David Milarch, a fourth generation tree farmer in Northern Michigan with a bent for rugged living, had a near death experience in the hospital, after refusing dialysis and facing liver failure. He had died, left his body and returned, but with a message from spirit guides telling him his work was not done yet. The earth’s trees were in trouble, and he needed to clone Champion trees to protect their genetics for the future of the planet.
Milarch, fueled by the message from the angels, co-founded The Champion Tree Project. Twenty years later, with a modest staff, he has accomplished what skeptics and scientists said could not be done: cloned the earth’s biggest and oldest trees – among them Sequoias and Redwoods - that have stood the test of time and are the most resilient to climate change.
Milarch’s story is the backdrop of an engaging new book, The Man who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet by science journalist, Jim Robbins. Robbins and I spoke about the book for this post because of my interest in raising public awareness and learning more about the role of trees in personal health, public health, and climate change.
Why do trees matter? Trees, through photosynthesis, turn sunlight into food for wildlife, serve as a heat shield, clean the air, protect against ultraviolet light, filter our water, and are sources of medicinal compounds. The benefits are innumerable, but Robbins notes that there is so much more yet to be known about trees. He explained,
“What I have found again and again, when it comes to the science of forests and trees, is how little they have been studied. Whether it is forest ecology or whether it is individual trees, the rhizosphere, the root system, is very poorly understood. I think science has ignored them, or not found them fund-worthy, perhaps.
But there is enough out there, studies in Japan, the Far East and in the U.S., by people who are farsighted and have imagination about trees, to show that there is something going on. I found what has been studied, that are a little bit broader than what is generally accepted as knowledge about trees, and have run with that. Informed speculation, I call it, about trees and the role they might play.”
2012 is the warmest year on record in the U.S., severe droughts continue throughout the Midwest; and climate patterns are in a constant state of tumult, spurring dialogue in the media. The subject of global warming is often a difficult discourse to follow, as climatologists, environmentalists, and activists speak to the issue from different angles, but there is agreement that it is time to take notice. Regardless of where one is in their vantage point, Robbins explained, trees can serve as an eco-technology, a tool, to address the issue of global warming:
“One of the things that I am trying to do in this book is re-frame how we think about trees. We can build an iPhone, but we understand very little about trees. If you wanted to design technology like a tree, you could not do it. They are so sophisticated and they do so many things, it is really off the charts if you think about it that way. People just don’t think of trees as a technology, playing the central role in our lives that they do.
Half of America lives in urban areas. What is climate change going to mean to those areas? It is going to get hotter; it is going to get wetter in some places, dryer in some places, and more UV light, as climate changes. There is something called green infrastructure; people are starting to figure out that it is a lot cheaper to use vegetation, planting trees, to solve a whole range of problems in urban areas.”
Robbins added that strategic efforts will be critical for urban forests,
“We should reforest our cities as much as we can and be innovative in how we do it. I think we need to think beyond integrating green belts into cities and using vegetation in a minimal sense. Think bigger. Think in ways where we can restore forests within cities. Maybe it is fruit trees? It is an urban food source. Maybe it is bigger parks that are connected? One of the problems with forests is that they are fragmented. At the University of Delaware, for example, the Center for Managed Ecosystems are studying ways to restore the fragments of forests in urban areas so that you get more resilience from these fragments. I say it is a good idea to think along those lines because the clock’s ticking.”
Trees can also directly effect wellness. Robbins noted the concept from Japanese researchers of Forest Bathing, that a walk in the woods can reduce the level of stress chemicals in the body and support the immune system:
“There are studies out there to support those kinds of things. There is what they call, a green halo around urban forest areas. I was in Rio to give a TED talk a couple months ago and we went out from the venue where the talk was to this park; the minute you leave this beautiful forest and walk into the city, you are in a different place altogether and you can really feel it. You can really sense it. That difference isn’t something we should dismiss, and we should take a lesson from that. The science is there to show that these trees have benefits we haven’t even imagined yet. It is a win/win situation in terms of human health.”
Trees also play a role in health ecology, in terms of tracing the origins of disease as well as the public health benefits. Robbins noted,
“I am really interested in this idea that trees have chemicals in them, lots of them. These compounds are known, well studied, to be medicinal. Whether it is limonene or pinene or a range of other things, taxol. One of the biggest ones is acetylsalicylic acid, which is found in willow trees; that is where aspirin came from. One of the questions I have is what role does this acetylsalicylic acid play in the environment? Are the willows cleaning [with] it? Yes, we know the willows are cleaning the water, but are they disinfecting it with aspirin, with acetylsalicylic acid? We know that acetylsalicylic acid--it is well established that this acid protects against cancer. Do these willows have a protective effect for humans, because they pass the water through their system and we drink the water, or the fish live in the water, or the wildlife drink the water; is there a medicinal impact on ecosystems from willow trees?"
As we delve further in to the book, we learn about different types of trees--white oaks, yews, bristlecones, among others--on their uniqueness and historical narrative. Robbins stated,
“In Ireland they believe every species of trees has a different sound. That was what the Ogham, the Celtic alphabet was based on. Each tree resonates differently with people and accomplishes different things in the world. There is even more than I have been able to delineate. For example, there is a study there from Japanese scientists showing that trees recorded a cosmic ray burst that happened in the 8th century. What is that about? I want to know. It is an amazingly complex thing that we have oversimplified and have given little thought to, basically, as a culture.”
Tree planting is happening all over the globe. In the U.S., there is the American Forests’ National Big Tree Program, a conservation movement to protect and locate the biggest tree species. The Agroforestry division of the USDA recently revitalized a campaign, “The right tree, in the right place for the right reason.” Robbins believes that this subject need not be abstract:
“There is a kind of despair that goes along with climate change. One of the things people say is the problem [global warming] is so big, what can we do about it? I am saying that people can plant a tree, or they can plant many trees. It is positive. It is a way to get people outside and away from their computers and interested in the environment. Even if people don’t think of it as helping climate change or helping the planet, planting trees is a good thing if it is done well.”
Milarch’s work at the Archangel Tree Archive continues, despite funding cutbacks. He has presented his work at NASA and at other TED talks. In the book, Robbins follows Milarch’s work over a 10-year span, and it is intriguing to observe how Milarch’s instinct and spiritually inspired mission matches up against Robbins scientific eye:
“It has passed the test of science of what we know. What else are you going to go with? You have to go with proven survivors. Even if we don’t know if Champion tree genetics are better, we should save them. David is the first person who [led] me to think about trees differently. The science is one thing, but then you have these stories and the emotional connection people have to big trees. So it works on that level as well.”
The Man who Planted Trees is a compelling read and it caused a shift for me in appreciating the essential role of trees in the holistic picture of health. I asked Robbins about the impact researching this area has had on him and he remarked,
“I think the shift for me is that I have humility for where we live and what we have done to it. As a science writer, I figured out how little we really know about what we are doing. That’s key. We do an EIS and we say these are the impacts that we are going to have on this river or this forest. We have a scientific understanding that is spotty. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not. We need to be, as a culture, humble for the things we don’t know and to move in a way that isn’t irrevocable and doesn’t destroy the place that we live in. That is what I am concerned about. Our ignorance in the places that we haven’t been and haven’t studied, which fits with the tree work and fits with everything else.”
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