Adam's Reviews > The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live & Why They Matter

The Tree by Colin Tudge
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Colin Tudge attracted my attention for having written several books about diverse subjects I am fascinated by, not the least of which is trees. In 'The Tree,' Tudge lives up to that promise, proving himself a very likable man who thinks about the world in many ways similarly to the way I do. This is in general a boon, but can be a downfall.

The book has no real goal, no thesis, no object. It is a well-organized series of writings about the trees of the world, including explanations of many facets of what it means to be a tree, portraits of individual trees, and a broad survey of all the tree phyla in the modern world. This middle section seems to have been largely a mistake. The rest of the book proceeds in narrative form through a number of very interesting aspects of the ecology, physiology, evolution, and human relevance of trees. The phylogeny, however, stifles the narrative voice and forces boring listing. I didn't read it, suffice it to say, so I perhaps shouldn't knock it too much. But it reminded me in format much of The Kingdom Fungi, which fell prey to the same impulse.

The impulse is noble and I share it: rather than discuss the variety of trees in the world in a series of random groupings, it should be done phylogenetically, to emphasize the relationships among trees. And if you're going about it phylogenetically, you might as well include all the major phyla of trees . . . But how can you provide anything very interesting about all of them, and present all this knowledge in a meaningful way? The answer seems to be that you can't, really. This kind of knowledge, broad but particular, of the whole group of things we call "trees," must be earned through a lifetime of observation, a lifetime of meeting trees. It can't be condensed and transferred in even 150 pages. And it most certainly can't be done without pictures! This is perhaps what killed the middle of the book - there are no pictures to give the reader a taste of the phyla described.

The rest of the book, which I read entirely, was great, as I've said. Tudge includes a lot of details, but condenses them into a form that is intuitive and dense with information without becoming slow to read. Much that could have been included was left out - a more in-depth look at the relationship between trees and humans in history, a la A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization, or more detailed coverage of tree ecology, focusing on things like mycorrhizae, or more adequate coverage of tree physiology, including some nice diagrams, like Botany for Gardeners. I could think of dozens of others. The book is very long and quite valuable as it is, but such topics would have better suited Tudge's style (and, I think, the style of books other than field guides and coffee table books in general) than what he chose to do in the middle section of the book.

I very much appreciate the fact that Tudge chose to close the book with a serious look at the relationship between the social structure of our civilization and the ecological health of the planet, principally seen, in this, from the point of view of trees. While the fact that the treatment of the issue is necessarily superficial, it acknowledges there is a very big problem in the world of trees, and that it is rooted in economics and culture. Tudge emphasizes, quite astutely, that if that problem can be 'solved,' then many other problems will be solved along with it - exploitation of workers, the indigenous, and poor nations; the food issue; the energy issue; the decline of coherent local communities; etc. It would have been easy for Tudge (or his editors) to say 'let this be a happy book about trees; don't bring up all those controversial bad things - save that for another book.' That he did not indicates some extra goodness in his soil [typo?].

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06/04/2011 page 21
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