There are people and causes in this world worth celebrating. Brilliance and success are often celebrated, but I sometimes wonder if we have it wrong. Maybe the people we should be celebrating are not tech icons, captains of industry and entrepeneurs like Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, or Bill Gates. In a sense, these men have received their reward.
More and more the people who amaze me are the people who try and attempt really big things, without any big payoff at the end of the rainbow. These people see a cause that is important and despite the risks, they act on faith, move forward and put themselves on the line. David Milarch is one such figure. Milarch is largely the focus of the book “The Man Who Planted Trees” written by Jim Robbins.
A larger than life figure, Milarch’s life changes forever after a near death experience in 1991. After abusing alcohol for several years, he tried quitting cold turkey. The result was almost fatal and Milarch’s kidneys and liver went into failure. At one point, he dies and has a vision. A lighted figure, tells him it’s not his time yet.
I don’t know where you stand on these kinds of near death experiences. Robbins is clearly a little confused by it. He spends almost a chapter trying to scientifically explain it. Reading Robbins book, I found myself wondering, “Why do we have to explain it?” Why do we need to scientifically explain everything in our world. Why can’t we allow ourselves to enjoy the mystery, the mystery of a near death experience that can’t be totally understood. Is it so terrible to think that David Milarch might actually have had an encounter with an angel?
After he shocks his wife and family by coming back to life, Milarch later has a second vision. This time Milarch is given a mission, to save the trees, but not just any trees. After his encounter Milarch sets out clone champion trees.
Wait, you might ask, “What are ‘champion trees’ and why are they important?”
Champion trees are the best living example of a particular species of tree. They’re old trees and big trees. A champion has the highest combined scores of three measurements, height, crown size and diameter at breast height. Robbins quotes Dr. Frank Gouin, a plant physiologist from the University of Maryland, “These trees are like people who have smoked all their lives and drank all their lives and are still kicking.”
Milarch likewise says of the champion trees:
(T)hese are the supertrees and they have stood the test of time. . .Until we started cloning the nation’s largest and oldest trees, they were allowed to tip over, and their genes to disappear. Is that good science? If you saw the last dinosaur egg, would you pick it up and save it for study or let it disappear. (The Man Who Planted Trees, Robbins)
To understand the value of champion trees it’s helpful to learn a little about the background. When loggers began cutting down the old growth forest in North America, what trees did they first cut down? They cut down the healthiest, straightest trees and tallest trees. In a kind of reverse Darwinism, they selected out the best trees. The result of widespread logging has been devastating. Redwoods which live to be thousands of years old were logged to near extinction and as a result less than five percent of these majestic trees remain.
Milarch explains this much better than me, so if you have the time I’d encourage you to watch this Ted Talk he gave at Jackson Hole.
As Milarch says in the above video clip, trees are only important if we want clean air and water. Unfortunately, largely as a result of ignorance, mankind has been shortsighted with respect to trees. Some of the things trees do for us are widely known. For example, they give us shade, but as Robbins tells us the shade offered by a well place tree can also reduce our demand for air conditioning and during the winter these same trees shelter homes from the cold resulting in lower winter heating bills.
Robbins discusses many of the things that trees do for us, including the following:
- Trees offset the carbon we release into the environment
- Trees are a source of medicine
- Trees can contribute to improved mental health
- Trees facilitate rainfall
- Trees produce aerosols which help protect the planet from the heat of the sun and which contribute to the health of the local ecosystem
- Trees help support neighboring plants and animals as part of a larger ecosystem.
- Trees, such as the willow, have systems which can filter pollutants from water much more efficiently than machines
Despite all of these aforementioned benefits, Robbins tells us again and again how little we know about trees. In many ways, the trees themselves are mysteries and one gets the sense from Robbins that we are only just beginning to understand them. The point which Robbins makes in spades is that trees are worth saving.
In trying to clone the champion trees, Milarch is operating on a hunch, but a sensible one. These champion trees are the best of their species. Is there a genetic reason why these trees are so special? If these trees are genetically special and unique, we would be foolhardy to let them die off, without saving them. In this particular case, saving them means cloning these champion trees. Milarch takes a cutting off of these champion trees and using some specialized techniques he grows a [sapling] and plants it. These cloned trees are identical in genetic makeup to the original tree. By planting these cloned trees in a few different places, Milarch tries to ensure that these unique trees are not lost to us.
Although, Milarch is not a scientist he has a number of tree experts who are supporting his efforts to clone champion trees. While Milarch’s backstory is more than a little unconventional, as Robbins reminds us, the scientific reasoning behind the cloning of these big trees makes sense.
Have you despaired at taking up a task which seemed to big, or even impossible for you?
In sharing the story of David Milarch, Robbins is offering the rest of us an important reminder. Milarch is just an ordinary guy. He’s an ordinary guy with an extraordinary story and who has undertaken a seemingly impossible task. We all have something to learn from David Milarch, and trees and the environment are only a small part of it. There are a lot of things in this world, that seem too big for us and which could drive a sane man to simply give up. We think, “This is a task for governments, politicians or billionaires.”
But instead agonizing at the impossibility of the task, or thinking that this is someone else’s responsibility, Milarch did something remarkable. He got up and did something about it.
It seems hopeless. . .The planet is warming and we here this bad news all the time. We decided to do something. With no money and no staff. Some of the experts told us it couldn’t be done. But we couldn’t just sit here and watch the ship go down. And we are doing it. And we hope it’s an example to other families. (Robbins, The Man Who Planted Trees)
The story of David Milarch reminds me how if a task is worth fighting for, you don’t give up, you don’t despair, you just keep fighting. You never let the small minded people and the haters get you down. You push and you just keep pushing, because this is something important.