Richard Preston
2007, 320 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample excerpts:

A small part of the crown of Iluvatar.


Lowman used a Magic Marker to write numbers on the leaves of some Australian trees, and then she climbed up into the trees every so often to see how many numbered leaves were still hanging there. “I’m from upstate New York, and I figured maybe six months, and then the leaf would fall off,” she said. Nineteen years later, entering middle age, Lowman found leaves with Magic Marker numbers on them that she had written on the leaves as a younger woman. The leaves had remained alive and unchanged for almost two decades. This illustrates the difficulty humans can have in seeing what’s happening in a forest canopy. Humans don’t live long enough to see many events in trees unfold. Lowman had spent much of her career trying to observe the fall of a leaf.


A forest-canopy biologist at the University of California, Berkeley named Todd Dawson installed sensors in the tops of redwoods that grow around Santa Cruz, and in Sonoma and Humboldt counties. He and his colleagues discovered that a redwood that’s bathed in fog can take moisture in through its needles and send the water downward into its small branches. Todd Dawson suspects, but so far hasn’t been able to prove, that redwoods can also send water from their needles all the way downward into their trunks. In other words, redwoods can reverse the flow of water inside them when it suits their needs. This is one reason why a redwood can grow so tall — it doesn’t have to depend entirely on water that it gathers from the ground and pulls up to its top. It can gather water from the air. Redwoods feed on the sky.


Notes from Iluvatar. Two pages from Steve Sillett’s climbing notebook, drawn in 1999, showing his developing map of one section of Iluvatar’s crown. This is a sketch of an eight-and-a-half-foot-thick-trunk that gives rise to ninety-eight other trunks.


It is a slow-moving infection. A piece of Lobaria the size of a child’s hand might take ten years to grow to that size. (Lobaria is a comparatively fast grower. Some lichens can take twenty years to become the size of a dime.) It can take years or decades for some species of lichens to spread from one tree to the next. “If a whole mountainside has been cut, it will be a very long time before the Lobaria comes back,” Antoine said. “You start to see it after about two hundred years. But you don’t see big, juicy, drippy abundances of these lichens for centuries. You only see it now in old-growth Douglas-fir forests that are over five hundred years old.”

A stand of Douglas-firs may be three hundred years old, older than the United States of America, but it will still be a young patch of forest, devoid of many species of lichens. A stand of trees in a temperate Pacific Northwest rain forest that began growing at the time of the Magna Carta (1215) will only now be reaching a fullness of biodiversity. It will be loaded with a variety of lichens and mosses that don’t occur in younger forests, and it will also contain a much greater variety of animal life, large and small.


Based on a mention in Wild Trees, I tracked this incredible monograph down. It features scientifically exact pen and ink portraits of about 100 specific giant trees of various species. The locations for each branch were done from laser measurements since there is no way to stand back and see (or photograph) such giants. It’s a maniacal labor of love. Each tree is extremely individualistic, very Ent-ish. There’s a wonderful story about each Ent.

— KK

Forest Giants of the Pacific Northwest
Robert Van Pelt
2001, 200 pages

Available from Amazon

Notice the scale of the people (specks) at the base of the trunks.

Related items previously reviewed in Cool Tools:

The Woodbook

The World Without Us

Ecology of the Deep Sea Vents


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