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Tree Story The History of the World Written in Rings

Popular Science
By: Valerie Trouet(Author)
246 pages, 3 b/w photos, 21 b/w illustrations and b/w maps
A dendrochronological delight, the beautifully written and illustrated Tree Story reveals the utterly fascinating world of tree-ring research and how it matters to archaeology, palaeoclimatology, and environmental history.
Tree Story
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  • Tree Story ISBN: 9781421437774 Hardback May 2020 In stock
Price: £19.99
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About this book

Children around the world know that to tell how old a tree is, you count its rings. Few people, however, know that research into tree rings has also made amazing contributions to our understanding of Earth's climate history and its influences on human civilization over the past 2,000 years. In her captivating new book, Tree Story, Valerie Trouet shows readers how the seemingly simple and relatively familiar concept of counting tree rings has inspired far-reaching scientific breakthroughs that illuminate the complex interactions between nature and people.

Trouet, a leading tree-ring scientist, takes us out into the field, from remote African villages to radioactive Russian forests, offering readers an insider's look at tree-ring research, a discipline formally known as dendrochronology. Tracing her own professional journey while exploring dendrochronology's history and applications, Trouet describes the basics of how tell-tale tree cores are collected and dated with ring-by-ring precision, explaining the unexpected and momentous insights we've gained from the resulting samples.

Blending popular science, travelogue, and cultural history, Tree Story highlights exciting findings of tree-ring research, including the locations of drowned pirate treasure, successful strategies for surviving California wildfire, the secret to Genghis Khan's victories, the connection between Egyptian pharaohs and volcanoes, and even the role of olives in the fall of Rome. These fascinating tales are deftly woven together to show us how dendrochronology sheds light on global climate dynamics and reveals the clear links between humans and our leafy neighbors. Trouet captivates us with her dedication to the tangible appeal of studying trees, a discipline that has taken her to the most austere and beautiful landscapes around the globe and has enabled scientists to solve long-pondered mysteries of the earth and her human inhabitants.



Chapter 1. Trees in the Desert
Chapter 2. I Count the Rings Down in Africa
Chapter 3. Adonis, Methusaleh, and Prometheus
Chapter 4. And the Tree Was Happy
Chapter 5. The Messiah, the Plague, and Shipwrecks under the City
Chapter 6. The Hockey Stick Poster Child
Chapter 7. Wind of Change
Chapter 8. Winter Is Coming
Chapter 9. Three Tree-Ring Scientists Walk into a Bar
Chapter 10. Ghosts, Orphans, and Extraterrestrials
Chapter 11. Disintegration, or The Fall of Rome
Chapter 12. It's the End of the World as We Know It
Chapter 13. Once upon a Time in the West
Chapter 14. Will the Wind Ever Remember?
Chapter 15. After the Gold Rush
Chapter 16. The Forest for the Trees

List of Tree Species
Recommended Reading

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A dendrochronological delight, sublimely written
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 18 May 2020 Written for Hardback

    To figure out how old a tree is, all you have to do is count its rings. But, as tree-ring researcher Valerie Trouet shows, that is the least fascinating thing you can derive from wood. Revealing the inner workings of the academic field formally known as dendrochronology, Tree Story is an immersive jaunt through archaeology, palaeoclimatology, and environmental history. A beautifully written and designed book, it highlights the importance and usefulness of tree rings in reconstructing past climate and linking it to human history.

    The first things that struck me when opening Tree Story were the beautifully designed endpapers. At the front of the book is a world map with thumbnails of important trees and sites, and what chapters they feature in. At the back is a timeline of key historical periods and events, both human and climatological. Too few publishers make use of this, so we are off to a great start.

    The first few chapters of Tree Story provide an excellent introduction. Trouet traces the history of dendrochronology to its unlikely birthplace in the Arizona desert, explains how tree rings are actually formed in living trees, and how, based on fluctuating climatic conditions, their appearance changes. Years with good growing conditions result in wider rings, while challenging years with droughts, storms, or other climatic upheavals result in narrower rings. That last factor is key when it comes to dating: the unique pattern of wider and narrower rings acts as a barcode. By looking at many trees in different parts of the world, researchers have constructed large databases of overlapping tree ring patterns that go back millennia. Using these can tell you how long ago a certain tree died, and therefore how old a wooden object or building is.

    Having covered these basics, the bulk of Tree Story consists of a series of immersive chapters that look at some of the most interesting studies done using tree rings. For one, they play an important role in palaeoclimatology. The historical record of weather stations only extends back a few centuries, so to reconstruct past climates, palaeoclimatologists use proxies: indirect traces that correlate with climate. These have been collected from ice cores, lake sediments, stalagmites, and, of course, tree rings. But the pattern of rings only reveals so much. The width of rings will not tell you if a tree was stressed because of drought or cold, for example. By looking closer with lab instruments you can measure the wood density in individual rings, and that is primarily determined by temperature. It was one of the many proxies used by climate scientists to reconstruct the famous hockey-stick graph.

    Researchers have also compared harvest dates of thousands of trees used in the construction of historical buildings. This has revealed phases where building activity peaked, alternating with periods where plagues or the collapse of empires saw construction grind to a halt. One prominent example is the complex decline of the Roman Empire, which was illuminated (as Trouet gracefully acknowledges here) in Kyle Harper’s excellent book The Fate of Rome. Wood in historical buildings or archaeological dig sites can also cast a light on the history of regional deforestation and the ensuing timber trade as people started importing wood from forests further away from major population centres. This is the subtle art of dendroprovenancing.

