I can't be certain, but it seems like Diana Wells was riffing on Lives of the Artists --that seminal work of art history by the Renaissance artist and critic, Giorgio Vasari-- when she cleverly named her new book, Lives of the Trees. Like Vasari's sixteenth-century collection of short, but pithy artist biographies, Wells provides readers with nutshell-sized natural histories on a very diverse body of legendary figures. What Giotto, Brunelleschi, Raphael, and Michelangelo are to Vasari, the Ginko, Baobab, Cypress, Oak, and Mahogany are to Wells' compendium. Each of the hundred "tree bios" in this totally addictive book will have you gawking at trees (whether common or exotic) with new found appreciation. I was totally taken in by the first lines of the chapter on the Cherry.
America's favorite cherry, the darkly sweet Bing, owes its name to the Chinese foreman who worked in the Lewelling orchards in Milwaukie, Oregon. We don't know much about Mr. Ah Bing except that in 1889, after working for thirty-five years in the orchard, he visited China and was not permitted to reenter America. Poor thanks for his delicious legacy. (p.73)
Reading this anecdote on the origin of the Bing cherry's name was a bit like eating a single piece of the fruit itself--it delivered a bite-sized burst of flavor that couldn't help me from wanting more. I devoured the next two and half pages which offered up a fascinating history of the Greek and Latin origins of the word, why George Washington is associated with chopping down the tree, and why the Japanese value cherry blossoms so highly. What we call, how we use, and appreciate trees (in words, images, and rituals) across cultures is fascinating. Thanks to Diana Wells' gem of a book, we have a very handy way of accessing these life stories.
Readers looking for a fully illustrated field guide to trees won't find one in this book (although artist Heather Lovett does provide a loving sketch of each tree's leaves and fruit). For field guides, I'd suggest The Sibley Guide to Trees or just about any Audubon regional field guide on the subject. But, Lives of the Trees belongs on your reference shelf beside them. It's the perfect book to dip into from the comfort of your couch or while sipping a drink at the corner cafe--preferably while gazing out the window at the tree that is in full bloom.