Sunday, June 22, 2014

"Realms of Unfathomed Nature"

I've been reading The Wild Trees (2007) by Richard Preston.  Preston is an excellent science journalist/writer who has a real knack for finding a story in the midst of seemingly uninspiring facts and phenomena.

This is particularly the case with The Wild Trees.  It's about the redwoods.  You'd think, "Okay the redwoods are something to see, certainly, but to read about?  Not so much...".  Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book, if only because the thing that most people probably don't know about the redwoods is that what makes them particularly fascinating is precisely what you don't see.

Preston focuses on the botanists and arborists who work in and with the redwoods and other large Douglas fir trees on the North Coast of California and Oregon.  Specifically, he describes the research that they conduct in the canopies of the trees themselves, hundreds of feet about the ground, and their quest to find the tallest redwoods in sections of forest that humans have not traversed for hundreds of years (if ever).

Preston describes the intricacy and complexity of the aerial ecosystem created by a redwood as it grows.  When its initial spire dies off--typically about midway in the tree's life--it sends out new trunks that branch out of the crown of the tree itself, and over time, these trunks put out more branches and more trunks, all extending outward and upward to the sky.

So what you see on the ground, is not at all what you will see if you climb the tree itself.  As Preston describes,
With the passing of centuries, the extra trunks begin to touch one another here and there.  The trunks and branches of a redwood can fuse and flow together like Silly Putty melting into itself.  The bases of the extra trunks bloat out and become gnarled masses called buttresses.  In the crowns of the largest redwoods, bridges of living redwood are flung horizontally from trunk to trunk and from limb to limb.  This cross-links the crown and strengthens it, in much the same way that flying buttresses support the structure of a cathedral.  As a redwood gets very old, its crown spreads out, until it can look like a thunderhead coming to a boil. (21)
Destruction by the occasional fire only adds to the complexity.  A redwood that has been burned in a fire might have "blackened chambers, holes, and rooms in the tree" called "fire caves."   Preston notes,
even riddled with fire caves, a redwood can grow back.  It drops off its charred buttresses and burned trunks, or it sends living wood flowing up around them, and it continues to send out new trunks, until the tree has become a three-dimensional maze in the air, with a complexity that comes close to defeating the human mind's ability to understand it. (21)
Preston interweaves his story of the redwoods' complexity with a narrative of the various complex individuals who have made it their life's work to explore and study these trees.  And--because it's Preston--he makes sure to include the grim and the gruesome, in answer to the question that he knows every reader will have, whether s/he admits it or not: "What happens if they fall?"

As Preston points out, typically, anyone who falls a distance of more than 50 feet will die.  The landing might break the person's spine or neck or it will cause massive internal bleeding--in at least one case, the fall from a tree ruptured a worker's aorta.

Arborists have a jargon for objects falling from a tree.  They will call out "headache" to let other climbers know if something is falling from the tree (because falling objects pose a distinct danger themselves) and the refer to falling from a tree itself as "cratering" or "taking a dive into a dirt nap" (100).

Preston describes the experience of a tree climber--Kevin Hillery--who fell 90 feet and miraculously survived.  In Hillery's case, luck was on his side: as he was falling, he managed to twist his body in midair, so that he was falling face downward, and he put his left arm across his body as he landed.  And perhaps most importantly, he landed in what is known as "duff," "a deep layer of spongy material" that is "a natural mattress, soft and slightly bouncy" (110).

Oddly enough, all of these things protected him: turning his body and clawing at the air raised his head up and putting his arm across his body protected his neck from the impact.  (In figure-skating, you're taught that when you fall, you should throw your arms up over your head--the simple gesture will pull your body upward just enough that your head won't strike the ice, preventing a possible concussion.  It's easier said than done, of course, and takes a bit of practice.  One figure-skater I know told me, "It's much easier to remember to do it after your first concussion.")

In Preston's narrative of risk-takers and thrill-seekers, however, there is a strong sense of environmental purpose.  As he points out, "The forest canopies of the earth are realms of unfathomed nature, and they are vanishing" (34) and "[t]he forest canopies of the earth are believed to hold roughly half of all species in nature.  No one knows, exactly, because no one has a clear idea of how many species actually exist on the earth" (35).

In the end, the botanists who climb redwoods and other tall trees are committed to exploring "earth's secret ocean ... inhabited by many living things that don't have names... [that] are vanishing before they have even been seen by human eyes" (35).

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