Essential Reads

Trees: A Visual Guide
Tony Rodd and Jennifer Stackhouse
University of California Press, 2008, $29.95

Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees
Nalini Nadkarni
University of California Press, 2008
$24.95 hardcover, $17.95 paper

These two books published in the same year by UC Press could hardly be more inspiring. As classroom texts, they could jumpstart the next generation of career treehuggers, in the arts as well as the sciences. Trees has the immediate appeal of fabulous photographs on every single page, though it is trying hard to be a botany textbook. The book’s cover says it all: on the front, vibrant photographs that make you want to sit and stare for hours; on the back, a labeled diagram titled “Plant Tissues in a Tree Trunk.”

The text contains annoying moments: In the introduction, the authors ask the reader to stand below any
tree and “think of how many leaves it has; what might be the total area of leaf surface, and how much light this intercepts.” No information follows—the entire exercise is left to the reader’s computational skills. How
much more compelling it is when Nalini Nadkarni, in Between Earth and Sky, explains exactly how she measured the windblown movements of tiny branchlets to arrive at the conclusion that a 100-foot-tall Douglas fir moves in the wind an equivalent of 186,400 miles a year.

Trees does provide a serviceable, if rarely riveting, introduction to the botany of trees, especially in its coverage of the major classification changes of the past decade. The guide to 99 “remarkable trees of the world” is a fascinating tour, and the occasional mind-blowing detail makes reading all the way through worthwhile. (One example: The Swollen Thorn Acacia grows little packets of nutrients at its leaflet tips whose only known function is as food gathered by a particular ant species for its larvae.) The “Trees and
the Human World” section is a bit obvious to any human already living in the world, and the concluding chapter on the planetary importance of trees to climate stability lost me with: “If the proposed climate warming occurs, sea levels will rise over the next decade as ice caps at the poles, along with ice flows such as glaciers, melt.” Last I heard, this “proposed” climate warming, complete with melting
ice caps and glaciers, was well under way.

So maybe reading Trees is not a transcendent experience, but I guarantee looking at the pages can be. In addition to majestic landscapes and startling details of leaf and flower, there are many gorgeous scanning electron microscope images. Even non-readers and pre-reading age children will enjoy this book.

Between Earth and Sky is the perfect companion to Trees, providing intellectual complexity, informational
detail, and global vision to match the coffee-table textbook’s eloquent visual engagement. Nadkarni is a
wonder. Her first book, an edition of one, written when the author was nine years old, was Be Among the Birds: My Guide to Climbing Trees.

This volume expands on Nadkarni’s tree-climbing experiences (she’s become a world-renowned canopy biologist), and covers an astonishing array of links between trees and humans, from our use of trees as food, shelter, and medicine all the way to the role of trees in art, literature, and spirituality.

Nadkarni is one of those people who can generate interest in any subject from the rolling momentum of her
own enthusiasm, so every page enthralls. The text veers unexpectedly from personal anecdote to scientific study to poetry with many unnamable places between. To Nadkarni, everything is fascinating, everything is related, and everything relates to trees. As she explains it at the start: “Although we are not of the same family, trees and humans are in a sense married into each other’s families, with all the challenges, responsibilities, and benefits that come from being so linked.”

In her chapter on spirituality and trees, Nadkarni gets right to the heart of the matter with a story that takes
place at an Olympia, Washington, synagogue where she was giving a talk on, yes, spirituality and trees. As she tells it: “One man sat in the very back row. He was elderly and blind, and everything he owned appeared to be resting damply in a shopping bag beside him. After the discussion, he stood up and directed his unseeing eyes upward. ‘When it is cold and raining, like tonight,’ he said, ‘and I stand under a tree, I stay dryer and warmer than when I am out in the open. Trees protect me.’ He paused. ‘Sort
of like God.’”

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