Book Review on “The Wild Trees” by Richard Preston

by REBECCA KELLER AND ROBERTA KELLER

The Wild Trees, is written in five different sections, each composed of many chapters and each focusing on a different part of the story of the discovery of the mysteries of the tree canopy. The first section, titled “A Vertical Eden” introduces the readers to most of the main characters including Scott Sillett, Steve Sillett, and Marwood Harris, and provides readers with some insight on their childhood and why they are so interested in the trees. All of them grew up with not the best family life, and are planning on using their trek into the forest as some escape from the pressures of college life. The trio enters the redwood forest of California for presumably the first time, and almost immediately became entranced by the trees. Fueled with the recklessness of youth and overconfidence, Steve and Marwood begin climbing a huge redwood tree they name “Nameless”, and what they find influences their career and minds for the entirety of the book. After risking their lives many times, they discover the world of the redwoods and all their complexities. Another essential person is introduced in this chapter, Steve Sillett’s future wife Marie Antione. Marie had always been interested in climbing structures, not so much for the science as the thrill that came with it. She also had a rough childhood and partially found an escape from life from the trees, much like Steve. In addition to Marie, my favorite person was introduced in this section, Michael Taylor. Unlike Steve, Michael is not an extremely studious person, and had never really been interested in Biology, but when he moved out to the west coast, he couldn’t help but find the vastness and size of the redwood forest to be something magical. He spent most of his time in the forest looking for the tallest redwood, while Steve was more focused on the scientific discoveries to make in the trees, while Marie was mostly concerned about the thrill it gave her. This first section of the book shows the impact that the trees are originally having on the lives of the main characters, while the later sections focus on where each person decides to go from there.

The second section, “The Fall of Telperion”, highlights more of the scientific aspects of the story. After the tree Taylor discovered named Telperion falls over one night, many scientists studying the redwood trees make important new discoveries about the trees. For example, many people discover for the first time that there is literally a whole world above the redwood trees. The redwood tree canopy is home to thousands of other organisms, including hundreds of different species of lichens, many different animal and insect species, and full gardens with dirt and berries, all completely created and/or provided for by the trees. Also in this chapter, Sillett begins to climb the trees for real, starting to form new, more advanced techniques of his own. The most interesting part about the fall of Telperion, is that not too long before, Sillett and his team of tree climbers and friends spent a day climbing the tree, when a huge storm hit and shook the tree violently. Sillett was extremely surprised at the endurance of the tree, only to discover that the tree actually was dying, it wasn’t just super flexible.

In the third section, “The Opening of the Labyrinth”, the world of the redwoods becomes much more studied and accessible by Sillett (who, if you can’t tell at this point, has taken over the main character position). The main reason for this advancement is, instead of making up his own tree climbing techniques as he previously did, Steve Sillett decides to get major training in tree climbing. Steve gets a job as a college professor teaching biology but this soon goes downhill because, also in this section, Steve reaches his all time emotional low. He is having relationship struggles with his wife Amanda, and starts thinking about the trees as a way to kill himself. Earlier in the book, he watched his friend and fellow tree climber, Kevin Hillery, and saw this as a good method of dealing with his feelings. It was in this section when Steve Sillett and Michael Taylor, who were already friends, became really close, as Michael helped Steve get through his depression. Probably one of the best moments of Steve’s life also happens in this section though, he finds a new grove of redwoods, the Atlas Grove. The Atlas grove consists of the tallest, most complex organisms in the world and for many years, Steve and his team of biologists log all of the organisms in the Atlas Grove area.

The most emotional and least biology related section is “Love in Zeus”. This section mainly focuses on Steve Sillett’s new love interest, fellow tree-lover and main character, Marie Antione. Although they had met before, they had never had a romantic relationship, but after Sillett got divorced and they spent a lot of time together researching the trees, they couldn’t help falling in love. They end up getting married in the redwood trees, specifically the one named Zeus (hence the title). Also in this chapter, much of the logging of all the organisms in the Atlas Grove section takes place, and this is a huge biological advancement for the tree world of biology.

In the final section of the book, “Into the Deep Canopy”, changes from a narrative, storytelling presence to an autobiography. Here, Richard Preston addresses how his life was affected by the trees, how he learned to climb them, research them, and how his relationship with Sillett formed. Sillett, Preston, and Antoine are given the opportunity to research more super tall trees, this time in Australia, called Eucalyptus regnans, which although differ in many extreme ways compared to the redwood, they provide much insight on the tree canopies around the world. The section ends with the dynamic trio getting rid of all the man made objects that are in the Atlas Grove, and realizing that the redwoods are best protected and preserved by being left away from human contact.