Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Wild Trees (copy)

Open season starts September 16 for climbing trees. Not just any trees, but giant coastal redwoods, or Sequoia Sempervirens as they are known to the handful of scientist who currently study in them. Things were different in 1987 when a group of college students ascended one of these giants on a dare. As far as anyone knew, the redwoods had never been climbed.

Brothers Scott and Steve Sillett and best buddy Marwood Harris were on fall break in 1987 from their respective universities. Traveling the National Parks of Oregon and California in a beat-up, blue Honda Civic, they stopped for a break in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. This trio, as always, was low on funds. They decided to ditch the car to avoid permit fees, and hiked into an unpopulated part of the park.

When the meager trail narrowed, Steve ran ahead and began bushwhacking a new path. By the time the others caught up, Steve was staring at one of the largest trees he had ever seen. Marwood and Steve began circling the tree as Scott scouted out a campsite in the redwood grove.

With a little nod between men, Steve murmured, “I’m lusting for this tree.” He took a running jump and landed 8 feet into a neighboring redwood. This redwood was young and it took Steve ten minutes to reach the top as Marwood followed suit.

Transitioning to the giant tree would be tricky. Steve began to sway on the smaller tree’s leader, a top part of any redwood which resembles an arm stretching to the sun, with the idea to catch a limb on the giant’s trunk.

Scott was in a panic at the bottom. He understood a man might die from a 15 foot fall, and here was his brother and friend 50 feet in the air. At this height a falling man will become an inverted arrow with no way to protect his head or spine from certain tragic consequences.

Scott was now out of his mind as he watched his brother swing the smaller tree close and jump 8 feet of open space. Steve grabbed onto an epicormic branch (a flimsy, fan-shaped spray of needles) that developed out of a scar on the larger tree’s trunk. It held.

Once aspiring botanists Steve and Marwood entered the redwood’s canopy, they recognized it as a never before seen habitat.

The Wild Trees by Richard Preston is a remarkable piece of narrative nonfiction from the author of The Hot Zone.