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The Wild Trees

A Story of Passion and Daring

The Wild Trees
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Hidden away in foggy, uncharted rain forest valleys in Northern California are the largest and tallest organisms the world has ever sustained–the coast redwood trees, Sequoia sempervirens. Ninety-six percent of the ancient redwood forests have been destroyed by logging, but the untouched fragments that remain are among the great wonders of nature. The biggest redwoods have trunks up to thirty feet wide and can rise more than thirty-five stories above the ground, forming cathedral-like structures in the air. Until recently, redwoods were thought to be virtually impossible to ascend, and the canopy at the tops of these majestic trees was undiscovered. In The Wild Trees, Richard Preston unfolds the spellbinding story of Steve Sillett, Marie Antoine, and the tiny group of daring botanists and amateur naturalists that found a lost world above California, a world that is dangerous, hauntingly beautiful, and unexplored.

The canopy voyagers are young–just college students when they start their quest–and they share a passion for these trees, persevering in spite of sometimes crushing personal obstacles and failings. They take big risks, they ignore common wisdom (such as the notion that there’s nothing left to discover in North America), and they even make love in hammocks stretched between branches three hundred feet in the air.

The deep redwood canopy is a vertical Eden filled with mosses, lichens, spotted salamanders, hanging gardens of ferns, and thickets of huckleberry bushes, all growing out of massive trunk systems that have fused and formed flying buttresses, sometimes carved into blackened chambers, hollowed out by fire, called “fire caves.” Thick layers of soil sitting on limbs harbor animal and plant life that is unknown to science. Humans move through the deep canopy suspended on ropes, far out of sight of the ground, knowing that the price of a small mistake can be a plunge to one’s death.

Preston’s account of this amazing world, by turns terrifying, moving, and fascinating, is an adventure story told in novelistic detail by a master of nonfiction narrative. The author shares his protagonists’ passion for tall trees, and he mastered the techniques of tall-tree climbing to tell the story in The Wild Trees–the story of the fate of the world’s most splendid forests and of the imperiled biosphere itself.


From the Hardcover edition.
Random House Publishing Group; April 2007
317 pages; ISBN 9781588366030
Download in secure PDF format
Excerpt
1

VERTICAL EDEN

NAMELESS

One day in the middle of October 1987, a baby-blue Honda Civic with Alaska license plates, a battered relic of the seventies, sped along the Oregon Coast Highway, moving south on the headlands. Below the road, surf broke around sea stacks, filling the air with haze. The car turned into a deserted parking lot near a beach and stopped.

A solid-looking young man got out from the driver's side. He had brown hair that was going prematurely gray, and he wore gold-rimmed spectacles, which gave him an intellectual look. His name was Marwood Harris, and he was a senior at Reed College, in Portland, majoring in English and history. He walked off to the side of the parking lot and unzipped his fly. There was a splashing sound.

Meanwhile, thin, somewhat tall young man emerged from the passenger side of the car. He had a bony face, brown eyes, a mop of sun- streaked brown hair, and he wore a pair of bird-watching binoculars around his neck. T. Scott Sillett was a junior at the University of Arizona, twenty-one years old, visiting Oregon during fall break. He took up his binoculars and began to study a flock of shorebirds running along the surf.

The interior of the Honda Civic was made of blue vinyl, and the back seat was piled with camping gear that pressed up against the windows. The pile of stuff moved and a leg emerged, followed by a curse, and a third young man struggled out and stood up. "Mardiddy, this car of yours is going to be the death of us all," he said to Marwood Harris. He was Stephen C. Sillett, the younger brother of Scott Sillett. Steve Sillett was nineteen and a junior at Reed College, majoring in biology. He was shorter and more muscular than his older brother. Steve Sillett had feathery light-brown hair, which hung out from under a sky-blue bandanna that he wore tied around his head like a cap. He had flaring shoulders, and his eyes were dark brown and watchful, and were set deep in a square face. The Sillett brothers stood shoulder to shoulder, looking at the birds. Their bodies were outlined against decks of autumn rollers coming in, giving off a continual roar. Scott handed the binoculars to his younger brother, and their hands touched for an instant. The Sillett brothers' hands had the same appearance-fine and sensitive-looking, with deft movements.

Scott turned to Marwood: "Marty, I think your car should be called the Blue Vinyl Crypt. That's what it will turn into if we fall off a cliff or get swiped by a logging truck."

"Dude, you're going to get us into a crash that will be biblical in its horror," Steve said to Marwood. "You need to let Scott drive." (Steve didn't know how to drive a car.)

