My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There is an idea that if you know something well enough—if you spend some time learning about it and seeing all of its internal and external connections—you cannot help but loving it. I’m not entirely sure this is true, though I’d like to believe it is. I think it is an important aspect of environmentalism and likely the reason why so many scientists become conservationists: sometimes it is only by careful and deliberate study that the inherent value of an organism or system becomes apparent.
I also think this is the point of good nature writing: making the reader take a long look at something. Really study it. Get to know deeply. By doing so, rational analysis becomes something more: it becomes a form of art, of contemplation, maybe even a form of worship. It certainly can become a form of excellent literature and, in the case of this book, an opportunity for combining knowledge, connection, and empathy.
Trees fascinate me. They are ubiquitous and prosaic, and yet they’re also ancient, silent, and somehow unknowable. Have you ever stopped and simply considered how large they are? How a single specimen can tower over your home physically and cast its sheltering shade over your entire life temporally? And yet, how much do most of us really know about them? What’s going on inside the bark and beneath the soil? What unseen networks do they play a role within?
I write about trees. I titled my first collection of short stories after them. And for a long time I’ve been looking for a book that captures what they are and more importantly teaches me things about them that I didn’t know. This book, by David Suzuki and Wayne Grady, went a long way toward filling that tree-shaped hole in my head I’ve been walking around with. Grady, a Canadian science writer, and Suzuki, a zoologist, academic, and environmentalist, team up to do something that at first blush appears fairly simple: they want to write the life story of a single tree, in particular a Douglas-fir growing outside a British Columbian cabin retreat.
Of course it’s not that simple. Trying to focus on one aspect of nature—let alone a single tree—is like falling down Alice’s rabbit hole. Grady and Suzuki use the life cycle of a single Douglas-fir, from germination to death, as a lens to explore trees in general, the zoology and botany of British Columbia, and the importance of forests throughout the world. Yet the single tree itself functions effectively as a unifying thread throughout the book, and of course along the way we get a wealth of information about the evolution, reproduction, growth, morphology, taxonomy, and mystery of trees.
Tree, A Life Story is a wealth of information, yet it is consistently readable and compelling. As with any good nature book, we learn the object itself and we also learn the impossibility of seeing the object alone or isolated. We get a glimpse of the essential connectivity of trees with each other, with wildlife and fungi, and with other plants. What was most surprising to me—apart from the new facts I picked up, like the fact that scientists are still not quite sure they have a handle on how trees pull water and nutrients up hundreds of feet into the air from roots to canopy—was the way the tree itself became a character of this story. With trees, the authors explain, there is no definite moment of death. A tree’s life is in many ways a long dying. But reading the final acts of this particular tree’s life, I found myself—in a twist on much conservationist writing that witnesses to the loss of entire species or habitats—mourning an individual. Trees are monuments, they’re like rooted ships sailing not through space but through time. And we so often only see still images of their lives. To see the whole story spelled out from beginning to end was quite wonderful and surprisingly moving.
Trees still fascinate me. After reading this book I know them a little better. I also know (as with so much) that to truly understand them I’d need to devote a career to their study. But every little bit helps. Now maybe I love them a little better as well.