From Treetops to The New Yorker - Humboldt State Now

From Treetops to The New Yorker

A story of life high in tall trees is reaching the Big Apple as The New Yorker magazine, in its current edition, profiles Humboldt State University Professor Steve Sillett's research in the canopy of old-growth redwood forests.

The 14,000-word article, titled “Climbing the Redwoods,” describes Sillett’s efforts as the first scientist to map the canopy that the 2000-year-old redwoods create, which turned out to be very different from the way scientists envisioned it. Writer Richard Preston joined Sillett and Sillett’s wife, Marie Antoine, on their ascents more than 300 feet into the trees.

Preston reports that “on July 30, 2000, an amateur redwood researcher…discovered what is currently believed to be the world’s tallest tree.” Now measuring 372 feet, 2 inches, it is currently growing roughly four inches taller a year.

Of climbing these enormous trees, Sillett says in the article, “The thing I fear most is a falling branch that hooks on my rope. It would slide down the rope into me, and it would tear through my body cavity.”

The issue, dated Feb. 14 and 21, 2005, is currently available at news stands that carry The New Yorker.

In the land of Manhattan skyscrapers, the article has received “precious little media attention,” said Preston, which has left the writer somewhat surprised, but then he acknowledged, “The tone is quiet and reflective.” He said he has heard from many readers who experienced a sense of awe and wonder as they read the account of life at the top of the forest.

Preston joined Sillett on a climb up one of the tallest coastal redwoods. Dubbed “Adventure,” it rises 334 feet up from its 16-foot-wide base – through an elevated community of chirping wren tits, clinging lichens, fruitful huckleberry bushes and other organisms – to its dead crown. Along the way up, age had inserted “rot pockets,” and Sillett had installed monitoring instrumentation called bioprobes.

Reporting from near the top, Preston writes: “Adventure began to do something that felt like slow breathing. Each sway of the tree took several seconds to complete. The redwoods around Adventure were also tracing deep, slow sways, and their movements were independent to one another: they were going in different directions. The trees seemed intensely alive.”

Preston, who wrote the books “The Hot Zone” and “The Demon in the Freezer,” is at work on a book about climbing the redwoods.