Preston takes a break from nasty viruses (The Demon in the Freezer, 2002, etc.) to provide a firsthand account of climbing some of the world’s tallest trees.
His tale begins in 1987 with a group of college students visiting one of California’s state forests to climb a tall redwood. One of them, Steve Sillet, became a botanist studying the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, where redwoods and the related giant sequoias are the dominant species. Despite relentless clear-cutting in the years before they were protected by law, several California redwoods rise above 360 feet; they are the largest and possibly the oldest living things on Earth. Preston, who met Sillet after doing some climbing in Eastern forests using techniques learned in an arborist school in Georgia, quickly found that redwoods present an entirely different challenge. Tree trunks often rise 200 feet before putting out branches strong enough to hold a rope. Coached by Sillet and his wife, Marie Antoine, the author began to learn special techniques for scaling redwoods and eventually joined their expedition to climb tall eucalyptus trees in Australia. Ascending the redwoods was a revelation. The rainforest’s crown supports entire ecologies found nowhere else: lichens, birds, reptiles, even whole trees of other species growing in the soil that accumulates on the redwoods’ high branches. The trees are constantly growing and changing, and a large tree’s slow death (often after more than 2,000 years) causes radical changes in the forest around it. The book ends with an August 2006 expedition in collaboration with redwood enthusiast Michael Taylor during which was found a new record-holder for the world’s highest tree. In between, Preston’s text covers everything from rainforest ecology to the lives of the scientists and dedicated amateurs who study it, with a strong emphasis on the sheer beauty of the forest canopy as seen up close.