2008 Winner: Young Adult Science Book
The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring, by Richard Preston. Random House, 2007.
Imagine the Hollywood film The Right Stuff and the story line of that history of the beginnings of the American space program. Now substitute test pilot Chuck Yeager and the first Project Mercury astronauts with a group of men and women who sought the tallest trees (Yeager's Mach 1) and determined to climb them. Then imagine the small band of growing professional astronauts (from Friendship 7) reincarnated two to three decades later as a small band of about the same size who pioneered the climbing of tall trees. Both stories are "high" adventures, both took intestinal fortitude, both would see death amongst the practitioners, and both would continue to tackle their respective Everests with ever-improving equipment and methods.
In The Wild Trees, author Richard Preston introduces us to, at first, just a few intrepid adventurers, untrained in botany (or, for that matter, any science), who sought to both discover and climb the tallest coast redwoods in Northwestern California (the primary area in which this species is to be found). As their fascination with the venture grew, so did their desire to get advanced degrees in the plant sciences and to learn the ways of the biology of the trees--especially the astonishing new world of the temperate rain-forest canopy: The astronauts' Moon was hardly as unknown as forest canopies, redwood or otherwise. From the 1970s onward, the techniques of tall-tree climbing-the rope systems, the tools, the tricks of the trade—are all here, carefully laid out in a historical study. This is less a history of science or a book purely about science—although we do learn a lot about canopy architecture, some of its denizens (the lichens that inhabit Sequoia sempervirens, for instance, and a bit of other biology—than it is a book about adventure. Although Preston (well known for his hit 1994 book The Hot Zone: The Story of the Ebola Virus does not write in the same manner as, say, William Beebe (admittedly of an earlier time and style), The Wild Trees cannot but help put one in mind of Beebe's Half Mile Down.
Preston tells a similar tale of adventurers 300 feet up, ofttimes tethered by a single, slender thread not unlike Beebe beneath the seas—and just as much in danger—as "canopy science" entered its beginning age. Anyone who can't put down Beebe—or Tom Clancy, for that matter—must pick up Richard Preston's latest book and discover the characters. Preston is a master in telling us about the people who founded tall-tree climbing and how they taught themselves to climb the trees (much more demanding than you might imagine). It is indeed a story about "passion and daring."
About the Author
Richard Preston is the bestselling author of The Hot Zone, The Demon in the Freezer, and the novel The Cobra Event. A writer for The New Yorker since 1985, Preston is the only nondoctor to have received the Centers for Disease Control's Champion of Prevention Award. He also holds an award from the American Institute of Physics. Preston lives outside New York City.