Bookmarks Issue: 

A Story of Passion and Daring

A-The Wild TreesTwenty years ago, scientists knew little about California’s redwood forests. They contain the tallest trees on Earth—some growing to a height of 35 stories and considered too dangerous to climb. The Wild Trees tracks the adventurous researchers and naturalists whose passion led them to explore and understand these behemoths. Rather than a "desert," botanist Stephen Sillett discovered a rich, uncharted ecosystem in the redwood canopies—"what amounted to coral reefs in the air." Michael Taylor sacrificed a fortune to find the world’s tallest tree. A handful of brave souls regularly risked life and limb to study these ancient trees, some of them predating the fall of Rome. The Wild Trees gives us a rare peek into a secret, complex world.
Random House. 294 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 1400064899

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Preston takes the reader on a compelling journey into a world experienced only by a limited number of scientists and outdoorsmen (Preston himself included). … This is a journey that I encourage you to take." Larry Sears

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"There is something so elementally boyish in searching out the biggest and tallest, poring over maps and measurements, dubbing these trees with names lifted from J. R. R. Tolkein’s Middle Earth. … Preston knows how to fold the science into the seams of his narrative, and his dry humor crops up, pleasurably, at the edges of his observations." Karen Long

Contra Costa Times 4 of 5 Stars
"One of the most pleasing discoveries he narrates is his own transformation into a climber, gradual at first, but accelerating quickly. In the end, he’s swinging through the redwood canopy right along with Sillett and Antoine, and we realize that all the lyrical description he’s given us about the treetops and the climbing itself was informed not just by the people he writes about, but also by his own perception and experience." Peter Magnani

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"The Wild Trees is filled with fascinating scientific details—particularly about the lush and secret world of redwood canopies—but is more adventure journalism than environmental studies." Elizabeth Grossman

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Once again he combines the thrill of exploration with the quirkiness of those who choose it as their lives’ work. … The Wild Trees sags slightly when Mr. Preston begins describing his own climbing career, since it is no match for the book’s other exploits." Janet Maslin

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"It’s probably unfair to compare this book with Preston’s well-known earlier works—for drama, it’s hard to measure up to a lethal virus. But the subtitle promises A Story of Passion and Daring, and too little of that passion comes across." Kate Zernike

Chicago Sun-Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"If there is a fault to the reporting and writing in The Wild Trees, it is there is too much paper and ink devoted to the minutia of personal lives. … And when Preston includes his own personal climbing exploits, it comes off as unnecessary and self-serving." Stephen J. Lyons

Critical Summary

Richard Preston, whose previous nonfiction thrillers include The Hot Zone (about the Ebola virus) and The Demon in the Freezer (about smallpox; 3.5 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2003), takes a botanical detour in The Wild Trees. Most critics praised this noteworthy, if somewhat less sensational, effort. Yet while some relished the offbeat characters, the action-packed sequences, and Preston’s personal climbing experiences, others found fault with Preston’s detailed descriptions of his subjects’ personal lives, his overdramatization of mundane stories for effect, and his self-important account of going "native" (Cleveland Plain Dealer). Many were also surprised that Preston had little to say about protecting the remaining redwoods despite their continued endangerment.