Two Books for a Winter Read
By Stacey Hollebeek
As a Christmas bonus, I’m reviewing two books for you this month, figuring you’ll be curled up many long winter evenings reading before the fire, avoiding all the commercial holiday mayhem running rampant in our larger cities to the east. The first book, The Wild Trees, is for those armchair naturalists, while the second, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, tells how legal slavery ended in the Western world.
The Wild Trees by Richard Preston, reminded me of Maggi Van Drunen, the eight-year-old girl I saw scoot half way up a branchless tree overlooking the view at Lost Lake trail in McGaffey. The book is basically a really long story of adults climbing the largest Christmas trees in the world, the California redwoods that can grow more than 35 stories tall, and of the hunt in the 1990s to find which one was the world’s tallest tree. By genre, it’s called a narrative nonfiction, so it’s more like a reality TV version of a book, where readers get to know all the nitty-gritty details of the lives of the quirky people trying to find the world’s tallest – and largest – tree. They are an odd sort of character – quite like the sort of people we seem to revel in here in Gallup – slightly off beat, following the strange and single-minded pursuit of finding the absolute tree.
In the beginning, readers, dumped into the spring vacation of three college kids backpacking for the first time in one of the smaller California state parks that housed patches of ancient redwoods, view the beginning of an obsession. Readers are treated to two of the boys’ childhoods, and follow one of them as he goes on to a doctorate in botany, to become one of the world’s leading experts on tree canopies and a fungus growing only in the world’s oldest trees. Eventually he crosses paths with another odd character, a college dropout, convenience store clerk, and son of an L.A. real estate mogul, who lives on frozen pizzas from his convenience store and rents in a seedy side of town so he can feed his secret addiction of tree measuring and naming. In between the stories of the trees themselves, descriptions of their size, their logging, and their history, the two amateur naturalists eventually meet up with a third character, the girl Marie Antoine. An experienced climber, she is also dedicated to measuring the incredible amount of nitrogen found in the Lobaria oregano, or lettuce lungwort, the lichen found in the canopy of the more ancient redwoods. The author himself becomes a character in the book when he takes classes on tree climbing and “sky-walking,” a sort of tree climbing ballet across the country in New Jersey, and ends up working with the three main characters on their trip to research ancient tree canopies in Australia.
But the trees themselves become some of the more interesting characters, with names for Greek gods, “Helios” and “Kronos,” or after obscure Tolkein characters, “Earendil,” and “Elwing,” and readers are treated to virtual trips to the previously unexplored canopies of these massive trees, a whole new world of bizarre plant and animal life unexpected so high.
Although the book’s cover reviews of “intensely dramatic” and “heart-pounding adventure” wouldn’t be my choice of adjectives for the book, it is a compelling read of a botanical world unknown or forgotten, a reminder of the intricate wonders of our astonishing earth, and of those peculiar characters who dedicate their lives to discovering it – a lovely read for a long winter’s afternoon.
A completely different narrative, yet equally riveting, is the biography of William Wilberforce, an eighteenth-century member of Parliament whose life goal was to end slavery in the British Empire, and the story of how he eventually did. That last sentence doesn’t sound nearly as exciting as the book actually is though, largely due to the expert writing of his biographer, Eric Metaxas, who is able to take a person most of us have probably never heard of – or cared about – and make him both relevant and fascinating to our 21st-century American lives. The sheer magnetism of Wilberforce’s character shines through the centuries and we’re drawn to him through Metaxas’s own excitement and verbal charisma.
Born in 1759 to a prosperous British merchant family, Wilberforce grew up to “hang” with the smart and wealthy crowd of his era, including his BFF William Pitt the Younger, Britain’s youngest prime minister ever, Sir Walter Scott, William Gladstone, and William Wordsworth. He met Louis XVI while the king still had a head (and didn’t think much of it), dined with Benjamin Franklin, hosted Samuel Morse and American Indians, among other American celebrities, and played on the floor with Queen Victoria when she was only 14 months old.
Throughout the biography, readers watch England’s slow awakening to social justice, brought about almost single handedly through the creative energy of Wilberforce, who wanted to “make goodness fashionable.” Besides abolishing slavery, Wilberforce, among other things, worked to improve child labor laws, argued for Catholic emancipation, helped found the “Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals” – all while fathering his own six children, and caring for his frequently poor health.
“The idea, so obvious to us today and so taken for granted, that the powerful have an obligation to help the powerless was indefatigably working its way through the whole of British society, like leaven through the proverbial lump,” Metaxas writes.
But the way in which Metaxas shares Wilberforce’s life with his readers is a tour de force in its own right, with a vocabulary to excite any sesquipedalian, and other times so droll I surprised myself laughing out loud. Metaxas coolly walks his own slackline between oft-nightmarish 18th-century England and our 21st century, making Christianity cool and social justice novel, just as his subject Wilberforce could politically and socially bridge his dear, scorned Methodists and too-drunken Parliament colleagues.
The first book might make you yearn to climb trees – or at least drive to see the redwoods – while the second inspires you to change the world – and shows you that it’s possible.
Happy holidays and pleasant reading!