Voyage to the top of the trees

June 8, 2007                                                                                                            Salon

Just as Jacques Cousteau opened up the oceans, amazing tree-climbers are discovering a new frontier in redwood canopies 35 stories above the forest floor. 

Flying around the planet via Google Earth, it’s easy to despair that there is nothing left for humans to discover. Having mapped every inch of the planet with satellites, we can type in London or Darfur or Redwoods National Park and see pigeons circling above Trafalgar Square, a tent city spreading out across the desert, or the green expanse of the forest canopy. This ability to instantly possess images of almost any place on any continent, to zoom in on a certain tree or building (hello, Dick Cheney!), then zoom out as if piloting a plane, can make the world feel like an entirely known quantity, bereft of mystery. 

Then comes Richard Preston’s thrilling, wondrous book “The Wild Trees.” Trees — the most familiar and beloved of all plants — turn out to be as unexplored by science as Tibet was by the West before Alexandra David-Néel dressed as a man and sneaked over the Himalayas into the forbidden kingdom. The tree of life may be the archetypal symbol of the human experience, but we don’t know as much as we thought about the life of the tree — especially that of the redwood, the tallest species of tree on the planet. Higher than the W Hotel in downtown San Francisco, redwoods can grow to be 370 feet tall, and until very recently nobody thought, or dared, to climb them. 

But a new breed of tree-loving eccentrics — some of them are scientists, others have an almost mystical attraction to the species — has discovered a world above the forest floor, an aerial forest 250 feet aboveground teeming with biodiversity that is largely “undescribed” by science. “The forest canopy is the earth’s secret ocean,” Preston explains, “and it is inhabited by many living things that don’t have names, and are vanishing before they have even been seen by human eyes.” (More)



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