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Peter Sis’ The “Tree of Life”

Author John Cech
Air Date 2/12/2004

Peter Sis’ The “Tree of Life” Transcript

It’s the birthday this week of the scientist Charles Darwin, who is the subject of a new picture book, The Tree of Life, by Peter Sis (Sees), a recipient this year of one of the prestigious MacArthur awards. These two, uniquely talented people — an artist and a naturalist — have remarkable a remarkable dialogue together in this book. Peter Sis, of course, determines what the reader will see and learn about the life of Darwin; like Darwin, Sis is a collector of facts — those gleaned from Darwin’s journals, letters, and other writings — and those that Sis has invented to tell his story, which he begins with Darwin’s “open[ing] his eyes for the first time.”

When this happens, Sis writes: [Darwin] has no idea that he will (a) start a revolution when he grows up, (b) sail around the world on a five-year voyage, (c) spend many years studying nature and (d) write a book that will change the world. Luckily, he is unaware that (e) not everyone will see things his way, and that (f) he himself will have doubts about revealing his grand conclusions.

To reach these conclusions about “the tree of life” of the title, Sis constructs his biography through illustrations of compelling visual beauty. Each page often contains a number of large and small pictures arranged in rows or spirals or clusters, connected by branches of texts, that convey to the reader, through tiny, cross-hatched lines, a sense the complex textures of Darwin’s life. As a boy he is propelled by his own enthusiasms — especially for the natural world — which he prefers to any formal classroom. As a young man he dutifully passes his exams at Cambridge to please his father, and then goes on a geological walking tour in Wales to please himself. By the time he is 22, he has become the naturalist aboard the H.M.S. Beagle which sets sail in 1831 on its now-famous voyage to map the coast of South America. Darwin’s travels will eventually take him to the Galapagos Islands, where he finds himself, he writes, “brought somewhat near to that great fact — that mystery of mysteries — the first appearance of new beings on this earth.”

And it is another kind of mystery that Peter Sis honors in this book, the creative mystery of a life that had such exceptional forces at work in it — a life that was often divided into public, private, and secret domains. The Tree of Life is a rare species of book indeed — a picture book about ideas for children and adults. One can climb high into its engrossing branches, and at almost every turn, stop to linger, to contemplate, to wonder over its serene, leafy intricacies.

Posted in Literature