Remarkable Trees of the World by Thomas Pakenham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a book of postcards. It’s not in actuality a book of physical postcards (though that might be a fantastic manifestation of this work). But that’s what it feels like: amazing images with just enough explicatory prose to whet one’s appetite. Pakenham traveled the world photographing the most remarkable trees from Asia, North America, Africa, Australia, and Europe. Unfortunately, he did not write a book about it. He published a book of postcards instead. Gorgeous postcards, in a huge, hardcover coffee table book. But postcards, nonetheless.
Remarkable Trees of the World is a follow-up to Pakenham’s earlier work that featured sixty remarkable living trees found throughout Britain and Ireland. I’m still very interested in reading that book. Perhaps a constrained focus on the lingering leviathans of one particular corner of the world would allow Pakenham to go deeper than he does in this work.
The trees here are indeed remarkable. There are again sixty, divided into delightfully non-botanical categories such as Giants, Dwarfs, Methuselahs, and Dreams. Usually one particular tree of either aesthetic or historic significance is featured for each entry—such as the grove of oldest trees in the world, the largest living tree in the world, or a tree said to have been grown from a cutting of the original tree under which the Buddha obtained enlightenment. Others are simply examples of broader categories: particularly impressive baobabs, for instance, or Australian mountain ash or examples of bonsai. Any one of the sixty trees Pakenham examines would be worth at least a chapter on its own. Many certainly merit a book in their own right.
But their stories aren’t to be found here. Pakenham’s book is a beautiful work that gives hints and glimmers of the breathtaking scope of these specimens. We get a glimpse of their physical forms through Pakenham’s excellent photographs, and we get a brief taste of the legends or histories that have grown up around them in his brief prose. Pakenham admittedly shies away from any extensive botanical explication, though the book is not the worse for it.
Ironically though, reading the work feels like a whirlwind tour of those organisms that most embody place, fixity, and rootedness. Maybe I simply read it too fast (though you’re driven to turn the page to catch sight of the next forest giant). I felt I was racing through a forest when I should have been lingering in a garden.
If you are passionate about trees, this book is worth your time for the images alone. You’ve probably read about some of these specimens before, but you’ve never seen them through the thoughtful and elegant eye of Pakenham’s camera. Their stories aren’t here though. Here are frightening, awe-inspiring, and terribly pleasing glimpses alone.
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