David Milarch: The Man Who Planted Trees
This story originally appeared in the April 16, 2012 edition of the Northern Express Weekly. It was published under my maiden name. All words are my own.
David Milarch sits at the desk, his feet propped up on an office chair, and leans back, lighting a cigarette.
“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 the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive (AATA) office — a tiny building located in the even tinier village of Copemish, Michigan— new age music streams from the office speakers. Pictures hang on the walls 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 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.
Released April 17, 2012, early reviews of the book have returned praise across the board, along with book signings, speaking engagements and a flurry of media interview requests from NPR, Reader’s Digest, The Associated Press, Forest Magazine, and Audubon Magazine, to name a few.
Before he was to leave for a conference in Silicon Valley last week, he called me up at the Express office.
“Jim Robbins wrote a book about me and I want you to have the first interview,” was the gist of what he said — not only because he and my parents go back several decades, but because, as he puts it, “It just felt right.”
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.
A VISITOR DURING THE NIGHT
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.”
A CALL TO ACTION
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…pages full of voices saying 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 million 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.
Before I leave with Bigelow to visit the collection of maturing willow, sequoia and pine — the offspring of their champion parents — Milarch asks me one more question.
“By the way, how old are you now?” he asks.
“Ironically,” I laugh, “28 on Tuesday… the same day the book is coming out.”
Milarch and Bigelow exchange looks. “Ha!” Milarch shouts, throwing his hands to his forehead and looking up.
“Okay, I get it.” he says, but the statement isn’t directed at anyone standing in the room.
“I get it.”