By Neenah Payne
David Milarch is the founder of the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, a non-profit organization that collects, propagates, archives, and replants the genetics of ancient and iconic trees to restore the natural filter system for our water and air. The ancient Redwoods have the ability to clean our water and stack carbon from our atmosphere to promote climate balance like no other species.
Milarch’s near-death experience inspired him to archive the genetics of the world’s largest trees before they’re gone. One Man’s Mission to Revive the Last Redwood Forests is a short film that documents his effort to save the Redwood champions of Northern California from extreme logging and climate change.
The Man Who Planted Trees explains:
“David Milarch, the subject of a new book, uses intuition and science in an attempt to save the planet… ‘Did you know that 98% of our old growth forest is gone?”‘ he asks, a rhetorical question that seems to hang in the air with the puff of cigarette smoke. As we talk in the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive (AATA) office–a small building located in the village of Copemish–new age music streams from the office speakers. Pictures hang around us of tree climbers dangling from 400-plus-foot sequoias and redwoods, the same old growth trees Milarch speaks of now.
‘Archangel is basically a Noah’s ark, but instead of animals, we’re loading up the genetics of the great trees of the world,”‘ he explains. The mission of the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive (AATA) is to clone, archive and re-distribute the hundreds of champion tree species of the world, the ones that are the largest and oldest – the same trees Milarch believes will save this planet from an ecological disaster. The AATA co-founder now serves as a volunteer, working six to seven days a week from 4:30 in the morning to sometimes late in the evening as an offset to what limited budget the non-profit has to operate.
However, most of Milarch’s time as of late is the result of a book, The Man Who Planted Trees, by Jim Robbins, an environmental science journalist for the New York Times. Robbins followed Milarch and his work for the past decade, compiling a first-hand account filled with scientific research, studies and cultural beliefs surrounding the importance and influence of trees in our environment.”
The Amazon description says:
“When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago. The second best time? Today.”—Chinese proverb
Twenty years ago, David Milarch, a northern Michigan nurseryman with a penchant for hard living, had a vision: angels came to tell him that the Earth was in trouble. Its trees were dying, and without them, human life was in jeopardy. The solution, they told him, was to clone the champion trees of the world—the largest, the hardiest, the ones that had survived millennia and were most resilient to climate change—and create a kind of Noah’s ark of tree genetics. Without knowing if the message had any basis in science, or why he’d been chosen for this task, Milarch began his mission of cloning the world’s great trees.
Many scientists and tree experts told him it couldn’t be done, but, twenty years later, his team has successfully cloned some of the world’s oldest trees—among them giant redwoods and sequoias. They have also grown seedlings from the oldest tree in the world, the bristlecone pine Methuselah.
When New York Times journalist Jim Robbins came upon Milarch’s story, he was fascinated but had his doubts. Yet over several years, listening to Milarch and talking to scientists, he came to realize that there is so much we do not yet know about trees: how they die, how they communicate, the myriad crucial ways they filter water and air and otherwise support life on Earth. It became clear that as the planet changes, trees and forest are essential to assuring its survival.
Twenty some years ago David Milarch hovered above the bed, looking down at his motionless body. Years of alcoholism had booted him out of his life. An inexplicable cosmic commandment would return him to it. His improbable charge? To clone the world’s champion trees — the giants that had survived millennia and would be unvanquished by climate change. Experts said it couldn’t be done.
Fast-forward to today, and Milarch is now the keeper of a Noah’s Ark filled with the genetics for repopulating the world’s most ancient trees. Founder of the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive he is on a mission to restore the lungs of the planet — a mission that now reaches close to 300 million people each year. “Spend a couple of days in an old-growth forest, you’ll come out different from when you went in. Those trees affect our physical, mental and especially our spiritual bodies. Redwoods have been on this planet for 400 million years longer than humans. I believe that trees have a soul, they have a conscience. And I do believe that anyone, everyone can learn to communicate with them.”
The following is an edited version of an interview with David. You can read or listen to the full version of the interview here.
“David Milarch depends a lot on his intuition. Robbins takes note of this throughout the book, including the time Milarch kept hearing the word ‘tires,’ and he found his vehicle’s tire pressure was dangerously low. Another time, Milarch postponed a propagation trip because he believed a storm was coming. This intuition manifested the night Milarch believes he was visited by an archangel or ‘light being.”‘
It was a winter night in 1992, and Milarch, his wife Kerry, and their two sons, Jared and Jake, were sound asleep on their Copemish farm. ‘I woke up to this bright light and it scared the starch out of me,’ he recalls. ‘I heard a voice, a female voice. It wasn’t angry, but it had an authority to it. The voice said,’ ‘Go sit at your desk and take out a pad and pen.’ Milarch said he agreed, but only if the voice would dim the bright light that had him shielding his eyes with his hands. The lights dimmed and he went to his desk.
The next morning, Milarch had no recollection of the previous night’s incident until he found a 10-page paper on his desk. ‘You didn’t write this,’ his wife, a teacher, had said taking note of the outline’s perfect spelling and grammar. But the handwriting was his; and it said how Milarch was going to save the dying population of old growth trees.
Between his flannel shirt, faded ball cap and tendency to drop the F-bomb casually into conversation, Milarch is a man who doesn’t seem like one to confess a celestial experience, let alone fit the stereotype of a tree hugger. He is a third generation shade tree farmer who used to arm wrestle for beer money, not the stereotypical long-haired, soft-spoken type who buys organic foods and drives a Prius.
