Book review of The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, & Why They Matter
by Colin Tudge

The best non-fiction books, to me, have a story line, a focus from which they deviate on a regular basis.  Roger Fouts’ Next of Kin fits that bill, and so does  Colin Tudge’s remarkable book, The Tree.

This is, with out a doubt, the coolest narrative on trees ever produced.  It’s a naturalists delight, covering the form, function, and evolution of trees in general, and then focusing in specific tree families in roughly evolutionary order.

On occasion,  I skipped around in it in my own private “choose your own adventure” game, but the book reads well as Mr. Tudge presented it.  In talking about trees, he manages to detour into, amongst other things, horticulture, genetics, phylogeny (the study of how things are organized in science), and the break up of Pangaea:

“The continents are still drifting. Perhaps in a few million years, Australia will collide with Southern Asia, as India once did.  Perhaps it will crunch into Japan.  Or perhaps it will slide past Japan and into the North Pacific.  Each of the possible scenarios will be dramatic, though none is urgent.”      page 288

He sets off into the land of metabolism as eagerly as his foray into fruits.  His trees are never alone.  They unfurl through the pages accompanied by a host of insects and birds, critters and history.  The Buddha comes along, with his special tree. The Maori of New Zealand are as much as part of the life of Tane Mahata and the other enormous kauri trees as the extinct moas and the still living kiwis.

Mr. Tudge chases the simple stumpers that children ask: “Who was Santa’s mom?” or in this case “how many kinds of trees are there?”

His common sense approach is tinged with humor:

“In truth, we can never know for sure how many species of tree there.  As John Stuart Mill pointed out in the 19th century, it is impossible to know, in science, whether you know everything there is to know.  However much you know, you can never be sure that nothing has escaped you.  With trees, there are a good many reasons to think that a great deal has escaped us…

“there is …a practical reason for ignorance.  Most kinds of trees, like 90% of organisms of all kinds, live in tropical forests, and tropical forests are very difficult to study- largely because there are so many trees in the way.” (p 17)

This is a fun read, a heady read.  Though it lacks the tighter narrative storyline of Next of Kin and the Song of the Dodo (by David Quammen), that is the company The Tree keeps on my shelf: a sweeping grasp of everything, from a particular point of view.

One note of urging: don’t miss the last chapter. The human-tree relationship has changed the world several times in the course of known history, and we’re not done dancing together yet.


Books I mentioned here:
The Tree: a natural history of what trees are, how they live, and why they matter, by Colin Tudge

Song of the Dodo: island biogeography in an age of extinction, by David Quammen

Next of Kin: my conversations with chimpanzees, by Roger Fouts

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