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Reaching the Tops of the World's Tallest Trees

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.'

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alex Chadwick
For more than 30 years, Alex Chadwick has been bringing the world to NPR listeners as an NPR News producer, program host and currently senior correspondent. He's reported from every continent except Antarctica.
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