Xylophilia (was: Biggest thing alive) [LONG]

Cameron Laird claird at sugar.NeoSoft.COM
Wed Feb 16 10:36:28 EST 1994

In article <ttuomasj.53.2D59EB32 at silvia.helsinki.fi>,
TOMI TUOMASJUKKA (MMVAR) <ttuomasj at silvia.helsinki.fi> wrote:
>Dunno 'bout that, but as far as I know, the biggest living organism on 
>earth is 'General Sherman', the massive giant sequia (a tree) in California. 
>I don't remember the latin name of the species, might be something like 
>Sequiadendron something (giganteum ?).
>General is roughly 80 meters high, the perimeter is about 65 meters at 
>ground level (not sure if I remember right) and its volume is about 1200 
>cubic meters!!! I doubt that any fungus could beat that.
It's not quite so rotund as your memory has it; I can't find
any estimate for General Sherman's circumference that tops
150 feet, and I'm a bit skeptical of that.  *Sequoiadendron
giganteum* has many specimens that top 2000 tons, ten times
the weight of the largest whales.  One of the spectacular
aspects of this species is that their habit is rather lonely;
they grow without other trees nearby, so that "You can stand
back and see the whole monstrous vegetable:  its untapering
shaft going up like a road to the tangle of heavy branches
that make its head--perhaps 100 feet of lively sprouting
above 200 feed of simple, unadorned log."  Some have a first
"branch [that is] alone bigger than the biggest elm tree in
the world ..."

The quotations are from

	Johnson, Hugh
	1984	Hugh Johnson's Encyclopedia of Trees.
		Gallery Books, New York City

a marvelous coffee-table book.  As the dust jacket says,
	is a fully illustrated guide to all the
	major garden and forest trees . . . an
	unforgettable journey through a magnif-
	icent and intricate world of natural
	beauty, and an unmatched work of refer-
	ence for gardeners and tree lovers.

	The *Encyclopedia* shows the world of
	trees in thorough and loving detail:
	the structure and life cycle of trees,
	their place in history and ecology,
	forestry past and present, the use of
	trees in garden and landscape design,
	tree planting and care.

	Forming the heart of the *Encyclopedia*
	is a visually beautiful omnibus of deci-
	duous and coniferous trees--more than
	six hundred species--illustrated with
	close to a thousand full-color photo-
	graphs and drawings and accompanied by a
	text that sparkles with fascinating facts
	and tree lore.

It's true.  The dust jacket completely jumps the track, though,
when it quotes a former Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens
as of the opinion that

	Hugh Johnson .... writes without prejudice
	or inhibition, eager to share his vivid en-
	joyment and his remarkable understanding.
	If you start his book with a feeling for
	trees, I don't see how you can finish it
	without loving them.

There's nothing wrong with this, either, except for the "without
prejudice" phrase; how could dendrology possibly be an arena for
the display of prejudice?  In fact, the *Encyclopedia* answers
that question, too.  Johnson is gloriously prejudiced, prejudiced
about trees.  Moreover, his prejudices are, well, correct.

Johnson is best known as a wine critic.  His physiognomy, though,
rather suggests a rugby player whose teammates think he's a bit
too enthusiastic about the rough and tumble.  In any case, he's
lusty in his affections, and forthright in his writing.  Cheerful
personal views fill his *Encyclopedia*:

	I feel obliged to mention what to me is the
	ugliest tree in the world--the weeping
	wellingtonia.  This freak from a French nur-
	sery has branches that grow straight
	downwards, as near the trunk as they can get.
	. . .  To grow one seems to me rather like
	exhibiting Siamese twins.

	. . .  The larch is one of the fastest-grow-
	ing of all trees; certainly the fastest to
	make strong and heavy wooed with almost oak-
	like qualities.  . . .  Possibly more
	important than any of the species, however,
	is a hybrid, the fruit of a union romantically
	formed at a ducal seat in the highlands of
	Scotland.  . . .  The 4th Duke was so smitten
	with the larch that he planted 17,000,000 of

	For a non-fanatic to write of rhododendrons
	at all is foolhardy, but to try to distinguish
	those that should be called trees, at least
	without long experience in the Himalayas, is
	almost suicidal.  There never was a rhododen-
	dron with the sort of long straight trunk
	that would tempt a forester, that is certain.
	Yet who would call a plant 90 feet high, how-
	ever curving and many-stemmed, a shrub?

	What can you grow that gives a garden such a
	sense of established well-being as a fig tree
	or a mulberry?  I've no doubt it is just wit-
	less harking back to a three-quarters-mythical
	past:  the fig-tree mentioned so often in the
	Bible and popping out from under every fallen
	marble frieze in the ruins of the classical
	world, and the mulberry appearing from China
	in the Dark Ages--maybe long before--and with
	it the Secret of Silk.  . . .  Mulberries are
	gastronomically neglected.  They are somehow
	not quite right as fruit, combining the ex-
	tremes of squashiness and pippiness ...

He continues for another three hundred pages.  These in-group
jokes and flamboyance are the sort of thing that make a re-
viewer instinctively reach for such adjectives as "cloying"
and "fanatical".  Johnson is better than that.  Read him your-
self, and you'll find that his overadrenalized prose actually
delivers on its promise to entertain and communicate with
accuracy.  When he compares the flowering ashes to "the velvet-
framed bosom of Nell Gwynn ...", it turns out that there's
some artistic justification for his almost-over-wrought prose.

I've narrowed follow-ups; I encourage others to make their own

Cameron Laird
claird at Neosoft.com (claird%Neosoft.com at uunet.uu.net)	+1 713 267 7966
claird at litwin.com (claird%litwin.com at uunet.uu.net)  	+1 713 996 8546

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