    Even more jaw-dropping is the link Trouet has drawn between tree rings, shipwrecks, and pirates. Hurricanes that rip leaves and branches off trees result in years of poor growth, leaving a visible mark in the tree-ring record. But hurricanes also sink ships. And when she compared the historical record of shipwrecks with that of hurricanes captured in tree rings, the two matched beautifully. At the same time, an extended period of reduced sunspot activity known as the Maunder Minimum reduced temperatures and, with it, storm activity, coinciding with the Golden Age of Piracy from approximately 1650-1720.

    As you keep reading, the exciting examples of cross-disciplinary science underpinned by tree rings just keep coming, right up to the final chapter. The impact of past volcanic eruptions such as Tambora. The fluctuations of the jet stream blowing high up in the atmosphere that shows in tree rings at ground level. The amazing story of how a suspected large earthquake in the Pacific Northwest was confirmed by historical records of a tsunami of unknown origin in Japan. The history of forest fires and different fire regimes read from tree scars. The Little Ice Age in Europe and how it was cleverly exploited by the Dutch. Scientists have build careers on investigating the link between climate and the rise and fall of nations, although Trouet is quick to point out that it is an oversimplification to think that climatic changes alone topple civilizations. Other factors are just as important in determining the resilience of societies.

    The clarity of Trouet’s explanations stands out, as does the book’s pacing: chapters are just the right length and never outstay their welcome. Thoughtful little extras are the glossary, the list of tree species, and separate lists with references and recommended reading. Add to this her personal stories and anecdotes based on a twenty-year career. She strikes the right balance between entertaining the reader without overshadowing the scientific narrative. And she moves you: these stories will make you laugh, cringe, or (in the case of the relentless persecution that followed the publication of the hockey-stick graph) anger you.

    Without wanting to take your attention away from the wonderful book that Trouet has written here, I want to give a massive shout-out to the illustrator, Oliver Uberti. His style looked familiar and I realise I have previously heaped praise on his infographics when reviewing Who We Are and How We Got Here. His illustrations give the book a certain cachet and are uniform, clean, crisp, legible, clearly labelled, and (importantly) designed to be printed in grayscale – and those lovely endpapers really turn the book into a keepsake. Publishers and authors should pay close attention and be lining up to commission him.

    Tree Story is a sublime example of what booksellers have lately started calling smart non-fiction: sophisticated academic books for a broad audience (often published by American university presses) that are just a few notches above the yuck or wow-factor of more generic popular science. The excellent clarity and pacing that Trouet brings to this fascinating topic meant I that tore through Tree Story in a day. Already, this is a very strong contender for my book of the year.
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Valerie Trouet (Tucson, AZ) is an associate professor in the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona.

Popular Science
By: Valerie Trouet(Author)
246 pages, 3 b/w photos, 21 b/w illustrations and b/w maps
A dendrochronological delight, the beautifully written and illustrated Tree Story reveals the utterly fascinating world of tree-ring research and how it matters to archaeology, palaeoclimatology, and environmental history.
Media reviews

"Trouet is at her best when recounting field experiences or telling stories about fortuitous discoveries in the lab. Readers worldwide who enjoy popular science and its links to human history will enjoy this book."
– Sarah Boon, hydroecologist / science writer / editor, Watershed Moments

"Extolling the virtues of dendrochronology as a laudable tool for unlocking the secrets of natural and human history, this refreshing book will interest anyone who wants to understand the meaning of their existence, the miracle of life, and the beautiful ways in which our natural history has brought humans to our current state of civilization."
– Paul J. Krusic, University of Cambridge

"A witty and engaging book that brings the story of tree rings to a wider audience."
– Neil Pederson, Harvard Forest, Harvard University

"Trouet does a splendid job of elucidating the connections between dendrochronology (the precise dating of tree rings to the calendar year when they were formed) and advances in climatology, hydrology, archaeology, ecology, and history. A significant contribution and overview of dendro-science writ large. Engagingly written; the scholarship is highly commendable."
– Henry F. Diaz, emeritus research meteorologist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

"Perfect for scientifically-curious readers, Tree Story is a fascinating book about a field that has made major contributions to our understanding of past societies, as well as our current climate predicament."
– Amy Hessl, West Virginia University

"Beautifully captures the balance between science and engaging narrative. There are no similar books that tell the exciting story of dendrochronology."
– Erika Wise, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill

"As Valerie Trouet explains in this beautifully-written book, one of the best ways to understand the magnitude of today's climate crisis is to burrow into the bark of old trees. Trouet eloquently guides readers though this exciting science, revealing not only how science is done, but also how scientists think, how they respond to moments of inspiration and disappointment, and how their careers may unfold in surprising ways. This book is a timely love letter to a discipline and to the academic way of life."
– Dagomar Degroot, Georgetown University / Climate History Network, author of The Frigid Golden Age: Climate Change, the Little Ice Age, and the Dutch Republic, 1560–1720

"For anyone who has been intrigued by the growth rings in a tree stump, this book is for you. Dr. Trouet, a renowned scholar, weaves together science and adventure as she unlocks the many secrets hidden in the hearts of trees."
– Lisa J. Graumlich, Dean, College of the Environment, University of Washington

"Trouet writes that the purpose of this book is to excite people about science, and she succeeds by creating an engaging, credible work sprinkled with anecdotes [...] With this brief, accessible look at the wisdom of tree rings, Trouet draws readers into a narrative that clearly displays her joy for her work and offers some fun with word play."
Library Journal

"An accomplished and globally recognized dendroclimatologist, Trouet is knowledgeable across diverse fields of science and is a talented writer and engaging storyteller [...] Drawing from a diversity of tree-ring research and interdisciplinary collaborations, Trouet chronicles fascinating examples of how dendrochronology helps to answer questions about past environments and human history."
– Lori Daniels, Science

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