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Biggest and Best: Finding My Literary Champions

A recommended reading list by the author of new book Tracking Giants: Big Trees, Tiny Triumphs, and Misadventures in the Forest.

Book Cover Tracking Giants

When I set out to write my first book, Tracking Giants: Big Trees, Tiny Triumphs, and Misadventures in the Forest, a travel memoir about searching for the biggest trees in British Columbia, the task seemed as large as my subjects. I’d given myself an impossibly short time frame: one year to find 43 Champion trees in a huge and geographically diverse province. Like all overachievers, I conveniently overlooked that I was otherwise engaged with a day job, couldn’t write and search for trees on the weekends, and could barely tell a birch from a beech.

Nevertheless, I persisted—until I didn’t.

The books here reflect how my project shifted in response to the pandemic and my own limited skills in actually finding these Champions. I at first immersed myself in guidebooks to identify and locate the trees. Once I admitted that the trees weren’t granting me anything like the transcendence I’d expected when in their presence, I then turned for inspiration to the kaleidoscope of writers whose words sustain me. I realized that they have long been the Champions of my creative life. My project wasn’t meant to transform me into a more adventurous version of myself, but to bring out what was already there: an editor in the woods who knows how to spot patterns, with a penchant for Wayne’s World.

These books also reflect the questions I asked along the way, which form the heartwood of Tracking Giants. What does it mean to search for the biggest and best in our lives? How is big-tree tracking actually an artistic process? What do we lose when we pursue bigness at the expense of small joys?


Book Cover Hiking Guide to the Big Trees

Hiking Guide to the Big Trees of Southwestern British Columbia, by Randy Stoltmann

The BC Big Tree Registry was the brainchild of an activist and mountaineer named Randy Stoltmann. With his brother, Greg, he had long explored Lynn Valley in North Vancouver and other significant forests of southwestern BC, keeping informal records of the big trees he saw. Stoltmann wrote three books about BC’s wild areas, including two hiking guides for finding big trees, and his name is appropriately repeated in reverent tones by big-tree trackers to this day.

In my early months spent looking for trees in North Vancouver and Chilliwack, I relied almost exclusively on his first book, Hiking Guide to the Big Trees of Southwestern British Columbia. I supplemented this guide with two other useful books about the area: Trees of Vancouver, by Gerald B. Straley, which is particularly good on the arboreta around the city, and Vancouver Tree Book, by David Tracey, an illustrated guide to common trees. Legacy of Trees, by Nina Shoroplova, was also a useful guide to Stanley Park, where there are numerous significant trees including two Champions: big-leaf maple and red alder.


Book Cover Lands of Lost Borders

Lands of Lost Borders, by Kate Harris

Every book has its origin story, and Tracking Giants begins with Kate Harris’s Lands of Lost Borders. I acquired Kate’s book on proposal when I was an editor at Penguin Random House Canada, and we formed a fast friendship. Lands of Lost Borders (winner of the RBC Taylor Prize) is about the bike trip Kate and her childhood best friend Mel Yule took from Istanbul to India. A master class in travel writing—a mix of bravado, vulnerability, geography, history, and the silliness of life on the open road—it’s the perfect book to inspire travel around the world or across your city. When her book went to copyedit, we celebrated by biking from Whitehorse to Kate’s off-grid home in Atlin, BC. There’s a reason we call her AK: Adventure Kate.

Years later, and back living on the West Coast, I floated by her my idea to start a blog to capture my hikes in local parks and mountains. Kate didn’t use the word “boring,” but she had a better idea. She had just read a galley (a copy of a soon-to-be-published book) of Harley Rustad’s Big Lonely Doug, about a 66-meter-tall Douglas-fir growing near Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island. She’d read about the BC Big Tree Registry in that book. “Why not visit all the Champion trees!” I started a blog the next day to capture 43 trees in 52 weeks.


