Anyone who knows the forests of eastern North America has to have a soft spot in her heart for the arborvitae, or northern white cedar (eastern white cedar to these Canadian authors). Its grace, its fragrance, the beauty of its ropy bark and foliar sprays, and the deep green that contrasts with the hardwoods it mingles with -- all set it apart as a conifer of special qualities. The Native Americans thought so, and used its foliage, its scent, and its ashes as cures for whatever ailed them. This evergreen species was never considered a long-lived tree. In its moist flatland habitats it seldom exceeds 400 years of age, and those trees are mostly long gone. But in the 1990s the authors of this stylishly-written book constituted the "Cliff Ecology Research Group", started dangling from ropes off the edge of cliffs of the 400-plus-mile-long Niagara Escarpment, and were bewildered to encounter dwarfed, contorted, stunted, kinky, and barely alive white cedars growing from cracks in the limestone cliff faces. No other trees shared this habitat. Not only were these trees present, they were also very old. Like up to and beyond a thousand years -- at maximum 1320 years right now in 2007. Working out of Ontario's Guelph University the authors and a band of grad students conducted serious and fruitful ecological and physiological research on the cedars that grew upwards, downwards, straight out, or in all combinations of these orientations, held in place only by the tenacity of their roots ramifying through cracks in the limestone. The story of this research is told here in a text that is often chatty, always straightforward, frequently humorous and sometimes sublime. For flavor, here is Peter Kelley describing a 1213-year-old cedar rooted in an incredibly narrow crack in the rock: "The entire root system of this cedar is therefore crammed into a space just a few millimetres wide but within a sprawling area of unknown extent stretching back and into the cliff face. Its root system is sandwiched between two massive blocks of dolomite like a treasured leaf pressed for safekeeping between the pages of a book." Now that is fine writing.
Mixed in with accounts of author Larson checking out cliff faces in Europe and the U.S., and discovering old cedars and other species older than the locals imagined, we are treated to Kelly's experiences with bees, ants, vulture chicks and poison-ivy while spinning out of control at the end of a tether. There is detailed information on Indian medicine and mythology regarding the cedar, nutrition and water conduction in the trees, and much more. Kelly's photos (70 in color!) and his exquisite sketches of numerous individuals rooted in the rock, as well as some archival photos, illustrate the book sumptuously. There are chapter notes, a bibliography, and an index. The only downside to reading this lovely book is learning that the vertical old-growth forest of cedars is endangered in places by the quarrying of limestone and the selfish behavior of rock climbers to whom a millenium-old tree may be just an impediment to their heroics.
This is a tree book to be savored.