High trees and high seas

High trees and high seas

Two books track modern-day explorers of new worlds

By Amanda Witherell

REVIEW Readers should always use extreme caution when approaching books that employ words such as passion and daring in their titles. Cliché and hyperbole are nigh. Drama and awe have been forcefully injected.

So it is with Richard Preston’s The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring. In this account of how a ragtag band of scientists and tree lovers discovered the true heights of California’s coastal redwoods, Preston relies on the inherent edginess of the fanatics he’s writing about to entertain the reader through some 300 pages of otherwise bland prose.

Preston deserves props for sniffing out a good story, as he did with the sheer horror of the Ebola virus, achieving best-seller status with his 1994 book, The Hot Zone. Few people have actually ventured into the upper limbs of what turns out are the tallest trees in the world. The unique, complex characters who do so carry Preston’s story. Michael Taylor is deeply disturbed by heights but driven to find the tallest, most insurmountable tree. Steve Sillett, a depressive scientist, is fearless enough to attempt anything in these trees — including making love to a fellow researcher in a hammock suspended 350 feet off the ground. Using the tree-climbing techniques of arborists and the surveying technology of geologists, Sillett and Taylor lead teams of researchers to locate hidden ecologies in the canopies of coastal redwoods, discoveries that refute many commonly held assumptions about these still relatively unstudied trees.

The natural world is where humans turn to regard their own greatness or smallness, and writing about nature can and should be a daunting task. It’s easy for authors to get lost in the science and sacrifice the initial spark of wonder that ignited their interest. As the world becomes more thickly coated with the works of our own creation and the marvels born of some still-unknown other lose ground, these sparks are crucial for humanity. Unfortunately, Preston will find no home in the hall of masters where Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, and Wendell Berry reside.

Preston barely succeeds at keeping boredom at bay by letting the characters’ lives drive the story. His descriptions of the trees are encyclopedic, his vocabulary limited, repetitive, and uninspiring, and this fascinating subject perishes in his hands as his language fails to achieve the great heights of these trees. He writes as if speaking to a child: “What seemed real to him was the trees. The redwoods were overwhelming in their reality.” Another source of irritation is his habit of ending a sentence with one word, only to open the next with the same. “He thought that there was something fragile about Steve. Steve was a restless person, driven, passionate, intense, and he always seemed to be running out of time.” This character description should give aspiring writers with visions of tony bylines in the New Yorker, where excerpts from this story first appeared, faith that anything is possible.

Alec Wilkinson, also a longtime New Yorker contributor, has crafted a much better read. Within the first pages of The Happiest Man in the World: An Account of the Life of Poppa Neutrino, the reader is assured that an inimitable subject is in the hands of an artful composer.

Wilkinson employs a narrative arc similar to Preston’s, opening with the basic life story of his primary character. Poppa Neutrino’s, however, is anything but a simple tale to tell. A charming iconoclast, he has many mottos, and one of them is “Until I’m stopped permanently, I’m unstoppable.” Wilkinson bears this adage out, relating the life of the 74-year-old man in chapters so varied they could be separate books about entirely different but loosely related people.

Born in San Francisco in 1933, Neutrino lies about his age to get into the Army and tells the truth to get out. He grifts his way around the Southwest, spending time in and out of jail, eventually stumbling into family life. He is the founding leader of the First Church of Fulfillment in New York — “the only church in the history of the world that didn’t know the way” — and the Salvation Navy in San Francisco. For several years he tours the country with his band, the Flying Neutrinos (his wife and children). Eventually, he takes to the sea, traveling from New York to Ireland with his wife and two friends on a raft made primarily of trash. By the time Wilkinson meets him, Neutrino is singing for money in Santa Monica and working on a play he thinks will permanently alter the game of football. He’s also preparing to “break the scrap barrier” by sailing across the Pacific on another trash raft.

The only consistency in this story is Neutrino. And Neutrino’s only true constant is change. In the course of demonstrating this, Wilkinson dodges trite language and stereotype as gracefully as a flying fish. Describing a Mexican border town where he’s visiting Neutrino, he writes, “Over everything lay a powdering of dust, and each time a bus passed I could feel it set an edge on my teeth.”

Both Preston and Wilkinson enter into and invest themselves in the lives and futures of the characters they write about — Preston, himself a tree climber, becomes Sillett’s research assistant on a trip to Australia, and Wilkinson is soon a confidant, witness, and friend to the otherwise solitary Neutrino. To become a part of the story is an increasingly overlooked no-no in the field of journalistic nonfiction, and neither Preston nor Wilkinson adds much to his tale by inserting himself, but their presences don’t detract either.

There’s an old bargain that occurs between writers and the readers they serve. Any time a spine is cracked and an opening page creased back, an invitation has been offered and accepted. With the same sense of excitement and anticipation that prefaces a good party, an adventurous trip, or a first date, the reader should stand on the threshold of a book with no real idea of what is to come.

It’s unfortunate that while Preston undoubtedly spent wells of time researching, interviewing, and gathering details for his story, the presentation feels rushed, like that of a 10th grader patching together a diorama on the night before the science fair. Wilkinson’s book, however, upholds the long tradition of good reads. It’s the kind where the pages are hastily turned until the reader quite abruptly creases back the last. As Neutrino floats over the edge of the horizon, we are left wondering what’s to come and hoping Wilkinson will be on hand to let us know.

Originally published May 30, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian