Seeing Trees – Book Review

The only way I can describe my reaction to receiving Seeing Trees by Nancy Ross Hugo from Timberpress was like a child being taken into a sweet shop.

Before you even read a word of the book you are completely bowled over by the photography.  I have never seen close up of plants with such amazing detail before.  The photographs throughout the book are by Robert Llewellyn.  I don’t make any pretence of understanding the technical side of things but it appears that Robert took between eight to forty-five images of each subject and with some clever software stitched them together to form almost three-dimensional images, you can see every hair on the leaves.  As someone who spends a far bit of time staring closely at plants for my attempts at botanical illustration I am completely enamoured of these images and suspect I will have a go at reproducing some in my art class.

The bonus of this book is that unlike some very photographic productions the words deliver on the same level.  Nancy is a complete tree addict and her passion is in understanding how trees work.  She studies every element from the structure of the tree right down to the seed leaves of seedlings.  She believes that unless we get up close and personal to trees we really do not appreciate their full magnificence, they are not just part of the landscape, “It is always tempting, especially in a broad green landscape to assume that if you can see the entire tree, from bottom of trunk to top of canopy that you have seen it.”

Nancy states “any time  you draw something no matter how successful you are from an outside point of view, you learn more about it..” This is because when you look really carefully and train your eye, as I have to with my art, you start to see things you never saw before and this is the whole premise of the book.

Seeing Trees starts with a section which explains how trees work.  The language is simple and easy to understand with the biological processes well explained. Nancy’s personality and unique style of writing really brings the subject to life: “Just as human beings have invented brown trucks and bubble wrap to help deliver packages safely trees have developed seed structure to accomplish safe delivery of seeds.”

The book then moves on to look at ten different trees. Being an American book the trees are all American natives but I don’t think this should put non-American readers off since we grow many of them in our gardens.  The ten are: American Beech, American Sycamore, Black Walnut, Eastern Red Cedar, Gingko, Red Maple, Southern Magnolia, Tulip Poplar, White Oak and White Pine. Each component of the tree is studied in minute detail but it is far from dry.  For example Nancy talks about seeking out and finding American Beech seedlings and her excitement and finally finding some, the efforts made in capturing seedheads at just the right moment or leaves just as they are unfurling.

Seeing Trees initially looks like a typical coffee table book but it isn’t.  It contains not only the most amazing photographs I have seen for a very long time but also prose which conveys the author’s enthuiasm for her subject so well that you just want to go out and climb the nearest tree to see what you can find.


10 Comments on “Seeing Trees – Book Review

  1. Great review. I’m really looking forward to reading this book – the pictures look wonderful and although I haven’t had time to sit down and look at it properly yet, every time I dip into it, i find something really interesting. You’re absolutely right about her being able to communicate her passion for and fascination with trees. A treat ahead for the long winter evenings!

  2. I am very ignorant about trees especially our native ones. I have a few books but they are rather bland and illustrated by drawings rather than photographs which I think is off putting for novices. I must track down a UK tree book written with as much enthusiasm as this one.

    • let me know if you find a good UK tree id book, I would be very interested in it

  3. I love, love love trees and work closely with a tree nursery. So getting images of all these trees is pretty easy for me. I love this book too. You are absolutely right, the photography is outstanding, but how he did it is even more remarkable. I never thought to use my macro lens like this, but not having a studio, I could not really even try. Plus he has a set up for his camera that I envy. His photos had a softer, almost illustrative quality that I adored. The software stitching is the only part of his process that I could actually do. But he did inspire me for behind the camera. Oh, and I will not forget to mention the writing. Nancy did a fine job. Nice review on your part, too.

  4. Timber Press publishes some great books. I have yet seen this one, but from your review I can’t wait to thumb through it. I’ve been trying to gradually get to know the native trees we have growing here on the property. It’s easy to take them for granted. Even righting a blog post about a species forces me to look at them more closely, and only then I realize how much I’ve missed. I’m also intrigued to see Robert Llewellyn’s photos too!

  5. It’s already on my wish list! I would love to see more of your botanical drawings. I have been attempting to begin a nature journal mainly because what you say here is so true … you learn so much by drawing something. Somehow it forces you to look at things you otherwise would have never seen. Very interested in seeing the photo techniques. And well, I just love trees and cannot wait to view this book. I have a newly planted Red Maple and Tulip Poplar in my garden. Thank you.

  6. Lovely review – and sounds like a great book. There was a good review in this month’s Gardens Illustrated that had already caught my eye; with your glowing words too it sounds like one for my Christmas list…

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  9. I picked this up at my local library’s new book section. I thought I’d just quickly glance at it for the photographic eye candy. But then I started reading. I think this book is a life changer. Anyone who has a tree in their life should read it. I love trees, but this takes it to a whole new level. Simply lovely.

Please feel free to leave comments as its always lovely to get feedback. I try to respond to comments as much as possible but sometimes life and work get in the way but I will do my best to respond especially if your comment is a question.

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