hide captionThe Lost Monarch, in the Grove of Titans, is the most massive redwood on Earth. The main trunk of a redwood can be as large as 30 feet in diameter. The tallest tree in the world stands at almost 380 feet.
Michael W. Taylor/Courtesy of Richard Preston
The Lost Monarch, in the Grove of Titans, is the most massive redwood on Earth. The main trunk of a redwood can be as large as 30 feet in diameter. The tallest tree in the world stands at almost 380 feet.
In his new book, The Wild Trees, author Richard Preston explores California's giant redwoods — some of the largest living organisms in the world. Devoted naturalists are climbing to the tops of these trees to learn more about the "green ocean" overhead. Preston talks with Alex Chadwick about how he discovered this little-known world.
Is it true that you got involved with the redwood in an unexpected way?
I was surfing the Internet and I came across a school in Atlanta where you could learn how to climb trees with ropes the way the pros do. It sounded terrific, and so I went down there and I began to learn these rarified techniques for how you get up and down trees using special ropes and gear. Then I began hearing about these people who climb super tall trees — redwoods on the West Coast.
It occurred to me that this really would make a terrific piece of writing. So I proposed it to the New Yorker magazine and they sent me out there. I got to know Steve Sillett and Marie Antoine, redwood forest canopy scientists, also husband and wife, who are climbing in the world's tallest forests. These trees are so huge that people who are climbing them can't communicate with the ground or with each other except with handheld radios.
So you climb out of sight in these trees?
You climb utterly out of sight. Try to picture this: These [coastal] redwood trees, which grow in these little rainforest valleys on the north coast of California, can be up to 30 feet across at the base. And then the big ones, that is, the massive ones, can rise 32 stories into the air. The tall ones are up to nearly 40 stories tall and they're proportioned more like a knitting needle: They're narrow, thins spears that go up into space.
When you get up into the crown of a redwood tree, you lose sight of the ground entirely. You also lose sight of the sky. You're in a lost world. You're in an undiscovered, unexplored ecosystem, somewhere between heaven and earth, filled with forms of life, not all of which have been given names by scientists yet. Everything from hanging gardens of ferns, to caves carved into the trees by forest fires. Layers of soil sitting on the limbs — layers that can be up to a meter deep, filled with organisms and then small trees growing on the branches of redwood trees. Trees of many different species — these are bonsai of the canopy.
These are trees growing out of the limbs of redwoods, so these trees have trees growing on them?
Yes. Thickets of huckleberry bushes, with ripe berries hanging in them if it happens to be in the fall. And you can stop and rest and eat the berries. Flowering Rhododendrons, Laurel trees, Hemlocks, Spruce trees, all growing in little places in nooks and crannies on the giant redwood. It's an ecosystem in the air.
You tell many stories of people up in the trees, and it turns out that Steve has a fear of heights. What happens up there?
I believe we're probably the only primate species that is afraid of heights. All other primates that I know of, when they're scared, they run up into a tree where they feel safe. But for some reason, natural selection has programmed us to be very afraid of heights. Try to picture what this is like: You're hanging on a rope, like a tread. They're using military tactical ropes that are as thin as your pinky, and they extend 30 to 35 stories up into space, so you can't see the rope. It just disappears somewhere up there. At times you get a profound sense of vertigo. And there have been times where I've just had to stop what I was doing and just try to relax and remember that my equipment is good and these are strong branches, and as long as I do everything correctly I'm going to be all right.
In the book, you follow Steve Sillett and Marie Antoine. In the course of climbing, and in the course of falling in love with these redwoods and with each other, they actually become top botanists in the field. They know more about these redwoods and what happens to them then anyone else.
They do. I think one of the things that I was amazed at was that California has rainforest in it. These are temperate rainforests where it doesn't get too cold in the winter or too hot in the summer. Forest canopy scientists — the people who study the great green ocean over our heads — have largely focused on the tropical regions of the earth: the rainforest of the Amazon, for example, or Central America. It was always thought that that was where the most biodiversity was, and also because the tropical rainforests are so threatened by logging and burning and agriculture.
Nobody had really paid any attention to the fact that North America also has rainforests that are also very threatened and are filled with biodiversity and biomass. [The] redwood rainforest has five to 10 times the biomass — that's the sheer weight of living material — of say, deep tropical rainforest in the Amazon basin. Redwood rainforest is also anywhere from two to three times taller than tropical rainforest. But very little research has been done into them. We know precious little about what really exists in the air above California.
How is it that these groves remain undiscovered? These forests have been logged, and they're on public land. How is it that people don't get to them?
It's so incredible. I can almost not answer that question because I don't know myself. But the truth of the matter is that redwood rainforest is exceedingly difficult to move through, physically. You get out in there, and it takes a physically fit person up to 12 hours to move two miles. You're belly crawling, you're crawling through thorns, your skin gets all bloody, you can't see anything. It's absolutely thick. And then you come across these piles of redwood trunks that have fallen down like pick-up-sticks. These are trunks that are anywhere from eight to 12 feet in diameter piled up, and as you climb over them...
And they weren't logged, they were lost in storms?
These are natural windfalls — deadfalls — that accumulate one after the other, until you get a wall of wood that may be 30 feet tall. And as you climb over it, if you slip down into a crack, you can fall into the pile — 30 feet — and break your leg and never be heard from again.
Even so, at the end of your book, they find what they think is the world's tallest tree, and indeed, no one had ever seen it before.
I had actually finished the manuscript of The Wild Trees and turned it into Random House when all of a sudden, word came that Michael Taylor and his colleague, Chris Atkins, another explorer, have just knocked one out of the park: They found the world's tallest tree. The tree is named Hyperion, it is 379.1 feet tall. It grows in a small, hidden valley inside the borders of Redwood National Park. The valley itself may not have had visitors in it in about 30 years. Probably timber cruisers went through about 30 years ago, when there was a lot of logging going on near the park.
We were completely stunned and it ended up being an expedition. There were four climbers — I was one of them — and we made the first climb of Hyperion. I interviewed Michael Taylor; he came along to watch the show. Michael Taylor is desperately afraid of heights. He may or may not ever climb a redwood tree. He certainly hasn't done it so far. And I asked him, 'How in the world did you ever find this tree?' And he said, 'The secret of success is just: Don't ever stop. Just don't give up. And when somebody tells you something is impossible, do it first, and then keep going.'
Excerpt: 'The Wild Trees'
by Richard Preston
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 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. In this way, they are rather like people. A football player is often bigger than a basketball player — more massive, that is. The basketball player is taller and more slender. So it is with redwoods. The tallest redwoods are often slender, and so they aren't the largest ones. Even so, the most massive redwoods (the redwood titans) are among the world's tallest trees anyway, and are more than thirty stories 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. 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 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 Muir Woods are nothing like the redwood titans that stand in the rain-forest valleys of the North Coast, closer to Oregon. These are the dreadnoughts of trees, 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.