Mr Milarch's project involves attempts to clone only "the world's oldest largest trees
The Man Who Plants Trees
Edgar Vaid reviews the biography of a man who, after a supernatural experience, takes it upon himself to clone species of tree that he deems 'special'; trees that he believes may be crusaders in the fight against global warming ...
If the title sounds familiar, it's meant to, echoing as it does Jean Giono's classic 1954 novella The Man Who Planted Trees. In reviewing (for Ecos magazine) its new illustrated edition of 1989, I described Elzeard Bouffier as a "of a man of indomitable goodness, a kind of silvicultural messiah figure".
Although he was a fictional Provencal shepherd, and the central character of this story is a real Michigan nurseryman - David Milarch - in their different ways they are equally inspiring, one for the last century and one for this.
Delving into Jim Robbins' book it quickly becomes apparent that he could more accurately have named it The Man Who Clones Trees. However, apart from losing the ‘Bouffier connection', why doesn't that feel suitable presentationally? Well, not only does ‘cloning' emit the distinct clinical whiff of a laboratory, but for some of us it will inevitably have a pejorative ring.
Aside from such semantic issues though, why aim to clone trees? We all know that tree planting is of itself ‘a good thing' and, incidentally, isn't clonal variation in plant species beneficial in the context of greater long-term disease resistance?
Yes, but Mr Milarch's project involves attempts to clone only "the world's oldest largest trees - from California's redwoods to the oaks of Ireland - to protect their genetics". His activities are supported by the discomforting realisation that globally, most of our forests comprise trees which are, in relative terms, ‘genetic runts', as over several millennia humans have selected for cutting down the biggest, tallest, and straightest trees.
"Genetically our forests are a shadow of what they once were, and may not be strong enough to survive on a rapidly warming planet." Hence the work is founded on the logic of what a conventional western mind-set might term 'hard science'.
However, this being Michigan rather than Milton Keynes, the Champion Tree Project originated with angelic blessings - literally. In the small hours of a 1992 winter's night David Milarch was visited by "light beings" who, instead of abducting him for some fiendish alien experiments, (plus subsequent option on Hollywood film rights to his story), and because of their concerns for our planet's survival, instead dictated to him the tree cloning assignment.
This he found on waking, in the form of a ten-page outline in his own handwriting - but obviously not originating from his own mind as it was free of spelling mistakes. Although we may assume that the pad plus pen had been purchased at the local down-town shopping mall, and weren't of extra-terrestrial origin, that's how the Project was born. Thereafter he was steered psychically by "a range of sources, from archangels to spirit guides".
From a utilitarian viewpoint does it matter that the origins of his sudden conversion to benign environmental activism were quasi-celestial or paranormal? Probably not and, interestingly, Jim Robbins could find no "scientist who says that protecting the genetics of the world's biggest trees ... is not a good idea".
Indeed, although the book acknowledges the apparently other-worldly spark which initiated the Project, its emphasis is on science rather than superstition, whilst being enriched by intriguing diversions into where the two may intersect.
Thus, when attempting to clone sequoias, the cuttings are cosseted on propagation flats, in a temperature, light, and humidity controlled greenhouse, with a timed mist spray and sophisticated equipment allowing the adjustment of hormone ratios to the nearest part per million.
But what happens if all this impressive horticultural technology is insufficient to the task? Well, to encourage matters along, a "men's Bible study group gathers and prays for the plants to grow new roots" in a ritual perhaps influenced by the proximity of America's aptly named Bible Belt.
However, in the 'religion meets science' context, the chapter about mysteries and free-thinkers is more revelatory on several fronts. It explores, for example, how arboricultural fields of intelligence - called laks by Buddhists, referred to devas in Sanskrit, and known to ancient Greeks as dryads - have their contemporary echoes in Rupert Sheldrake's theory of morphic field resonance.
The notion that 'bioantennae' act as information senders and receptors for the field may have seemed fantastical to the editor of Nature magazine 20 years ago, but at least some of the counter-intuitive ideas have the support of tantalising empirical evidence.