Marwood didn't want Scott's help with the driving. "It's a very idiosyncratic car," he explained to the Sillett brothers. In theory, he fixed his car himself. In practice, he worried about it. Lately he had noticed that the engine had begun to give off a clattering sound, like a sewing machine. He had also become aware of an ominous smell coming from under the hood, something that resembled the smell of an empty iron skillet left forgotten on a hot stove. As Marwood contemplated these phenomena and pondered their significance, he wondered if his car needed an oil change. He was pretty sure that the oil had been changed about two years ago, in Alaska, around the time the license plates had expired. The car had been driven twenty thousand miles since then, unregistered, uninsured, and unmaintained, strictly off the legal and mechanical grids. "I'm worried you'll screw it up," he said to Scott.

Steve handed the binoculars to his brother and climbed into the back of the Blue Vinyl Crypt. "Dudes, let's go," he said. "We need to see some tall redwoods."

They planned to go backpacking in one of the small California state parks that contain patches of ancient coast redwood forest. None of the young men had ever seen a redwood forest. Steve seemed keyed up.

The coast redwood tree is an evergreen conifer and a member of the cypress family. Its scientific name is Sequoia sempervirens. It is sometimes called the California redwood, but most often it is simply referred to as the redwood. No one knows exactly when or where the redwood entered the history of life on earth, though it is an ancient kind of tree, and has come down to our world as an inheritance out of deep time. A redwood has furrowed, fibrous bark, and a tall, straight trunk. It has soft, flat needles that become short and spiky near the top of the tree. The tree produces seeds but does not bear flowers. The seeds of a redwood are released from cones that are about the size of olives. The heartwood of the tree is a dark, shimmery red in color, like old claret. The wood has a lemony scent, and is extremely resistant to rot.

Redwoods grow in valleys and on mountains along the coast of California, mostly within ten miles of the sea. They reach enormous sizes in the mild, rainy climate of the northern stretches of the coast. Parts of the North Coast of California are covered with temperate rain forest. A rain forest is usually considered to be a forest that gets at least eighty inches of rain a year, and parts of the North Coast get more than that. A temperate rain forest has a cool, moist, even climate, not too hot or cold. Redwoods flourish in fog, but they don't like salt air. They tend to appear in valleys that are just out of sight of the sea. In their relationship with the sea, redwoods are like cats that long to be stroked but are shy to the touch. The natural range of the coast redwoods begins at a creek in Big Sur that flows down a mountain called Mount Mars. From there, the redwoods run up the California coast in a broken ribbon, continuing to just inside Oregon. Fourteen miles up the Oregon coast, in the valley of the Chetco River, the redwoods stop.

The coast redwood is the tallest species of tree on earth. The tallest redwoods today are between 350 and close to 380 feet in height-thirty-five to thirty-eight stories tall. The crown of a tree is its radiant array of limbs and branches, covered with leaves. The crown of a supertall redwood has a towering, cloudy, irregular form, and the crowns of the tallest redwoods can sometimes look like the plume of exhaust from a rocket taking off.

Botanists make a distinction between the height of a tree and its overall size, which is measured by the amount of wood the tree has in its trunks and limbs. The largest redwoods, which are called redwood giants or redwood titans, are usually not the very tallest ones, although they are still among the world's tallest trees-they are typically more than three hundred feet tall. Today, almost no trees of any species, anywhere, reach more than three hundred feet tall, except for redwoods. The main trunk of a redwood titan can be as much as thirty feet in diameter near its base.

Many people who are familiar with coast redwoods have seen them in the Muir Woods National Monument, in Marin County, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. The Muir Woods, which is visited by nearly a million people every year, is a tiny patch of virgin, primeval redwood forest, and it is like a small window that reveals a glimpse of the way much of Northern California looked in prehistoric times. Though the redwoods in the Muir Woods are hauntingly beautiful trees, they are relatively small and are not very tall, at least for redwoods. The redwoods you can see in the Muir Woods are nothing like the redwood titans that stand in the rain-forest valleys of the North Coast, closer to Oregon. They are the dreadnoughts of their kind, the blue whales of the plant kingdom.

Nobody knows the ages of any of the living giant coast redwoods, because nobody has ever drilled into one of them in order to count its annual growth rings. Drilling into an old redwood would not reveal its age, anyway, because the oldest redwoods seem to be hollow; they don't have growth rings left in their centers to be counted. Botanists suspect that the oldest living redwoods may be somewhere between two thousand and three thousand years old-they seem to be roughly the age of the Parthenon.

The road became the California Coast Highway, and the Sillett brothers and Marwood Harris drove past Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, in Del Norte County. They didn't stop to look at the redwoods there. They went through Crescent City, a tired-looking town. They passed a Carl's Jr. fast-food restaurant, and a lumber mill, and bars and taverns, dark in daylight, where you could get a beer for a dollar and maybe get a fractured skull for nothing.

