What is it about coastal redwoods that would inspire people to risk their lives to be near them? For starters, this type of redwood is located in only a few areas, but those are nearly inaccessible to all but the most dedicated bushwhackers. It is impossible to see the trees in their entirety, so a combination of imagination and rigorous measurement is required to assess their true size. They support an abundance of flora and fauna (even plankton) in an unexpected place. And they are the largest living things in the world. (OK, there’s a honey mushroom fungus in Oregon that is technically bigger, but no one’s organizing trips to see it…) But what kind of oddballs, misfits, and romantics would embark on arduous trips to find and study these giant trees?
For Steve Sillett, it started as a rebellious and incredibly dumb free climb that uncovered a new world. For Michael Taylor, a childhood trip introduced him to the trees, which became first a hobby, then an obsession. Marie Antoine’s risk-taking youth evolved into a desire to study rare plants found in the canopies of these tall trees. Arborists Scott Altenhoff and Kevin Hillery took on the job of teaching ‘skywalking’ to the climbers, equipping them to ascend the trees then move among the branches in a kind of ballet. These, and the other people in the tiny community of canopy scientists, learned by the seat of their climbing saddles. All of them bring a love of the trees, incredible athletic ability, and a desire to learn to their vocation.
Their experiences were not without cost. Relationships suffered, job opportunities were set aside, expensive equipment purchased by sacrificing necessities. The searchers only looked in places deemed inaccessible by logging companies, fighting through tangled bushes and poison oak in often fruitless searches. Michael Taylor’s fear of heights tortured him even as he told other climbers where to find bigger trees. The dangers inherent in climbing were amplified by inattention and possibly self-destructive impulses. These stories provide motion and drama while clearly keeping the giant trees at the center of the book.
The trees themselves? If you have ever visited Muir Woods National Monument in California, you may have seen a popular tourist attraction – the coastal redwood measuring 285 feet tall, or about the height of the United States Capitol Building. A member of this community discovered the tallest tree in the world, called Stratosphere Giant. It stands 370 feet tall (as high as a 35 story building) and is estimated to be 2,000 years old. An incredible series of drawings in the book depicts a small segment of a tree called Iluvatar, which has 220 trunks growing from its main trunk in an astonishing maze that dwarfs the humans. As both living organisms and habitats, these trees are incredibly complex, perhaps beyond our understanding.
In Encounters with the Archdruid, John McPhee writes about the philosophical divide between conservationists who want to maintain pristine wilderness and land managers who say everyone should have recreational access to those wild places. The people Richard Preston writes about have made that decision for themselves. To avoid divulging locations of the trees, the climbers and scientists go to great lengths, even approaching from different directions so they don’t leave trails. For me, it is enough to know that the trees are there and that people who respect and love them are serving as their stewards – I don’t need to see them to understand their value. Long may they stand.