The Secret of Methuselah Grove

Gum: The Story of Eucalypts and Their Champions

by Ashley Hay
Sydney: Duffy and Snellgrove, 275 pp., AU$25.00 (paper)

Deep in the recesses of our imaginations, trees can turn into gnomes and giants—even trapped souls. It’s as if at some hidden level trees are imbued with meaning for us, yet because they are so much a part of our lives, we filter out the emotions they can evoke. The full force that trees can have on an unprepared human mind is in fact profound, as British explorers of the Outer Hebrides discovered in 1692.

When the expedition arrived at St. Kilda’s Isle, the most remote and desolate of the Outer Hebrides, some 150 miles from the Scottish coast, they found a treeless land of simplicity and innocence, where neither money nor the English language were known and where, the islanders claimed, there had not been one instance of fornication or adultery “for many ages before this time.” The women of this holy isle fastened their clothes with the bones of seabirds and fashioned shoes from the necks of geese, a déshabillé, perhaps, that contributed to their remarkable record of chastity.

When it departed, the expedition’s vessel carried some of these humble people to the Isle of Skye, where they made a remarkable discovery of their own—trees. “How they grew to such a height above plants, was far above their conception,” remarked Mr. Smith, the expedition’s leader, who also wrote of seeing an islander awestruck when branches held him back as he tried to pass through a tangle of young growth. Smitten with the beauty of leaves and branches yet ignorant of seeds, the islanders tried to carry an entire specimen back to their boat, but were defeated by the weight of the wood and distance to the shore.

It is almost impossible for the contemporary reader to imagine the astonishment felt by those isolated islanders at seeing their first tree; yet one gets an echo of it when opening Thomas Pakenham’s Remarkable Trees of the World. Pakenham’s photographs of sixty truly remarkable trees include some of the largest, oldest, and arguably the strangest living entities on our planet. Pakenham classifies them variously as giants, dwarfs, methuselahs, dreams, and imperiled—hardly a scientific scheme—but one that endows individual trees with a character that Pakenham captures expertly in his text and photographs.

In a world where the sound of the axe has been heard for millennia, Pakenham has had to travel far to locate the specimens that make up his collection, but it is soon clear that one region, the American West, has the world’s tallest, largest, and oldest living things. The world’s tallest tree is a 368.6-foot-high California coast redwood known as the Stratosphere Giant. Yet, as Pakenham informs us, by the time this information was printed it was probably already out of date. This is because some coast redwoods grow literally as fast as beanstalks, and there are twenty-six trees exceeding 360 feet in height.

The title of largest is also contested. The giant sequoia known as …

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