book by Richard Preston
annotation by Melissa Greenwood
In his work of creative nonfiction The Wild Trees, Richard Preston uses simile, polysyndeton, point of view, and a careful blend of story, science, and history to bring his characters—both human and nonhuman—to life (or in many cases, to much larger than life). Relying on careful research on trees and the people who climb them, as well as personal interviews, Preston taps into third person omniscient narration to inhabit the minds of quirky arborists and eccentric forestry professors, as well as climbing grunts, champions, and enthusiasts, biologists, botanists, high climbers, adrenaline junkies, and forest canopy scientists and explorers. Other times, Preston enters the story himself, and the point of view shifts. What doesn’t change, what never falters—regardless of the point of view—is the author’s beautiful command over language and romantic, dreamy portrayal of an obscure and unchartered way of life up above ground.
Preston uses similes to describe the physical features of various trees—mostly, hyperbolically tall ones—in a way that even the lay reader, who has never ventured into the depths of a forest, can understand and picture. He likens young redwoods to “plantations of fuzzy Christmas trees,” and “splashes of red maples” among the pines to “torches burning in the last gray light of afternoon,” (7, 63). Then, there are the “virgin, ancient redwoods,” which loom above everything “like Mohawk haircuts,” and the tall, skinny Telperion tree which stands “like a pencil…in mud…as tall as an office building,” (7, 129). As readers, we needn’t run to the nearest national park or even to our computer screens for a better look at these trees because, in each of Preston’s sentences, we can picture their massive size and distinguishing physical features. Through simile, the author illuminates some of nature’s most impressive organisms. Through simile, he leaves us with a touch of vertigo and the sensation that the ground is unsteady, like when you step off a treadmill or a moving walkway at the airport: “You can hang [from a tree],” Preston tells us, “like a spider hanging on a silk thread,” or “swing like a pendulum,” or even “bounce-walk…like walking on an asteroid,” (152, 262, 263). Simile is the perfect literary device for Preston to make clear to the non-tree climber exactly what tree climbing is “like” (or even sometimes, “as”).
Using polysyndeton, the author creates a sense of breathlessness and suspense and disbelief just as deftly as he creates snapshots of the forest with simile. The prior sentence is an example in itself, and it was Preston who inspired it. (In fact, I have since employed this literary device in my own writing, and I’ve found it to be a nice juxtaposition to a single “and” or the absence of coordinating conjunctions altogether—asyndeton.) Preston writes that the tree is “a complex structure…an architecture made up of nooks and crannies and shaded, moist spots, and fertile pockets…” (203). It’s a sentence that doesn’t allow the reader to come up for air and makes her want to keep pushing through the dense foliage, or, in this case, to keep turning the pages—themselves, former trees. In another example, he lists four plants commonly found on the forest floor in a manner that makes us feel as though we’re trekking through the “impassible thickets” too: “The understory of a forest consists of virtually impassable thickets of huckleberry bushes and salmonberry canes and ferns and small trees,” he writes (170). The sentence feels as though it’s in a hurry, just as one of Preston’s characters, grocery clerk Michael Taylor, is in a hurry to discover the world’s tallest tree. Indeed, finding that “Ultimate Tree” isn’t as simple as one would think, either (78).” The author uses polysyndeton to explain that “You could be crawling through ferns and underbrush and pass right by a huge tree and never see it,” (79). We can feel the weight of Taylor’s frustration in this sentence. We’re there in the forest with him on our hands and knees looking up, up, up at the redwoods all around us, but we can’t make out which one is the grandest.
For most of the story, the author acts as an omniscient third-person narrator. He is even privy to sexual encounters between characters Steve Sillett and Marie Antoine, two tree experts and academics who will later marry “in midair, in the space between the spires,” (220). “They had never made love in the forest canopy,” Preston tells us, “but they wanted to…She took off everything…very carefully…He unharnessed himself and undressed, lying next to her…The aura of danger…added a sweet edge of hazard to their explorations…they made endless love in the air without touching,” (199, 196). It is clear through this passage that Preston is inhabiting the minds and thoughts, if not bodies, of his characters. In fact, he explains in his Author’s Note that he was able to do so based on information obtained from interviews, followed by ruthless fact checking. Nearly halfway through the book though, the point of view shifts when Preston enters the story: “I came across the Atlanta tree-climbing school while I was surfing the Internet,” he writes in first person (137). It seems that tree climbing is not entirely foreign to him—he’s not an outsider looking in on an unfamiliar world but a tree climber himself! This new information, as well as the shift in point of view, is surprising but not altogether jarring. Suddenly, we understand why Preston was inspired to write about this unknown world—it’s not unknown to him. He has a vested interest. The following chapter returns to third person, but Preston the character continuously re-emerges. He weaves the first-person experience (and occasionally the second-person, too) into his third-person story as seamlessly as he does factoids about trees and arborists and the forest canopy and climbing equipment and the people who explore the trees and use the climbing equipment. (At some points, the book reads like a 9th grade biology text—think capillary action, embolisms, and gymnosperms—while at other times, the reader is laughing at lines like “‘I’m really a Douglas-fir guy, not a redwood guy,’” or “Now that he had a job, Taylor…got his hair trimmed into a mullet.”) (114, 73).
From rappelling to trunkwalking to skywalking to spidering to crack jamming, jugging, tree surfing, and whipper-taking—the author invites us inside the fascinating world of tree climbing. His careful hand guides us through the forest, where we meet characters who are just as varied as the forest’s motley organisms. Grounded on our respective recliners and couches and chairs, we readers find ourselves totally engrossed in a foreign world and also free to spontaneously yell, “Clear!” to confirm that, down here, all is indeed well.