Posts filed under ‘The Wild Trees’

Behind Michael Nichols’ Redwood Pictures

The October 2009 Issue of National Geographic featured “The Tallest Trees” with wonderful Redwood photographs by Michael “Nick” Nichols. Yan view a slide show of the photographs (and order prints just in time for the holidays!) here.

One of the most dramatic images is actually a mosaic of 84 photographs meticulously stitched together to capture a 1500 year old, 300 foot tree in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. It wasn’t a simple venture. In a thick forest, you can’t just back up until everything is in frame. Nichols worked with a team of photographers and scientists and ultimately they rigged up a dollies to get the photographs. You can view the final image online here or in person at Annenberg Space for Photography in the Extreme Exposure exhibit.

I write about this now because earlier this week, the photographer posted a behind the scenes account of the process on The Huffington Post. A couple of names familiar to me from The Wild Trees make appearances. You can also see snippets of their process in the following video from National Geographic. Enjoy!

December 2, 2010 at 5:00 am 3 comments

Measuring Trees, Vicky-Style

Another personality followed in Richard Preston‘s book, The Wild Trees, was Michael Taylor. Michael Taylor was not a scientist or a climber. He was just a normal man (one afraid of heights at that) who one day decided that the tallest trees in the world were yet to be discovered. So he went out into the woods and looked for them. When he first started his explorations of northern California, his measurement technique was crude, but cost effective.

Taylor made his clinometer out of a plastic protractor […], along with a piece of string, a thumbtack, and a wooden pencil. The device cost him forty-five cents.

Later he started using a 19th century surveyor’s transit and then even later he used a laser range finder. But according to The Wild Trees, “there is only one way to determine the exact height of a tall redwood, and that is to climb up into it and run a measuring tape down it.”

That’s exactly what researchers did in September 2006 when they measured Hyperion at 379.1 feet and confirmed it was the world’s tallest tree.

For the layman, like myself, there are a lot of a different ways to measure the height of trees, some using angles, some using sticks and some simply measuring shadows. Over the years, I’ve half-assed my own technique which makes Michael Taylor’s hand-made clinometer look cutting edge.

  1. Make Jimmie stand or sit next to the tree.
  2. Take a picture
  3. Upload picture to Flickr for safe keeping

Now, if I am ever inclined, I can open the picture up and count the number of Jimmies to the top.


Jimmie “measuring” an American Chestnut tree (the tall skinny one next to his butt)


The tree is at least 8.5 Jimmies tall. Since Jimmie sits at 29″, the tree is roughly 20 1/2 feet tall.

Jimmie’s expertises are by no means limited to trees. His services are just as applicable to rocks or tree tumors.


Dragon’s Tooth is a little more than 10 sitting Jimmies high.


Jimmie, with apprentice Henry, “measuring” a tree tumor.

Of course, one day Jimmie will have to retire from hiking. So I suppose I should practice some of those other techniques.

You know, as backup.

Though added accuracy wouldn’t hurt. 🙂

May 24, 2008 at 8:00 am 6 comments

Steve Sillett’s Secrecy and the Virginia Round Leaf Birch

Over the winter, I read The Wild Trees and learned about the botanists and climbers who studied the diverse ecosystems in the canopies of the giant redwoods. I enjoyed the book and you can read my original thoughts in an earlier post.

Now, I do have to admit there was one section where I scoffed at scientist, Steve Sillett. Once his research started to take off and he was being interviewed for The New Yorker, he kept the locations of the trees guarded. He was worried about recreational climbers ascending the trees (you know, the same trees he climbed) and hurting the canopy.

“Oh, give me a break!” I thought.

Steve had started his tree climbing career recklessly in college without any ropes and just a few chapters earlier, he had to be reprimanded by arborists for climbing the redwoods using metal logging spikes. Was he really the one to be lecturing?