Book Cover the Golden Spruce

The Golden Spruce, by John Vaillant

Looking back at the book proposal I drafted in 2019, I can see now how it was too ambitious for its own good. What I’d been trying to do was emulate the classic book on BC forests, 43 times over. The Golden Spruce considers how a tree can be significant depending on who’s looking at it. This spruce’s needles glowed golden as a result of a genetic mutation (chlorosis turned it yellow). The tree, called Kiidk’yaas, was sacred to the Haida and a valuable addition to local ecotourism. In an ill-advised protest in 1997, forest engineer Grant Hadwin cut the tree in such a way that it would fall in a high wind, and two days later it came crashing down. Hadwin regarded the focus on one tree as problematic: forestry company MacMillan Bloedel was using its retention of a notable tree to improve its public image. “We tend to focus on the individual trees like the Golden Spruce while the rest of the forests are being slaughtered,” Hadwin was quoted in a newspaper shortly after confessing to the crime. He likened MacBlo’s preservation of the Golden Spruce to Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island, calling them both “freaks,” but it was Hadwin who paid the cost. He was publicly lambasted and went missing during a winter kayak trip before his court date.


Book Cover Eating Dirt

Eating Dirt, by Charlotte Gill

When I started my Champion tree project, I had a clear picture of what Amanda the Adventurer would look like: I would take six months off work and drive around the province in a little blue pickup and camper, looking for trees and playing my ukulele, with a dog named Johnnycake by my side, of course. Forget the fact that I am a cat person. My enthusiasm was a result of the overlapping influence of growing up on the coast in awe of self-supporting tugboat operators and the myth of tree planters. In university, I had thought of joining their ranks, but never thought I could stand up to the rigours they faced, hearing horror stories of the claw hand that resulted from long days of back-breaking planting, the bear attacks, the hornet nests, the close proximity to Other People.

I bet Charlotte Gill could find 43 Champion trees before dinner. Her memoir Eating Dirt, about her years as a treeplanter in BC, gave me new appreciation for the many hands that tend to these forests. Wonderful details abound, from the lichen and fungi that grow in these forests, to the very real hazards of being deep in the woods, to the long-lasting friendships she formed with her tree-planting “tribe.” Along the way, she exposes us to the industrial deforestation at the root of tree planting, and how forestry helped make this province.


Book Cover Birds Art Life

Birds Art Life, by Kyo Maclear

Of all the books on this list, Birds Art Life is the book I most used as a guiding light while I wrote. Kyo Maclear’s memoir of learning to bird in the city inspired me with its mixture of art and nature, and its emphasis on running toward more questions than answers. It gave me the confidence to lean into art as a lens with which to view the world, and to know that simply observing and making notes are enough. I just can’t say enough good things about it.


Book Cover The Once and Future World

The Once and Future World, by J.B. MacKinnon

I grew up on the West Coast, surrounded by cedar and Douglas-fir stumps, markers of what was. We become used to the forests we have, thinking they’re representative of what was always there. Big trees still exist, but in far fewer numbers than even a century ago. The baseline shifts. To tackle this mind-flipping idea of bigness and baselines, I turned to J.B. MacKinnon’s masterful work, The Once and Future World, about extinction and extirpation in the Anthropocene (disclosure: I was one of the editors of this book).

MacKinnon points out that we’re living in a 10 percent world, a figure that comes from numerous studies about “what’s left” in nature compared to when plants and animals were at their most populous. By gazing upon what remains, we consider what was and might be again, the “once and future world” of his title. It’s the perfect book to regain perspective on where we’re at in this great human experiment.


Book Cover The Conversastions

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, by Michael Ondaatje

This book is one of my favourites, and I turn to it to feel re-inspired. It’s a series of transcribed conversations between novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje and film and sound editor Walter Murch. Murch is best known for his work on The English Patient, the Godfather Trilogy, and Apocalypse Now. And like the best books, it revealed timely new avenues in my re-reading as I wrote.

I was tentatively leaning into my strengths as an editor to see the forest around me. Sure, I didn’t have the field skills that would give me a leg up in tree tracking, but maybe being an Everywoman Tree Tracker skilled in literary arts gave me a different kind of advantage. Murch says, “What you do as an editor is search for patterns, at both the superficial and ever deeper levels—as deep as you can go.” Editors detect patterns in an author’s prose or ideas, like a repeated thought or word or a tendency to hold back on emotional subjects.

