Lists of trees, plants and baby names usually become tired by the third or fourth entry. They certainly aren't the kinds of books you read from cover to cover. They don't entertain, or inspire. Not unless you're reading a book written by Diana Wells.
"Lives of the Trees, An Uncommon History" shares more than a description of our leafy companions. In fact, Wells warns us right at the beginning. Page one says plainly, "This book is not for botanists or dendrologists or taxonomists, or even for those who want to identify individual trees. It is a book for nonexperts (like me)." Of course, she refutes that last bit in 349 intriguing pages of curious tales and tidbits that appeal to readers of all kinds.
The average book lover will fall in love the minute their hands smooth across that attractive exterior. "Lives of the Trees" presents itself as a reference guide of sorts, but really champions as a coffee table book meant for browsing. Each entry comes with a detailed, black-and-white sketch or two by illustrator Heather Lovett. While Wells is correct when she says the book isn't for those looking for a field guide, Lovett manages to capture the aesthetic essence of each selection.
The average treehugger, on the other hand, will find the pages peppered with environmental musings. The koala, Wells writes on page 130, may meet its end along with the eucalyptus groves it feasts on. The small mammals get everything, including their water, from the plants.
"Slow to change their habits or learn new tricks, koalas have exceptionally small brains for their size," Wells writes. "There aren't enough eucalyptus trees left to sustain a growing population of koalas. So having evolved to live under the most challenging of circumstances, koalas might now simply die of starvation."
Wells also lays down reminders of the past. "The American beech forests also provided the stable diet of passenger pigeons," she writes. "John Audubon described the pigeons 'arriving by the thousands' to eat the beechnuts. Under the great trees, hunters were waiting, along with hundreds of hogs 'to be fattened on the pigeons which were to be slaughtered.' Passenger pigeons did not survive this kind of massacre ..."
Literary enthusiasts will reminisce with Wells as she harkens back to old favorites. From the rhymes of Robert Louis Stevenson to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's "The Little Prince," trees embody strength, hope, comfort and faith as much as any other character. Wells demonstrates our once close relationship with oaks, maples, and yes, even the sycamores. It's sad to see how much that has changed.
Historians and etymologists will find the book a treat. Wells traces the origins of common names and scientific terms alike. "In France, the largest and best chestnuts were called marrons ... A fugitive slave who hide in the (often chestnut) woods was a nègre marron, and from this we get our word for those who are stranded in wild surroundings, or 'marooned,'" writes Wells.
Gardeners, of course, would find plenty to appreciate, as well.
"Lives of Trees, An Uncommon History" is an excellent book to add to your collection, or for gift giving. Wells' writing style and collected trivia appeals to a wide audience.
Author photo: Charles Wells; MNN homepage photo: linearcurves/iStockphoto