Tree: A Life Story (David Suzuki & Wayne Grady)

Evergreens help make much of the Pacific Northwest one of the most beautiful places on earth. Pines, cedars, and Douglas-fir line the horizon almost everywhere I go, and I’m lucky enough to see a few out any window of my house. But trees are more than ornaments. They are environments unto themselves. They provide shelter, food, and nutrients to a rich mix of birds, mammals, insects, and smaller organisms in the soil. I sometimes stop in the woods during mountain hikes and try to picture all the activity, both seen and unseen. Seeing a tree is one thing. Understanding and appreciating it is much deeper.

David Suzuki and Wayne Grady have put together an enjoyable book to help you do that. Tree: A Life Story [LibraryThing / WorldCat], follows the long life of a single Douglas-fir in the Pacific Northwest. Beginning with the aftermath of a forest fire, the book studies the germination, growth, death, and recycling of the seed that becomes a giant. It rises through the forest canopy seeking sunlight, and deals with attacks and inconveniences from insects, birds, and other natural forces, before returning to the soil.

This may seem like a child’s book on the life cycle of a tree, but it is not simplistic. Suzuki (whom you may know from the television series The Nature of Things) and Grady delve into science every step of the way. Why do roots dig down while the stem sprouts up? How does the seedling know down from up anyway? How does chlorophyll work? How do the sugars produced in that process get distributed and, for that matter, how does the tree pump water and nutrients up a trunk that is over 200 feet tall?

The authors look beyond “our” individual Douglas-fir. They explore the tree’s relationships, too. A tree does not move, of course, but it connects, interacts, and communicates with nearly everything in its ecosystem, starting with the mychorrhyzial relationship its root tips share with fungi and the chemical defenses it deploys against insects. It even releases warnings to other trees when disease strikes.

Pleasantly meandering discussions in the book wander into the science of genetics, pollen distribution, bird, squirrel and salamander activity, how salmon improve forests, and the growth of botanical science over the centuries. All these topics — tread upon lightly but addressed satisfactorily — fit into a slim volume. I haven’t enjoyed a popular science book as much as this one in a long time.

Trees live longer and grow larger than any other organisms on earth, but they literally blend into the scenery unless you stop to notice the often small-scale, slow-motion activity feverishly taking place in and around them. By the time you reach the last page of Tree, even a rotted-out nurse log might stir your thoughts.

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