A Big Man with A Big Vision: Talking About David Milarch and the “The Man Who Planted Trees”

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.

9 thoughts on “A Big Man with A Big Vision: Talking About David Milarch and the “The Man Who Planted Trees”

  1. I’m tempted to say something like, “keep going David, great job.” However, I know the positive momentum is well underway. There are many people of “faith” who support this unique, and “on the fringe” type cause. I meet new individuals whenever I can, and I tell them about David, and the archangel ancient tree archive. Maybe the little things we do, when no one is watching, are more powerful than we realize. Maybe one person, or one tree, just might tip the balance towards the survival of humanity. Maybe there is still hope, just maybe.

    • Hey Todd:
      Thank you for the wonderful comment! One of the remarkable things about Archangel is that it’s, as you say, an “on the fringe” type cause, and yet when you tell people about what David and Jared is doing, it blows people away. They get it.

      I also think you have it pegged. We need to have that perspective about the “small things we do.” As a father, this is what I want to model for my girls and this is what I want to live out. It also makes me want to follow your example and tell people about Archangel and the Milarchs. Who knows as you say, maybe our small actions can tip the balance. It’s a wonderful and encouraging thought.

  2. Pingback: Archangel Ancient Tree Archive | Big Man with a Big Vision

  3. I am reminded of a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye call “Famous” in which “the river is famous to the fish…” and she wants to be remembered not because she did anything remarkable but for never forgetting what she could do.

    I haven’t done the poem justice but I think it’s important to do the things we can do and not hold up our successes against those of others who may be wealthier or getting more attention.

    I look forward to attending David’s talk at NMC later this month!

    • So true. Too easily we minimize ourselves and the impact we can have on the world around us. We should never forget who we are and what we can do.

      Using your comment as a jumping off point, maybe part of our problem is that we often use the wrong measure of success. Sometimes success can’t be measured in a metric. Instead, it’s how we change as human beings, and how our actions influence others in immeasurable and intangible ways. Life is often lived incrementally. We make small changes and small shifts in the way we live. Over time, these incremental changes can be meaningful. I think this is happening with David Milarch as well. Look at all the people he has influenced to think about their world and to think about trees differently. This is something you can’t measure, but it’s significant.

      Thanks for your comment! Wish I could be there to hear David’s talk.

  4. Darren,

    Here is the video produced by the Port Orford Community Stewardship Area of the 12-21-12 BEGINNING OF THE SUSTAINABLE WORLD event documenting Archangel Ancient Tree Archive planting the world’s 1st champion coast redwood and giant sequoia forest.on the southern Oregon coast – http://www.ruraldesigncollective.org/movies/sustainable/

  5. Pingback: The Antidote to Sean Parker (and the Destruction of Old Growth Forests) | Momentary Delight

  6. Pingback: Is Sean Parker Guilty, Innocent, or Misunderstood? What are the Lessons for Us? | Momentary Delight

  7. Pingback: Momentary Delight | The Call to Care (Moving Beyond Apathy and Finding My Heart)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s