One night in early March 2008, I woke up around 3:00 and found myself unable to get back to sleep. After half an hour or so of tossing and turning, I got up, went downstairs, and began to read The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring, by Richard Preston. This was apparently at the very same time that someone whom I did not yet know, surfing the Internet on her laptop, discovered Via Negativa and became engrossed in the dense, leafy foliage of its archives. Her eyes were a murky brown. Someday our paths would cross — ideally in a grove of wild, or unclimbed, trees — and we’d give “climax forest” a whole new meaning.
The oil furnace in the crawlspace under the living room rattled awake, shaking the house, and I drew the afghan tighter around my pajama-clad legs. The book was engrossing, featuring bizarre characters in tightly crafted scenes, and I slowly got over my annoyance at the odd blend of narrative omniscience and first-person journalism. After two hours, I put the book down and returned to bed, sleeping soundly until around 7:30, when I awoke feeling thoroughly refreshed.
Over the next five days, I returned to The Wild Trees every night for a couple of hours before going to bed. I enjoyed reading about its protagonists’ off-beat childhoods, which reminded me so much of my own, and the bite-sized chunks of natural history thrown in to flavor the stew were remarkably easy to digest. Reading Richard Preston was, it turned out, highly conducive to a good night’s sleep, for reasons that scientists are only just beginning to understand. His fast-moving narrative makes few demands on the reader, yet lacks the kind of propulsive plot-line that might tempt one to stay up too late. Each chapter builds to some pearl of insight or high drama, but ends well before boredom sets in, kind of like a Billy Collins poem. This is no dreary Bernd Heinrich book, where the process of scientific investigation takes center stage. Here, the scientists’ essential discoveries are described in a pithy paragraph or two — footnotes, almost, to the “passion and daring” advertised in the subtitle.
I became troubled, though, that I’d be unable to write a glowing review of a book that does so well what it sets out to do. Was it really Preston’s fault that he failed to write the book I wanted to read? Book reviewers who take authors to task for failing to write as they would’ve written themselves have always, quite frankly, annoyed the shit out of me. I decided that Preston deserves a lot of credit for writing a book-club-friendly page-turner about people obsessed with the size and performance of redwoods. I found the lack of a bibliography intensely frustrating, but what did I expect from a publisher like Random House? If I’m to be honest with myself, I enjoyed filling a few holes in my knowledge about canopy ecosystems in such a painless and soporific manner. A couple hours of passion, followed by a long and uninterrupted sleep: what — I asked myself — was so wrong with that? But it left me ill-prepared for what would happen next.
Don’t forget to submit tree-related links to the Festival of the Trees, the next edition of which will appear at the Brazilian tree blog Árvores Vivas em Nossas Vidas. Send submissions to arvoresvivas [at] gmail [dot] com by March 28, or preferably even sooner, in order to give the host enough time to prepare a bilingual version.