Richard Preston’s The Wild Trees is non-fiction, which seems clear enough, and you will get from it what you get from great non-fiction, a deeper understanding of a well-defined topic, in this case the exploration of the world’s tallest trees, the California Redwoods, how they came to be so rare (spoiler: humans), what makes them so unique among the Earth’s flora, and how we learned what we know about them.
If that’s all you were going to get from this book, it would be worth reading. As organisms, California’s coastal Redwoods stand apart from most others. They are older, the oldest sprouting from seed more than a millenium ago. They harbor as yet uncounted species in a wholly separate forest top ecosystem. They survive fires. They sometimes have caves inside them. They move water from the ground to thirty stories in the sky. They have other trees growing in them. Really, each redwood is like a forest unto itself.
As I said, if that’s all you were going to learn, this would be a book worth reading.
But Preston is of the John McPhee school, a writer who brings his subject to life with minutely described, character-driven prose. In The Wild Trees, the Redwoods themselves are characters, but the hodge-podge of scientists and amateur tree obsessives also have their own story arcs, one that mirrors the process of discovery that took place only recently on the California coast.
There’s some swashbuckling. There’s some relationship drama. There are tragedies, as when ancient trees topple in storms, and epiphanies, as when a guy who repairs the machines that produce nicotine patches, discovers the tallest tree on Earth after a years-long quest to do exactly that.
For people who love trees, for people who love adventure, for people who love science, for people who love the idea of climbing trees and flying through the air, for people who like to be awed, for people who love a page-turner, this is a book worth reading.