"I never met a Tudge I didn't like" is a fitting adage for this wide-ranging author. Having written an "unauthorised biography" of life, the impact of agriculture on human development and other works, Tudge has created a masterpiece of science writing. No longer can we claim that we can't "see the woods for the trees" since he has detailed the mechanics of both in exquisite detail. At) least so far as we know now. If nothing else is clear from this book, what we don't know about the mechanisms of trees far exceeds what we've learned. Trees, so ubiquitous in their presence and so meaningful in our lives, remain a great mystery to be solved. In three almost independent segments, he spells out what is known and what needs to be revealed.
He opens with one of the most understated definitions in science writing: "a tree is a big plant with a stick up the middle". From this simplistic opening, he then develops an image of how complex that "stick" and "plant" combination is in the final product. This complexity didn't appear from nowhere - the author explains how evolution built it from simple beginnings. Most readers will be familiar with the fact that 46 chromosome are needed to make a human. Trees, through various mechanisms, may develop hundreds of chromosomes depending on conditions. The structure of a single tree almost pales against the variety of trees growing around our planet. Tall trees, spreading ones, trees that we often call "shrubs" - which are merely superbly adapted to their local environment - all reflect the immense diversity trees have developed over the ages. Although generally divided into but two forms, conifers and "flowering" trees, they comprise thousands of species, many probably still unknown.
Tudge dedicates the second part of his book to descriptions of those variations. It is a catalogue of wonders as he depicts the oaks, beeches and other "common" types along with palms, celery pines and fruit trees. He begins with the ancient conifers, trees with a lineage stretching back nearly three hundred million years. That heritage shows in the varieties the conifers incorporate. From stately pines to humble ground-huggers, the conifers even include a parasitic member among their ranks. Angiosperms, the "flowering" trees, have surpassed the conifers in species number. The author lists each Order, with a list of the families and species. He explains why the numbers of species are in flux as new information about relationships comes to light. Tree habitats are also described with indications of where to find typical specimens.
In last third of the book: "How Trees Live", Tudge demonstrates why he's one of today's leading science writers. He has accumlated a vast repetoire of information, and presents it with almost passionate style. Seemingly static from our viewpoint, trees have much to do in the course of their lives. They must keep the sun in view, and many forests are competitive arenas to lift leaves into the light. There are seasons to keep track of, predators to discourage and to entice and employ helpers in the process of reproduction. Lacking brains, or other "intelligent" means, trees cannot manufacture devices for these needs. All must be accomplished with chemistry. Much of "the secret life of trees" is hidden here. With but five hormones and a handful of pigments to achieve their tasks, they have built up forms and methods to accomplish it all with an astounding degree of success.
Tudge's adulation of trees goes beyond being simply informative. In his conclusion, he both endorses our need to increase our knowledge of trees and warns of the effects of our failure to do so. We may view trees as aesthetically pleasing or as a source of lumber or paper. Either way, we must deal with them properly. Hewing down vast forests does far more than leave a barren landscape. Trees are the source of the oxygen we breathe. They take up the carbon dioxide our society produces in such imposing quantities. Their capacity for that role has likely been exceeded at this point. Trees matter, he argues, and we need to know why and how. This book is an excellent starting point to find the answers to that learning quest. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
`The Secret Life of Trees' is a pretty comprehensive popular science book that explore the various aspects of tree life around the world. It is written in plain language and if you have read other popular science book then you will slip right into this with ease. Part 1 looks at what makes a tree, from their basic make-up, to more in depth genetics, Part 2 (the driest part for me overall) looks at the various species around the world, how they are catalogued and how they function in their environments, Part 3 explores why trees live where they do, why they behave as they do, how they interact with each other and other animal species and a whole host of other information. This was the most fascinating part overall. Finally, Part 4 looks at the future of trees and how they can be utilised better and how we can care for them more for the benefit of the trees and society at large. This book has some wonderful phrases in it that make it all the more delightful to read, for example it says `Asokas are said to blossom more vigorously when given a good kicking by young women. Don't we all.' This and other similar phrases make a dry science book more enjoyable and raise a smile as you progress through the pages. If trees have even remotely interested you then I'd recommend this book, you will be amazed at the science and behaviour behind these seemingly benign organisms and you will never look at them in the same way again. A rare treat in a book.
Dedicated to Stephen A. Haines whose reviews inspired me to read some amazing science books and who will be greatly missed.
