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The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring

Richard Preston (2007)


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. (7)

A distance of fifty feet above the ground is known to climbers as the redline. They hold it as a rule of thumb that if you fall fifty feet to hard ground you will very likely die. Indeed, an adult human can easily die after falling ten feet, if he lands on his head. (14-15)

The species that live in forest canopies are largely unknown. Biologists say that they are undescribed. A species that is undescribed is one that has never been given a name or been identified according to what it looks like, where it lives, and how it fits into the classification system of life—the taxonomy into which all living things can be placed, from bacteria to elephants. The 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. There may be ten million different species on the earth, or a hundred million species. The forest canopy is the earth's secret ocean, 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. (34-5)

Michael Taylor suffered from an intense fear of heights. He didn't like to go into tall buildings. If he got too near a window on a high floor, his acrophobia would kick in and he would get an urge to throw himself out the window. It was as if some demon inside him were whispering, Jump, just do it—it's gonna be interesting. At those moments, he experienced an alarming sense of curiosity about what it would feel like to actually sail down through the air to his death. (41)

One day . . . a French botanist named Francis Halle took a walk in the rain forest in French Guiana with a group of students, and they stopped to rest, sitting on a rotten log. As Halle recalled in an interview years later: "We were looking at the tree canopy—so many epiphytes, so many animals. Remember it was the period of the Apollo flights. A student said, 'Funny! Man is able to collect stones on the Moon, but unable to work in the canopy.' We started discussing this. 'How can we do that?' 'Helicopter?' 'No, it's too noisy, too expensive, too dangerous.' 'So, how?' 'Dirigible?' General hilarity, then silence. The idea was borne."
Francis Halle and two colleagues, Dany Cleyet-Marrel (an aeronautical engineer) and Gilles Ebersolt (an inventor), came up with a dirigible flying machine that consisted of a hot-air blimp under which dangled a huge inflatable raft. The raft was called the Radeau des Cimes (the Canopy Raft). The French scientists would launch their dirigible and rise above the rain forest, riding in the Radeau des Cimes. The airship's engines weren't very powerful. They would putter along above the rain forest, looking down into its secret spaces, and when they saw a tree of interest they descended until the raft was lying on top of the canopy. Now they were floating upon a green ocean in a raft. (52)

Lowman used a Magic Marker to write numbers on the leaves of some Australian trees, and then she climbed up into the trees every so often to see how many numbered leaves were still hanging there. "I'm from upstate New York, and I figured maybe six months, and then the leaf would fall off," she said. Nineteen years later, entering middle age, Lowman found leaves with Magic Marker numbers on them that she had written on the leaves as a younger woman. The leaves had remained alive and unchanged for almost two decades. This illustrates the difficulty humans can have in seeing what's happening in a forest canopy. Humans don't live long enough to see many events in trees unfold. Lowman had spent much of her career trying to observe the fall of a leaf. (54)

The night was growing colder, and the ice was making ringing sounds, like church bells pealing. (67)

The National Geographic Society had once made a big deal of the way it had allegedly explored the redwood forests, but in fact the Society had totally dropped the ball. Executives in Washington, D.C., seemed unaware of the fact that one of the most important ecosystems in North America remained unexplored at the most basic level, the level of a map. (87)

He paused and sat on a branch 130 feet above the ground and stabbed his spurs into the tree to get a good grip. Then he braced one foot on a small, feathery branch for balance. It was an epicormic branch, a little branch sticking out of the bark—the type of branch that some trees shed like dog's hair. He untied the knot so that he could clean it. He was no longer attached to the tree with anything except the spurs on his boots.
Suddenly the little branch broke under his foot. Probably it had been getting ready to go. This made him teeter on the larger branch, and he kicked backward, lost his balance, and fell. He shouted, "Oh!" It was a loud shout, and some of the other tree workers turned and looked. They saw him falling along the tree, cartwheeling and hitting four or five large limbs on the way down, and he landed on the ground with a sound like a thunderclap. His co-workers rushed to help him.
To their surprise, he sat up. Amazingly, he was alive, though his face was bright red, and he was cursing angrily. He started to stand up, and two men pushed him back down, and finally they had to put their full weight on him in order to get him to lie back. He lifted them off his body and started flailing his arms. His voice began to sound gurgly. His eyes got a glazed look, and he suddenly collapsed and fell to the ground, and died not long afterward. The impact had burst his aorta. His heart pumped his lungs full of blood and stopped. (104)

Hillery thought that it was adult dark but not kid dark. Adult dark is when the adults tell you that you have to stop throwing the ball around and come indoors. Kid dark is so dark that you can't see the ball anymore, and you have to stop playing.
It was adult dark, but not kid dark, and Hillery could see branches of trees all around him. He gathered up one end of his rope and threw it toward two strong branches coming out of the trunk. The rope snaked upward. He felt it catch over the branches. He got the rope looped over them and clipped it to his saddle. Then he unclipped his safety line and swung out into space alongside the trunk of the tree, hanging from the branches.
The "branches" tore off, and he went into free fall. His rope had missed the secure branches and had become entangled around an epicormic spray—a fan of feathery epicormic branches as thin as pencils, sprouting from the bark of the tree. They tore out, and he fell. He was ninety-six feet above the ground, almost twice the height of the red line, the line of death.
As he started to fall, Kevin Hillery called out, "Headache," to indicate that an object was falling from the tree. Then, as he accelerated beyond the redline, he maintained professional silence. (105)

