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Tree is the adopted daughter of Michael Tree and Lady Anne Cavendish. She was given up for adoption at the age of six weeks, and did not meet her birth mother until she was 20. Michael Tree, a painter, son of late Conservative MP Ronald Tree and his wife Nancy Lancaster, worked as a director of the auction house Christie’s and in later life ran the interiors firm Colefax and Fowler, taken over by his mother from its founder Sibyl Colefax.
She grew up at Mereworth Castle in Kent, and then in a vicarage in Dorset. The family travelled regularly, which inspired her own travels later in life. After reading Classics at the University of London, she went on to work as a journalist and travel writer. Her first book, The Bird Man, about the Victorian ornithologist John Gould, was published in 1991.
Tree was, from 1993 to 1995, a travel correspondent at the Evening Standard, which she considers to be the big break in her career. She has written five books of nonfiction, which have received praise. Islands in the Clouds: Travels in the Highlands of New Guinea was shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award. She writes for the Sunday Times, Evening Standard, Observer, History Today and Conde Nast Traveller and her work has also appeared in Reader's Digest Today's Best Non-Fiction, Rough Guides Women Travel and The Best American Travel Writing. In 1999 she was Overall Winner of the Travelex Travel Writers’ Awards for a feature on Nepal's Kumaris, or 'Living Goddesses' -‘High and Mighty’- for the Sunday Times.
Her book, The Living Goddess (Eland, 2015), is also about the Kumaris, a prepubescent girl worshipped in Nepal and replaced before she menstruates. It has received considerable international interest.
Her 2018 book Wilding - the return of nature to a British farm (Picador, 2018) tells the story of the Knepp Wildland Project, the rewilding experiment on Knepp Estate. Wilding was shortlisted for the 2019 Wainwright Prize.
- Islands in the Clouds: Travels in the Highlands of New Guinea (1996)
- Sliced Iguana (2001)
- The Bird Man: The Extraordinary Story of John Gould (2004)
- The Living Goddess (India 2014; first published in the UK by Eland in 2015)
- Wilding: the return of nature to a British farm (Picador 2018)
- "Isabella Tree". rolfpotts.com. Retrieved 26 January 2020.
- Brown, Mick (21 February 2015). "Living Goddesses". The Telegraph. Retrieved 16 September 2016.
- "The Ruling Passion of John Gould". Kirkus. Retrieved 16 September 2016.
- Sattin, Anthony (15 March 2015). "The Living Goddess Review: A Fascinating Study of Child Deities". The Observer. Retrieved 16 September 2016.
- Tree, Isabella (April 2015). "The Living Goddess of Nepal". History Today. 65 (4). Retrieved 16 September 2016.
- "Biography". isabellatree.com. Retrieved 16 September 2016.
- Dixit, Kunda (April 2014). "The Kumari Story". Nepal Times. Retrieved 16 September 2016.
- "2019 shortlist | The Wainwright Prize Golden Beer Prize". Retrieved 15 August 2019.