TED2008: Richard Preston – Go Climb a Tree

Richard Preston, the author of the best-selling The Hot Zone, has a thing for redwood trees. It’s easy to understand the attraction. The sequoias found in the temparate rain forest of the north coast of California, are the tallest living organisms on earth, at over 380 feet tall.

These trees are in intense danger from liquation logging. And the removal of these trees is the destruction of complex and unexplored ecosystems. The way to explore them is to climb them, which requires an amazing array of techniques that Preston, his family and friends have begun specializing in. He tells us that “t the base of a redwood tree, you’re not seeing the organism,” just a tiny part of it.

The leading redwood researchers, Preston tells us, are Steve Sillett and Marie Antoinne. Sillett became fascinated by the trees when told in a biology class that the redwood canopy was a “redwood desert”. He and a friend climbed one tree with aids, then leapt across to a giant redwood and climbed to the canopy with their fingers in the bark. His companion, who followed him, made a similar leap and landed on a wasp’s nest. He almost fell to his death fighting off the insects.

The techniques are better refined these days – Sillett and other climbers use a bow and arrow to shoot fishing line into the trees, then pull climbing lines up on the fishline. Preston has begun climbing the trees with his children, and is discovering ways to combat his fear of heights -“humans appear to be the only primates afraid of trees.” His children, who climb with them, are so unafraid that they camp out in “treeboats”, platforms hundreds of feet about the ground.

At these heights, the ecosystem of redwoods is anything but a desert. The trees are filled with epiphytes, lichens and other organisms that crowd the branches and make it difficult to move around. “It’s like scubadiving on a coral reef, but you’re going up, not down.” In some of the higher canopies, you’ll find huckleberry bushes which form “huckleberry afros”.

When redwoods grow, they do so by “reiteration”, a fractaline process where branches grow like tree trunks, with limbs turning into smaller trees. “If humans did this, we’d have five litte people on each hand,” says Preston. (Maybe he can ask Craig Vetner for help with that project.) Branches can form flying buttresses, supporting the huge masses leaning up against on another.

The trees are capable of amazing ecological feats. When the tree rots, it can send rots into its own rot, drawing nutrients – “It’s like we could draw sustenace from ourselves if we had gangrene.” In the canopy of these trees, there can be “canopy soil” up to a meter deep. In that soil, we can find unnamed species, including thousands of crustaceans – copepods that we usually are used to seeing in the deep ocean.

These ecosystems can be destroyed amazingly quickly. He shows us photos of the damage that’s happened to eastern Hemlock forests from the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, an Asian parasite that’s caused enormous damage to southeastern forests. “It’s the ebola of the trees. And it might not just kill all eastern hemlock, but kill off a complex ecosystem.”

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One Response to TED2008: Richard Preston – Go Climb a Tree

  1. The Wild Trees is a fine book, but most online conversation I’ve read pertaining to it, focuses heavily on the climbing and upper portions of the redwood canopy.

    Climbing giant redwoods does not really show researchers the entire organism. It just shows them one more part of the organism.

    The frontier of the root system in the soil may be the one area for which exploration is not possible – not by going there in-person.

    If you are interested in photos of the Grove of Titans mentioned in the book, this page has several ground level photos…

    http://www.mdvaden.com/grove_of_titans.shtml

    The entire ecosystem of the redwoods, is not what grows up above, but a combination of the entire forest. The redwoods, plants and animals on the ground around them, and plants and animals up in the canopies.

    But back to Preston’s book – it’s stuffed full of excellent redwood and forest information. Enough for two or three readings of the book.

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