Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

January Books 14) The Secret Life of Trees, by Colin Tudge

I've been aware of Colin Tudge as a science writer and commentator on BBC Radio Four for decades, but this was the first time I'd read one of his books. I was frankly disappointed. The biggest section of the book, 150 pages of the 400, is a gazetteer of tree genera and families; it would actually have been better presented as an alphabetical encyclopedia - the narrative style doesn't really suit this sort of information (at least, not the way Tudge writes). The final section starts by insisting that humanity must return to an agrarian existence, though without any realistic agenda as to how this might happen (or even convincing reasoning as to why). He also misses two important chances at the beginning: first, the very question of 'What is a tree?' could actually lead to interesting speculations about definitions and the history and philosophy of science, but does not do so here; and second, I would really have liked a lot more about the biology and paleontology behind the single most startling thing I learned from the book, which is that plants have evolved tree structures over and over again (rather than all trees being descended from one ancestral tree and all non-trees being descended from other ancestors).

Apart from that fascinating though underdeveloped point, there are bits and pieces of interest - I had not realised that teak and ash are closely related not just to each other but to mint, basil and rosemary (and there are numerous similar examples); his chapter on the relations between figs and wasps is the best in the book (though even that got a bit confused with nematode worms and dodos); and I enjoyed the occasional glimpses of travelogue to see particular trees and wished there had been more of them.

But I'd be rather surprised if this is the best book about trees out there.
Tags: bookblog 2011

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