But now, I definitely have a new appreciation for Steve Sillett’s secrecy and I humbly recognize that one can change their mind over the years (or…a mere four months). In Steve’s case, I suppose as he became more familiar with the trees and the ample life at top, he developed a greater appreciation of their fragility. As for me, what changed my mind about Steve?

The Virginia Round Leaf Birch Tree.


Photo by Peter M. Mazzeo @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

The Virginia Round Leaf Birch Tree only grows naturally in Smyth County, Virginia at an elevation of 2750 feet. The tree was discovered in the early 1900s and then it VANISHED for 60 years. It was assumed extinct until 1975, when a small patch was found growing near Cressy Creek. And so, the Virginia Round Leaf Birch became the very first tree protected under the Endangered Species Act.

What a delicate treasure these trees must have been! Surely, anyone who ran across such a rare tree would cherish and respect the moment. No one would want to hurt the precious few that remained, right?

WRONG! In 1984, “Vandals dug up and removed, uprooted, or cut off at ground level all but 5 of the 30 healthy, 2-year-old seedlings in Sugar Grove, Virginia

What the–?!?! Who would do such a thing?

After that, the planting locations of the Virginia Round Leaf Birch were kept secret. Although less than 10 of the natural population remain, thanks to secrecy, there are more than 1000 artificially propogated trees out there and the species has successfully moved from “Endangered” to “Threatened”.

So, Steve Sillett, I believe you were right to be discrete about the redwoods, afterall.

Even the population of people who love trees still has its jerks.

May 11, 2008 at 10:48 pm 13 comments

The Wild Trees

BAH! Once again, my brother-in-law, Clint, managed to get me a super awesome Christmas gift which ended up in the upper percentile of my gifts received. What did I get him? Oh, just something off his ThinkGeek Wishlist that apparently someone else got him too!


Clint’s Wishlist. He wants 1 Plasma Mug w/Electronic Coaster, but has received 2.

A big F.U. to you, Clint, for getting me a gift that rocked while my gift lacked originality on all fronts.

So what was this gift that has irked me so? It is the book “The Wild Trees” by Richard Preston. The book is about the hikers, botanists, lichenologists, inventors and climbers who all contributed to discovering the tallest trees in the world; climbing them; and studying the surprising plants, fungi and animals that made their home nearly 400 feet above the ground. Man actually walked on the moon decades before he knew what diversity lived up at the top of the giant redwoods. In the redwood canopies, the scientists discovered over a hundred species of lichen, moss, ferns, salamanders, crustaceans, huckleberry bushes and then my favorite– earthworms living in the soil deposited on the giant branches.

As you can tell probably tell from my intro, I loved the book. I am a notoriously slow reader. It took me about a year and a half to complete Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day: The Climatic Battle of WWII (and a lot of Omaha Beach related nightmares). This book took me two days. It was quite fascinating and I recommend it with two disclaimers:

1) It did take me a while to adjust to the novel-like narrative. I believe I cringed when I got to this section of the second paragraph:

“His name was Marwood Harris, and he was a senior at Reed College, in Portland, majoring in English and history. He walked off to the side of the parking lot and unzipped his fly. There was a splashing sound.”

But, I adjusted and in the end, I rather enjoyed the approach the author took. It was neat way to get to know and understand the key players better.

2) There are no photographs. That was almost as frustrating as Clint‘s impeccable Christmas gift giving skills. The book kept describing all these intriguing sites such as giant fire caves inside the tree or deadly “widow-makers” (broken branches) dangling from the tops. It made me want to SEE said items. But all they provided was some lame-o drawings and sketches. Boo!

But, I did find that the author has some of his climbing pictures on his website. I couldn’t find no stinking fire cave, but there are some cool shots in the mix. And I was able to ascertain that the woman who had intercourse at the top of a giant redwood was indeed pretty good looking. 🙂


Screw the mile high club. These two people had sex in a tree *without* safety lines on.

January 4, 2008 at 2:08 am 23 comments


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