Of course, assigning patterns to life is in no way unique to editors; we all do it, whether to explain coincidence, normalize the uncanny, or prove our horoscopes. I began “reading” trees as I read text, learning their particular languages, noting the patterns that are unique to a species or a section of forest, depending on whether it’s coastal or Interior, old-growth or replanted. Knowing how to read the surroundings—not only the species growing with the tree but the effects of time, weather, and human activity—is key to identifying each Champion.

Or as Murch put it: “If I go out to record a door-slam, I don’t think I’m recording a door-slam. I think I am recording the space in which the door-slam happens.” The Conversations works surprisingly well as a book—after all, it’s just two guys talking about movies—and it’s a great gift for the film buff in your life.


Book Cover Yearbook

Yearbook, by Seth Rogen

In the summer of 2021, Tracking Giants had stalled. I’d started this project to bring me back from burnout. Now, faced with deforestation, short-sighted forest policy, wildfires, and my own ineptitude in finding big trees, this project was depressing me. How could I finish a book that was becoming about what we’ve lost? The answer came while painting a couple of Adirondack chairs bright blue. I was listening to Yearbook by Seth Rogen. Paintbrush in hand, I saw my way through my book about failure on big and small scales: comedy. My voice was truest when chatting about my big-trees project with friends, usually in text threads from the middle of some dense patch of forest. I love raunchy comedy (e.g., Seth Rogen films) and silly puns, so why was I writing such a sad book? Tracking Giants still discusses deforestation and forest policy (hey, it’s a book about BC trees), but now it leans into the absurdity, including stories of my teenage years in Surrey.


Book Cover the Sweetness of a Simple Life

The Sweetness of a Simple Life, by Diana Beresford-Kroeger

Diana Beresford-Kroeger is an author and microbotanist and known as the tree whisperer. She was raised in the Druidic tradition of her Celtic ancestors and trained in the sciences by the bachelor uncle who took her in after she was orphaned at a young age. She continued her graduate studies in her native Ireland and later Ottawa, where she met her husband and settled in the countryside. Diana is best known for her book The Global Forest and her bioplan, an ambitious but achievable project intended to reverse climate change through reforesting the planet. She is acclaimed internationally for her work propagating rare and endangered tree species, which she collects from around the world and raises in her extensive gardens and arboreta outside Ottawa. We met when I worked with Diana on her book The Sweetness of a Simple Life. This warm book is filled with ecologically healthy and economically sound tips, from how to naturally heal a wart to the many uses of black walnut trees, to the sheer pleasure of having a cat around. The Sweetness of a Simple Life is now a guide for me as I find myself growing an organic garden on a small island and being an active part of the community that sustains me.


Book Cover Tracking Giants

Learn more about Tracking Giants:

A funny, deeply relatable book about one woman's quest to track some of the world's biggest trees.

Amanda Lewis was an overachieving, burned-out book editor most familiar with trees as dead blocks of paper. A dedicated "indoorswoman," she could barely tell a birch from a beech. But that didn't stop her from pledging to visit all of the biggest trees in British Columbia, a Canadian province known for its rugged terrain and gigantic trees.

The "Champion" trees on Lewis's ambitious list ranged from mighty Western red cedars to towering arbutus. They lived on remote islands and at the center of dense forests. The only problem? Well, there were many. . .

Climate change and a pandemic aside, Lewis's lack of wilderness experience, the upsetting reality of old-growth logging, the ever-changing nature of trees, and the pressures of her one-year time frame complicated her quest. Burned out again—and realizing that her "checklist" approach to life might be the problem—she reframed her search for trees to something humbler and more meaningful: getting to know forests in an interconnected way.

Weaving in insights from writers and artists, Lewis uncovers what we’re really after when we pursue the big things—revealing that sometimes it's the smaller joys, the mindsets we have, and the companions we're with that make us feel more connected to the natural world.

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