It's a busy living, being a tree. With our puny life spans and lack of attention we tend to miss that fact. Suzuki and Grady have compiled an amazing amount of information into this brief, but thorough examination of a single tree's existence. The story fills in those details we miss and calls our attention to how important it is to learn them. The details are vital to us in countless ways, and being aware of them may hold some clues to our own survival as a species.
The one tree they've chosen, a Douglas-fir, started long ago, in the age of Edward I of England. The authors give an account of how a Douglas-fir is kick-started by a forest fire. That inferno we all dread is the Douglas-fir's cradle. To massive trees seeking the sun, along with many other species, the removal of the forest canopy grants fresh sunlight and nutrients in the ash that would be otherwise unobtainable. Once growth begins, the young tree sprouts roots into the soil and shoots into the air. Encountering a growing tree, we tend to see it as isolated. Grady and Suzuki quickly disabuse us of that mistake. Trees quickly enter relationships - some with others of their own kind, but also with different species. Fungi, in particular, play a vital role in a tree's life almost from the outset. The fungi bring water and nutrients to the tree, gaining sugars that are the product of photosynthesis. This relationship extends the tree's influence over a vast area. There is also chemical communication with other trees - even those of different species - calling for help or offering information about tree predators.
During the tree's mature years, the old associations are strengthened, and new ones established. As the authors impart what the tree is doing now, they also provide the evolutionary processes that make the tree what it is. Cell growth, water pumping [a process still not entirely understood], and the leafing process are all eloquently described. The science should seem compressed or distorted due to the brevity of this volume. Yet, it flows through the narrative with expressive and informative fluency. Both are experienced writers of science and this collaborative effort is a treasure for any reader.
The science described means those who performed it, whether in field observations or through laboratory effort. Another major element of success here is the relation of various researchers' lives. Many are relatively unknown, with Gregory Fedorovich Morozov likely the most significant of the people Grady and Suzuki bring to light. A Russian geographer, Morozov is described as "the founding spirit of modern ecology", a revelation that's likely to shock Sierra Club members. Morozov first pieced together the intricate relationship a forest tree has with the soil, its neighbours and its offspring. Born in 1867, Morozov had a checkered career, highlighted by a relationship with a revolutionary. Even the toppling of the czars didn't cast him in a favourable light, however, and he died in the Crimea at the young age of fifty-three. Had his work been better known in the West, the ecology movement might have enjoyed a significant boost long before it rose in the mid-Twentieth Century.
There isn't sufficient praise to describe this work. With two ranking science writers and Canada's leading wildlife artist embellishing the text, it's wealth of information, combined with a strong emotional sense of what a forest - and its trees - are all about, this book should be listed with other environmental classics. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]