A tree-hugger extraordinaire offers myriad compelling reasons to admire, revere and—yes—hug the nearest trunk.
Yet this is no soft, silly paean to treedom. English biologist Tudge (The Impact of the Gene, 2001, etc.) has synthesized volumes of research and presents his resulting work with humor, passion, even panache. He opens with a playful definition, “a tree is a big plant with a stick up the middle,” but soon we are deep into the roots of the subject, learning how trees evolved and how scientists continue to try to classify them. The longest, densest section is a 150-page tour of trees, beginning with the conifers and ending with the eudicots, but making instructive sojourns among the old, the tall, the wide and the weird. He describes one flowering tree whose warm blossoms invite beetles to spend the night and have sex; in the morning, covered with pollen, they depart to spread the tree’s DNA. The author does his best in these middle pages to thin the academic underbrush, but not always successfully. The brisk pace resumes in the final part; an especially strong chapter describes how trees live—for example, how water can rise from the roots of a redwood to its lofty top. Another fascinating section deals with the social life of trees (they’ve learned, unlike humans, how to get along . . . usually) and contains a dazzling set piece about the co-evolution of figs and the wasps that feed on them. The end dovetails nicely with Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. Global warming threatens trees, which don’t adapt quickly to environmental change, and without them, our own once-arboreal species becomes much more vulnerable, Tudge writes. He urges prudent forestry, increased use of wood products for large buildings and a cold, sober reassessment of the global rush to industrialize.
Few books are as relevant for our time as is this one.