Thus, thinking about extra-terrestrials again, (bear with me on this one), a staple element of mid-twentieth century science-fiction stories was, (pardoning the necessary caricature), a super-advanced iridescent green being with hostile intent, hailing from the planet Zog, and wielding a ray gun emitting deadly galactic cosmic rays to zap puny Earthlings.
Now then, (still bearing with me), isn't part of dendrochronology's traditionally received wisdom that more widely spaced tree rings are indicative of good growing years? Well yes, but ask why trees grew fastest in those years, and we find some research claiming it wasn't because of "precipitation or temperature, as one might expect, but ... in the years when the most galactic cosmic rays were bombarding the Earth", suggesting that rather than being inimical to life, they encourage it.
How different trees impinge on human life are explored in absorbing chapters devoted to individual species, interspersed with the story of David Milarch's travels and travails. We may take a sneaky national pride in the knowledge that our most venerable English oaks are up to 600 years old or, perhaps at the more poetic margins of topography, when described as "sapling witnesses to the clash of armies at Bosworth Field in 1485".
However, the bristlecone pines of eastern Nevada might be heard bristling with righteous indignation, as they routinely reach 4,000 years of age.
Willows may not live so long, but in 1763 when Edward Stone discovered that powdered willow bark was "very efficacious in curing agues" he was definitely on to something - confirmed in 1899 when scientists derived acetylsalicylic acid from the bark - which was then marketed as aspirin. However, the alleviation of maladies need not necessarily arrive via laboratory-synthesised substances.
In Japan, for example, the health benefits of shinrun-yoku ('forest bathing' or 'wood-air bathing') are widely accepted, although not as a mini-dollop of Shinto mysticism. Tree 'chemical aerosols' such as pinene relieve asthma and lower blood pressure, whilst limonene has even been shown to possess anti-cancer properties.
But just as trees make an invaluable, if invisible, contribution to healthcare, so have they also played a decisive role in warfare. At Agincourt in 1415 the famous English victory over the French was achieved principally, historians tell us (with inadvertent irony), by Welsh archers using bows made from Spanish yew.
Other historical nuggets include the observation that Ireland, once covered by trees, is now Europe's least forested nation. Why? Well, the environmental damage started quite early when sixth century catholic missionaries "forbade tree worship and urged the faithful to burn up and chop down the sacrilegious trees to their very roots."
It may constitute a quiet acknowledgement of pagan resistance to such bullying that Ireland retained over two-thirds of its forest cover until the early 16th century.
But then along from England came the Tudors. Asked to suggest the most heinous deeds of that dynasty, we might nominate the dissolution of the monasteries, or perhaps the martyring of religious heretics, or - maybe worst of all - the attempt (in 1540) to ban football.
But it was the Tudors initiation of the great Irish deforestation which ranks as one of history's low points in environmental vandalism: "they started to mine the vast oak woods, caring nothing for proper forestry."
The 16th century loggers were without any conception of forests' benevolent role in climate regulation, but in the 21st century we may not lay claim to such ignorance as any kind of defence. However, that hasn't prevented the loss of so much forest in British Columbia, for example, that in 2008 the province began to emit more carbon than it sequestered, ie it changed from being a carbon sink to a carbon source.
Such ominously sobering facts lead on to a final clarion call of a chapter "A Bioplan", in which Jim Robbins lucidly summarises the importance and value of trees to planet Earth and all humanity. Emphasising that "restoration forestry should be at the top of the environmental agenda in urban and suburban areas", he quotes the Chinese proverb about the best time to plant a tree being twenty years ago.
In England, at least, this has been fulfilled by the former Countryside Commission, which in the 1990s established the National Forest and a network of community forests, to demonstrate the potential contribution of environmental improvement to economic and social regeneration. Amongst the 10,000 hectares planted already, some saplings may eventually grow to become champion trees, of which David Milarch and hissupportive light beings would certainly approve.
Edgar Vaid is a freelance book and film reviewer. For more than 30 years he worked for Natural England, becoming involved in policies including traditional field boundaries, organic farming, and public rights of way. However, he became witness to a series of increasingly over-sophisticated corporate programmes, and endured some mind-numbing team meetings. Partly as a more productive and satisfying diversion, he took to writing reviews (rather than drink). Edgar lives in the Forest of Dean, and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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