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I have said before that I am a fan of Colin Tudge's writing and my enthusiasm is increased by this lovely book.
It is always a pleasure to read a book by someone who loves what they are writing about, and Tudge's admiration for trees comes through so clearly in this work. He manages to cover pretty much everything, ranging effortlessly across the botany of trees, covering (surprisingly thorughly) all the major families, noting their particular features, the curious nature of some reproductive techniques (and some really are curious!) and touching on the economic and historical importance of some species.
Finally he looks at the ecological role of trees and how they fit into the jigsaw of life in a wider sense.
I cannot see how this book could be improved - the writing is fluid and entertaining and the science clearly explained. A wonderful gift to anyone interested in the natural world. Certainly I now look much more closely at the hedgerows and woods that I pass while walking the dog!
on 21 October 2008
I've just finished reading this book, and it took me a long time. I like trees, and was looking forward to read the book to improve my knowledge about them, but the way the subject is presented really makes it a difficult and ponderous book.
The book is divided in three parts, the second being a long review of all the tree families. This is the longest and heaviest going section of the book. You are bombarded for about 150 pages with a constant barrage of facts, latin names and anedoctes about an enormous range of trees, most of which you probably never heard about. The erudition and passion of the author is never in doubt, but the presentation is numbing.
The final part of the book is the most interesting, it deals with the evolution and the mechanics of tree life, although it never seems to be as involving as promised.
The notes on agroforestry are quite stimulating, despite the vaguely preachy tone that creeps in every now and then when linking to the (controversial) subject of global warming.
I would certainly have put the second section last. In this way, the book would have had a first part about matters that are common to all trees, and a second part replete with the specifics of all particular species, to be used as a reference by the interested reader.
Overall, four star for the content but two for editing, which gives a total rating of no more than 3 stars for me.
on 21 July 2006
This is one of those amazing books that has so much depth and richness to it that it makes it impossible to praise it enough. The book is quirky, full of interesting insights and facts, it's a historical/scientific document that serves to open our eyes to the wonders of nature. It covers all you could wish to learn about the subject and cannot fail to impress the reader with it's inventiveness and sheer creativity on the subject.
on 8 April 2007
I loved this book.
More of a text book than anything else, but full of amazing facts about trees that occasionally made me stop reading and tell people what I had just read.
I now want to own land and plant trees and save as many endangered species as possible before they are lost for good.
This book is a treasure for anyone, lay person or professional, who loves trees or is merely fascinated with the amazing forms of life that trees are. But it is more than that. Colin Tudge is not only an expert on trees, he is an evolutionary biologist of the first water, as can be learned from reading just this book, and as can be discerned by looking at a list of the books he has published. Here's an example of his deep understanding of biology:
"In truth, the essence of life is metabolism--the interplay of different molecules to form a series of self-renewing chemical feedback loops that go around and around and around. And they do this simply because, chemistry being what it is, such a modus operandi is chemically possible, and what is possible sometimes happens." (p. 58)
And I might add, given enough time, what is possible probably will happen.
Here's another (the book is filled with deep insights into the nature of life): while speaking of the nitrogen-fixing Frankia (compared to the more common nitrogen fixing Rhizobium) as "yet another, stunning case of convergent evolution," he adds that we see "yet again, the propensity of organisms--one might almost say their eagerness--to cooperate." (p. 187)
The book is in four parts:
Part I "What Is a Tree?" consists of four chapters describing and explaining how a tree functions and how trees are constructed and why they behave the way they do. Additionally, Tudge shows how trees differ from grasses, herbs, shrubs, etc.
Part II "All the Trees in the World," is taxonomy, six dense chapters giving the nomenclature, scientific names and descriptions of the trees, where they grow, how plentiful they are, and how they evolved from earlier types and became distributed the way they are. Tudge includes some chat about differences of opinions among botanists; he shares some history and anecdotes while somehow managing to make the naming and classification of orders, classes, families, genera, species, etc., interesting. I was surprised to learn (amateur that I am) that trees can have a familial relationship to herbs and vegetables such as with legumes.
Part III "The Life of Trees" has three chapters and concentrates on the ecology of trees, how they are pollinated and how they get their sees distributed and how they interact with symbionts, parasites, and mutualists. Included is an interesting section on figs and their unique wasp pollinators. The effect of fire and grazing is discussed.