The redwood forests around Crescent City had been logged. The road went past stretches of open land covered with bare stumps, and past seas of young redwood trees growing on timber-company land, which looked like plantations of fuzzy Christmas trees. Here and there on the ridges were a few last stands of virgin, ancient redwoods, looming above everything else. They looked like Mohawk haircuts.

The road entered Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and the highway was suddenly lined with extremely tall redwoods. Steve Sillett began thrashing around in the back of the Crypt. "Stop the car! I'm getting out."

Marwood pulled off to the side of the road. Steve squeezed out of the back seat and took off, running into the forest. Scott and Marwood waited in the car.

"What's he doing?"

"He's looking at the trees."

"Oh, God."

They rolled down the windows. "Steve! We're not there yet! Get back in the fricking car!"

Twenty miles farther down the road, they came to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. The park occupies a sliver of wrinkled terrain, eight miles long and four miles wide, lying along the Pacific Ocean on the northern edge of Humboldt County. The North Coast along those parts is covered with rain forests, and the forests are often hidden in clouds and fog. The beaches along the North Coast are made of gray sand, gnawed by waves the color of steel. The beaches rise into bluffs, which become the California Coast Ranges, a maze of ridges and steep, narrow valleys, clad with deep temperate rain forest. The forest is dominated by coast redwoods.

As they entered the park, Steve was hunched over, staring at a map. Marwood slowed to a crawl. Trucks whipped past them. Steve ordered Marwood to stop, and he pulled off the highway and rammed the Blue Vinyl Crypt into the underbrush, to get it out of sight. They were planning to camp in some wild spot among the redwoods, but it is illegal to camp in the redwood parks except in a few public campgrounds, and they didn't want the rangers to notice their car.

They put on their backpacks and hurried along a trail that went westward, climbing toward a ridge and the ocean, passing through a redwood forest. The trees had stony-gray bark. They looked like the columns of a ruined temple. The ground was made up of rotting redwood needles, and it was covered with sword ferns-tall, stiff ferns- growing chest high. Everywhere there were spatters of redwood sorrel- small, emerald-green plants with heart-shaped leaves.

The trail came to the crest of a ridge and dropped down into a valley that opened toward the ocean. As they went over the ridge, the sound of trucks on the highway faded away. A hush came over the world, and it grew dark. There was no sunlight at the bottom of the redwood forest, only a dim, gray-green glow, like the light at the bottom of the sea. The air grew sweet, and carried a tang of lemons. They became aware of a vast forest canopy spreading over their heads.

Steve Sillett moved out ahead along the trail, and Marwood Harris followed close behind him. Scott Sillett lingered, holding his binoculars in his hands and looking and listening for birds. It was so quiet in the redwood forest that he could hear the sound of his breathing. The trunks of the redwoods were grooved pedestals extending upward into hidden structures. He imagined that they were silent ruined towers of Middle-earth. Birds were moving in the canopy, but the birds were few and were quiet, for they don't sing in the autumn. He was hoping to see a varied thrush.

"Scott, we need to keep moving." Steve was standing up ahead, tapping his foot restlessly.

Scott watched his younger brother disappear down the trail. He thought that there was something fragile about Steve. Steve was a restless person, driven, passionate, intense, and he always seemed to be running out of time. He concealed his insecurity and sensitivity in a shell of prickliness and a weird sense of humor. Steve had a gloomy streak, and a tendency to be moody, to become angry and depressed, as if he had a hidden wound that oozed and could never heal. He also had an impulsive, generous nature, and his kindheartedness could get him into trouble.

The Sillett brothers had grown up sharing a bunk bed in a little bedroom in a duplex house with a neat yard in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Scott had claimed the top bunk, because he was older, and Steve had slept in the bottom. As children, they had invented a private language, which no one else could understand, and they still sometimes spoke it with each other. It sounded like some kind of bizarre German. Their father, Terence B. Sillett, had majored in mathematics in college but had been unemployed for a number of years. Before he stopped working, he had been a salesman. He had sold insurance, real estate, and auto parts, and he had also worked as a chimneysweep, but he had developed spiritual longings. Eventually, he grew a beard and began meditating and spending a lot of time reading books on reincarnation and Hinduism and esoteric forms of Christianity. "I wanted to understand what the being called Christ was," Terence Sillett explained to me once.

The boys' mother, Julianna Sillett, discussed matters with Terence, and they decided to switch roles. She became the full-time money- earner in the family. She was a registered nurse, and she got a job working in the labor-and-delivery room at a hospital in Harrisburg. Terence stayed at home during the day and took care of the boys and their sister, Liana, the youngest of the Sillett children. He did the grocery shopping, cooked meals for the children, made their school lunches, supervised their homework, and he tucked them into bed when their mother was working the night shift at the hospital. Alcohol became a steady companion of Terence Sillett.


From the Hardcover edition.