Hillery landed directly at Jon Shaffer's feet. There was a deep, wet boom when he hit, mixed with a whooshing sound. It came from all the air being driven out of Hillery's lungs with explosive force. His body compressed the soil. . . .
Hillery ended up lying on his side in a depression that his body had made in the ground. He had literally cratered. He was motionless, and looked as if he were asleep.
Sillett let out a cry. Jon Shaffer bent down and saw that Hillery's eyes were shut, and that he wasn't breathing. He had gone into breathing arrest. Shaffer got ready to give him CPR in an effort to restart his breathing, when, suddenly, Hillery's lungs reinflated with a huge, hoarse, weird sound. Then his limbs began shaking and twitching, and he started having tremors or small seizures. The tremors passed, and his eyes opened. He seemed to be looking at something in the distance. "The wind rushing through my hair ... " he said. (107)

Kevin Hillery may hold a world height record for survival in a fall from a tree. "I'm a member of an exclusive club you don't want to belong to," he said to me. He was released from the hospital four days after the fall. (109)

The ground was composed of a deep layer of spongy material called duff. Duff is a mixture of decaying needles, twigs, tiny roots, fungus, and other vegetation. Most of it had fallen from the forest canopy. It was a natural mattress, soft and slightly bouncy, and it had saved Hillery's life. "I love duff," Hillery said to me. What had also saved his life was the fact that he had managed to spin his body around and get his head up as he fell. His clawing at the air had worked; he had a superb sense of balance. Punching the ground with his open hand when he landed had also apparently helped to protect his neck. If he had wasted his time screaming, he would have died. (110)

As soon as he was able to climb trees again, which was a few months after his fall, Hillery decided that the first tree he would climb was the one that he had fallen from. He needed to embrace the circumstances of his fall. He found the broken branches that he had anchored his rope to. He touched the place where they had broken off, not blaming the tree but himself. He had been hurrying, and he had failed to make sure that his rope was anchored over a strong branch before entrusting his life to it and swinging out into space. It was a mistake that only a professional climber would make, for a beginner at tree climbing would have been much more cautious. Only an easy skywalker would have done that, a pro who had gotten too used to moving effortlessly in trees and had momentarily lost his respect for gravity. (110)

"All right, but you know those claims by National Geographic and other people that they've surveyed the redwoods for the world's tallest tree?" Taylor answered. "It's bullshit. It's complete bullshit. Nobody's ever actually gotten the survey work done." (113)

At the time, the government had no policy with regard to who might be allowed to climb redwoods. Nobody had ever asked to climb them. As Sillett thought about it, he concluded that if he did ask officials for permission to climb and measure what was possibly the world's tallest tree, the answer might be no. Therefore he plotted out a ninja climb—a stealthy climb, done suddenly and quietly, and partly at night. There would be a team of ninja tree climbers. They would be expert climbers. They would use black-colored ropes—military ropes. They would wear olive drab or other dark clothing. They would conceal their vehicles and equipment. (113-14)

The art of climbing trees and the field of canopy science were taking quantum leaps forward. New technologies and methods of gaining entrance to the canopy were being developed rapidly. It was a time not unlike the early days of scuba diving, when Jacques-Yves Cousteau announced that an unexplored world lay below us in the sea, and that humans could go there. The canopy lay above, waiting unseen. (117)

"Scott, I'm standing at a place where my eyes are above the top most foliage of this tree," Sillett said. Above the world's tallest living thing. (123)

Telperion began vibrating, too, with a sort of deep subsonic shake. None of them had ever felt anything like this in a tree. (128)

Steve Sillett couldn't get the Dyerville Giant out of his mind: that pancake of roots tipped up into the air, that crater forty feet across. He was also conscious of the fact there were very few standing dead redwoods anywhere in the groves. No rotting skeletons of redwoods standing upright. The floor of the redwood forest was a maze of fallen trunks. Now, in Telperion, the meaning of it became very clear: redwoods fall while they're still alive. (129)

As a college student, Van Pelt wanted to be a physicist, but one day when he was sitting in a physics course he found himself staring out the window of the classroom into the crown of an oak tree, and he thought, I don't want to do physics anymore. With a bachelor's degree in physics, he got a job as a cook in Sequoia National Park. (154)

"There are times, Michael, when I'm up in the top of one of these trees, and I'm looking down. It's a long way down. The thing is, I'm not afraid." The fact that he was no longer afraid of falling, he said, made him afraid that he might actually fall. When he thought about the detonation zone of his personal life, an urge to jump came over him, a desire to feel a release from gravity. He could hear the sound of the air rushing past Kevin Hillery, until it began to sound as if it were rushing past him. "I'm up there, I'm standing on a branch at three hundred feet, and it's just so easy to think about unclipping my rope and stepping off into space. Do you know what I mean?" (165)