Part IV "Trees and Us," contains a single chapter, "The Future with Trees," in which Tudge argues persuasively for "agroforestry," which is the simultaneous use of land for both growing trees and other agricultural products, including cows (who appreciate the shade) and free range chickens (who appreciate the cover), and pigs (who appreciate the acorns in oak woodlands), and smaller trees, like coffee trees (which give a better bean because of the shade). With the disadvantages of monoculture (disease, heavy reliance on fossil fuel fertilizers, economic hardships for many, riches for the few, etc.) becoming more and more apparent, agroforestry is a huge step in the right direction.
I would recommend that the reader begin with Part I "What Is a Tree?" but then skip to Parts III and IV "The Life of Trees," and "Trees and Us," and only then delve into nomenclatural thickets of Part II "All the Trees in the World."
There are some exquisite black and white line drawings of trees by Dawn Burford scattered throughout the text.
Back matter includes "Notes and Further Reading," a glossary and an index.
This is the first of Colin Tudge's books that I have read. It won't be the last.
on 29 May 2015
Five stars for Parts I and III - interesting and informative; and one star for Part II which is a long list of trees described in a lot of detail = average three stars. It might be helpful to potential readers to think of this as three books, not necessarily to be read in order. It is also useful to know that there is a very helpful Glossary at the back (which I noticed only after reading half way through) - for that reason some readers may prefer to get the hard-copy and not a Kindle edition. My main criticism of the book is that the illustrations are inadequate in my view for the detail of the text, and they are only black & white line drawings. This book would be much enhanced by a large section of colour plates illustrating the points discussed.
This is a totally illuminating and fascinating book. It's not, however, a book that I sat down and read from the beginning to the end, it's just too dense and too specialised for that. I've had it on my desk now for around a year and I've been dipping into it around once or twice a week. It has taught me so much - and not just about trees. I, along with many people, I suspect, have never thought about the fact that the centre of the Earth is a very hot place (hence volcanoes!). So hot that "the entire interior swirls with convection currents, like a simmering kettle." And these are what allows the continents to move (only a few centimetres a year) and thus, as they have shifted over time, they've provided the modern land masses and plants and animals of today. Continental drift helps to explain why modern trees are where they are.
But this book is not just a fund of information about trees, it preserves a healthy and entertaining generality - aesthetic and sometimes almost spiritual, a sense of the adventure of tree-lore and its genesis. Who could, after all, ever assemble a material with "the strength, versatility, and beauty of wood." I don't think Colin Tudge goes too far in saying that wood is one of the wonders of the universe.
This wonderful book provides a taxonomy, an economy, a biology, an ecology, a history and a physiology of trees. Take figs for instance: "There is nothing quite like an octopus; there is nothing quite like a human being. And there is nothing, absolutely nothing, like a fig." The epiphyte types of fig are often stranglers, "encircling and throttling their hosts." As DH Lawrence pointed out, the fruit of the fig is very much like a womb and the story of how the fig pollinates, involving a very small female wasp, is fascinating. The net result is a wonderful mutualism, with the corollary that any one fig may have daughters living many miles away.
Having tasted the fruits of this book, would I know a beech from a birch? Could I distinguish Dogwood, Tupelo or the Handkerchief Tree? I couldn't swear to it, no. But I know where to go to find out.
on 25 March 2010
The book is essentially split into three sections. The first provides a general discussion on the nature of trees - what they are and their place in nature. The second section provides a detailed description of the various species, genera and families of trees which exist in the world today and the final section focuses on how trees live and mankind's relationship with them.
Broadly speaking, I found the first and last sections of the book extremely interesting, well written and informative. Beginning with the earliest emergence of life, the story of how trees came to exist and the various developments in categorisation and study (from Linnaeus to the advanced techniques of the 21st Century) is presented superbly. Unfortunately the middle section, which comprises the bulk of the book, is exceptionally hard going. It seems a little perverse to criticise a book about trees for containing too much information on them, but I really found myself swamped under the details. The attempt to give a fairly complete overview of every type of tree is admirable, but after 20 or so pages of descriptions of varieties of conifer I must admit that my patience started to wane.
With this stated, I would still recommend the book to anyone interested in the subject. I was approaching it as someone with a casual interest in nature and I have certainly come out of the experience with a new found enthusiasm for trees and a desire to pay a little more attention to them in my daily life.