As we drive through Copemish in his 1989 Chevy pickup, Milarch points out rows of small trees along the street with a cigarette dangling between his fingertips. ‘Leslie Lee, Archangel co-founder, and I planted these a few years ago,”‘ he notes of the maturing native sugar maples. Across the street, a stand of fully mature maples shade the village park. ‘My grandfather planted those in 1910.”‘
Up until a few months prior to his late-night visitor, Milarch was a heavy drinker, so much that he nearly died when he quit cold turkey. His kidneys and liver shut down and he felt himself slipping away while his wife and mother sat by his bedside. The book describes this moment: ‘I remember lifting up out of my body. Then an angel came alongside me and said, ˜Don’t be afraid, we know you’re afraid, but we’re with you.’ Milarch goes on to describe his journey through a tunnel and feeling an overwhelming sense of love before an angel announced that he couldn’t stay; that he had ‘work to do.”‘
That work appears to be restoring what is quickly disappearing not only in the United States, but across the world. Throughout the book, several botanists, scientists and environmentalists point to shifts in our ecosystem, from an increase in diseases and the disappearance of honeybees to the hatching pattern of insects, the health of our streams, lakes and oceans and the steady rise in temperatures — the disappearance of our forests is causing an unprecedented shift in nature, and vice versa.
‘When you read this book you’re going to find all the pines from the Mexico/ Arizona border all the way up to the Alaskan border are on their way out,’ Milarch says. ‘Hundreds and hundreds of millions of acres are dying out. And we can’t stop it because of diseases we’ve introduced that are no longer being killed by cold winters.’
‘There were 63 million acres of virgin old growth white pine in the northern half of Lower Michigan and the U.P.,”‘ he added. ‘A few years ago we had a contest with a local magazine to find one old growth forest. We couldn’t find one virgin old growth pine in the Lower Peninsula. A guy found one deep in a canyon in the Porcupine Mountains. We’ve destroyed the largest stand of old growth white pine in the world.’
The Man Who Planted Trees is a book that will make you care about trees – not just an appreciation for their aesthetics, their majesty or the impressive stats of their century-year-old grandparents, but their overwhelmingly underrated roles in a balanced ecosystem. It’s an eye-opening look into the micromechanisms of a sophisticated system, a “butterfly affect” that not only plays a key role in the immediate surroundings, but reaches our oceans, our atmosphere and the ebb and flow of life overall.
‘Before we even knew the role trees play in our ecosystem, we cut them down. The 3,000-year-old sequoias and 2,000-year-old red woods store carbon faster than any other species of tree on earth,’ Milarch says. ‘A mature sequoia weighs 1,000 tons– that’s equal to nine blue whales–but what nobody told us is that 40% of that tree’s dry weight is stored carbon. How many of those puppies should we plant all over the world?”‘ The Man Who Planted Trees is about an ordinary man turned modern-day mystic who is not only driven by but also supported by scientists and experts who recognize a monstrous problem.
But it’s a problem that has a solution. ‘It’s simple. We have to repair and restore what we’ve destroyed,’ he says, a message he leaves me to discuss further with Cory Bigelow, a propagator for AATA who will give me a tour of the nursery full of cloned trees. For Milarch, a man who seems to set off office equipment with his presence, a symptom of his near death experience, he considers himself merely a messenger, a radio for another world – one that is deeply concerned about the future of our planet. ‘I’m doing this because I want to be able to say to my kids that I did everything I could, for them and their children and their grandchildren,”‘ Milarch says.”
In The Man Who Planted Trees: A Conversation with David Milarch, Milarch explains:
“I was born and raised in Livonia, Michigan, a rural suburb of Detroit. I was born in 1949 so I grew up in the 50s and 60s witnessing the transformation of Detroit, which was called the Paris of Trees back in the 20s, 30s and 40s because the streets were so beautifully-lined with large trees. My father had a nursery at our home in Livonia. So as soon as I was able to walk outside, when I was 5 years old, I was asked to do the weeding of small plants and that started my journey with plants and trees. Then the late 60s came around with the war and Vietnam and political turmoil — there were riots back then; a lot of the young people were dissatisfied.
I found my solace during those times when I was working alone as a teenager, with plants and trees, especially the trees. But by the time I was 21 years old, the city had gotten its tentacles into me. I was abusing drugs, riding with a motorcycle gang, doing a lot of fighting, and I was at war with myself. So that summer when I was 21, I grabbed a small tent and my motorcycle and went 250 miles north near Traverse City, Michigan to camp out. Something I’d never done before!
I was trying to figure out who I was, what was going on and why had the Creator put me on earth. It wasn’t for the negative things — so what was it I needed to do? So I camped alone on the edge of a small lake that entire summer and by the end of that summer, I had come into my own. I had found out that our Mother Earth was being abused every way that you could abuse her, in the name of greed. And I was really, really sorrowful. I was angry and thought there must be something I can do to help….Twenty some years ago David Milarch hovered above the bed, looking down at his motionless body. Years of alcoholism had booted him out of his life. An inexplicable cosmic commandment would return him to it. His improbable charge? To clone the world’s champion trees — the giants that had survived millennia and would be unvanquished by climate change. Experts said it couldn’t be done.
Fast-forward to today, and Milarch is now the keeper of a Noah’s Ark filled with the genetics for repopulating the world’s most ancient trees. Founder of the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive he is on a mission to restore the lungs of the planet — a mission that now reaches close to 300 million people each year. The following is an edited version of an interview with David. You can read or listen to the full version of the interview here.”
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Neenah Payne writes for Activist Post and Natural Blaze
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