Nature and Environmental Book Reviews

Short List of Best Nature and Environmental Books



Nature and Environmental Book Review:
Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast

Book Review by David Yarian, Ph.D.

Forest Giants of the Pacific CoastForest Giants of the Pacific Coast
Robert Van Pelt

If you love trees and lush forests, this book will have you putting on your hiking boots . . .

Robert Van Pelt loves his job, which seems to be driving all over the West Coast to visit remaining virgin forests, looking for extraordinary trees. The trees documented in this profusely illustrated large-format book are extraordinary. They are the largest known examples of their species; they are gnarled survivors of centuries of storms, drought, forest fires, logging; and they are often located in difficult-to-reach places that make it unlikely most of us will get to see them.

Van Pelt focuses on the species that flourish on the West Coast: Giant Sequoia, Coast Redwood, Western Red Cedar, Douglas Fir, Sitka Spruce, Sugar Pine, Incense Cedar, Yellow Cedar, Noble Fir, Port Orford Cedar, Jeffrey Pine, Ponderosa Pine, Western Hemlock, California Red Fir, California White Fir, Western White Pine, Western Larch, Grand Fir, Pacific Silver Fir, and Engelmann Spruce.

Within each species, he provides a color-coded distribution map showing where the trees are; introductory material about the species; and, of special interest, detailed sketches of the ten or so trees he profiles in each chapter. These highly detailed sketches, drawn to scale, make it possible to study the unique architecture of each tree, and obtain a perspective of the tree not possible from the ground, or in a dense forest. Tiny human silhouettes included with these sketches show the massive proportions of these trees.

Each of the top ten trees are profiled, with a couple of pages devoted to photographs of the tree, details of its discovery, history of human interaction with the tree. In each section Van Pelt’s enthusiasm for these trees is evident, and he shares the particular affection he has for many of these trees.

The trees that are illustrated are, of course, breathtaking – giants who have survived the perils of many centuries, and who stand as silent sentinels in deep forests, by busy highways, in the middle of clearcut areas. Photos of the trees include people so it is easy to grasp the scale of their bulk and height.

Van Pelt has pioneered a new way of measuring trees to determine which are largest of their kind. Height is not the primary determinant, nor is DBH – “diameter at breast (4.5 feet) height”. Instead, using laser surveying instruments, he calculates the total volume of the tree, inspecting the tree from top to bottom to allow for hollow areas in trunks and branches that are unseen from the ground.

This book is a visual and conceptual feast for any treelover. Though there is no focus on “how trees work”, or their biology and ecology, one gains an intuitive appreciation for some of these factors through the intensive focus on single examples of large trees. We see the characteristic form and shape of each species, and learn in what kind of topography they flourish.

Because of the advanced age of most of the specimens pictured, they carry the marks of their survival: broken tops, fire scars, gnarled and burled and twisted trunks; reiterations of branches that have come to be the new leader, carrying the tree to new heights past broken-off main trunks. While some of the trees are picture-perfect Christmas tree beauties, most are not. But they are amazing survivors who have grown to massive size, far from the eyes and interference of our kind – waiting for a determined bushwhacker like Robert Van Pelt to find, photograph and measure them.

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