An hour later, they were still crawling in the creek. They began referring to it as Cocksmoker Creek. The sun began to set, and the air became chilled and they were soaked. Taylor got the shakes from exposure to the cold water. It was apparent that a cold night was coming on. They weren't carrying any matches. Sillett and Taylor had decided, long ago, that they would never light a fire in a redwood forest, under any circumstances. (174)

Traditionally, the "largest" redwood in Jedediah Smith state park is the Stout Tree, which is a tourist attraction. It grows in the center of the Stout Grove, near the Smith River, close to a road and a parking lot. On weekends in summer, dozens of people can be seen walking around the Stout Tree and looking at it and taking pictures of it. "The Stout Tree isn't even among the top fifty largest redwoods at Jed Smith," Michael Taylor said to me one day. The date of Taylor and Sillett's discovery of the Grove of Titans—May 11, 1998—is known to some botanists as the Day of Discovery.
Taylor and Sillett got out of the park that day by bumming a ride from a photographer whom they found photographing the Stout Tree. He kindly drove them back to their car. At nine o'clock at night on the Day of Discovery, they were stuffing themselves on cheeseburgers at a Carl's Jr. in Crescent City. It occurred to Taylor, as he wolfed down his second double cheeseburger, that he was eating too much. When he finished his dinner, he made a vow to honor the discovery of the Grove of Titans by going on a diet. Taylor soon lost fifty pounds, and he became a trim, fit man, with well-developed muscles and no visible fat. In addition to being probably the leading discoverer of giant trees in the history of botany, Michael Taylor is also the discoverer of the Taylor Diet. "It's simple," he explained to me. "I realized I was eating a lot. So I stopped eating a lot." (175-6)

One day I was driving along the California Coast Highway with Bob Van Pelt—we were going to look at the Atlas Grove together—and he said, in an offhand way, "In the history of botany in the twentieth century, there was never a day like the Day of Discovery, and there rill never be a day like it again."
"Why is that?" I asked.
"Because there is nothing on earth like those trees left to be found," Van Pelt said.
He was wrong. (176)

Iluvatar contains 220 trunks. The crown of Iluvatar fills thirty one thousand cubic yards of space. "The top of Iluvatar is so dense with foliage that you could put on a pair of snowshoes and walk around on top and play Frisbee there," Cameron Williams said to me. Sillett and Van Pelt performed a calculation that shows that IIuvatar contains 37,500 cubic feet of wood. (202)

Redwoods spew pollen from their male cones on sunny days in winter and early spring. One day in January, Marie Antoine was climbing in the Grove of Titans, near the top of the redwood named Sacajawea, and the tree began to feel spring in the air and threw off so much pollen that she began coughing and choking. The air was yellow from the tree's pollen. "Despite its name, Sacajawea seems to be more male than female," Antoine said. (214-15)

Over the course of its lifetime, a redwood may produce a billion seeds. On average, in the fullness of time, one of the seeds may grow up to become a mature redwood. (215)

[Michael Taylor] said that he might just climb a Eucalyptus regnans. But then he lost his nerve and decided that he wouldn't. He stayed with Sillett and Antoine in a little bungalow they were using, and stood on the ground watching them up in the trees. One night over dinner, Antoine pulled out a piece of paper and a pen, and she wrote up a contract for Taylor to sign: I, Michael Taylor, agree that I will take advantage of this amazing opportunity to climb in the Australian forest canopy, and I will climb a Eucalyptus regnans tree, and I will enjoy it. (223)

It seemed almost incredible that any place in the British Isles could remain unexplored, or that, on a family trip with children, we would be the first humans to visit it. (245)

As he bushwhacked, he picked leeches off himself and burst them with his sharp fingernails, and he tried to keep them out of his eyes. "You don't want to get a leech in your eye," he said. "It makes you look like Alice Cooper." (256)

"The wind's picking up," he said to her in a low voice. He bent over and tightened something in his harness. "But it's not too bad." A smile flickered, and he looked around. "I wonder what I did with the car keys." He always lets people know where the car keys are before he begins an ascent of a potentially dangerous tree. (260)

The leafhopper was a denizen of the high Australian canopy, very probably an undescribed species. (Nobody has looked at the insects of the old-growth mountain ash canopy.) (266)

ln the winter of 2006, Sillett and Antoine decided to enter the area, explore it, and remove the damaged rigging and scientific gear as well as all other traces of human presence. "I don't like to see techno-trash stuck up in redwoods," Sillett said. They asked me to come with them. We would try to restore the trees to a wild state, and after that they would not be climbed again. (269)

"There's always a moment during a climb when you lose your self," [Sillett] said. "You don't have a name anymore. When you find your self in a place in nature where if you make a mistake you will die, you become open to what's around you. You start feeling the limits of your perceptions as a human being. You perceive time more clearly in redwoods, and you see time's illusory qualities." (276-7)

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