The original book titled The Man Who Planted Trees is aslim volume, just four thousand words; in fact, it was first published as astory in Vogue magazine in 1954. Written as a fable by a Frenchman named JeanGiono, the story has tapped a deep well in the human imagination, and since itspublication in book form, it has sold close to half a million copies. Speakingin the first person, its unnamed narrator describes hiking through the FrenchAlps in 1910, enjoying the wilderness. As he passes through a desolate, parchedmountain valley where crumbling buildings testify to a vanished settlement, hecomes across a middle-aged shepherd taking his flock out to pasture. Theshepherd has one hundred acorns with him, and he plants them as he cares forhis sheep. It turns out that the shepherd has planted more than a hundredthousand trees on this barren, wind-ravaged landscape.
Six years later, after surviving the front lines of WorldWar I, the narrator returns to the shepherd’s hut. He is surprised to see smalltrees “spread out as far as the eye could reach. Creation seemed to have comeabout in a sort of chain reaction. . . . I saw water flowing in brooks that hadbeen dry since the memory of man. . . . The wind, too, scattered seeds. As thewater reappeared so too there reappeared willows, rushes, meadows, gardens,flowers and a certain purpose in being alive.”
As the years go by, the trees grow taller and the forestin the valley grows thicker, and a dying ecosystem is transformed into athriving one. When the narrator returns for a third time, toward the end of thestory, more than ten thousand people are living in the flourishing valley.
Everything was changed. Even the air. Instead of theharsh dry winds that used to attack me, a gentle breeze was blowing, laden withscents. A sound like water came from the mountains: it was the wind in theforest. Most amazing of all, I saw that a fountain had been built, that itflowed freely and—what touched me most—that someone had planted a linden besideit, a linden that must have been four years old, already in full leaf, theincontestable symbol of resurrection.
Some experts say The Man Who Planted Trees is wishfulthinking, that reforestation cannot effect the kind of transformation imaginedin the book, bringing a barren landscape back to life and bringing harmony tothe people who live there. Planting trees, I myself thought for a long time,was a feel-good thing, a nice but feeble response to our litany of modern-dayenvironmental problems. In the last few years, though, as I have read manydozens of articles and books and interviewed scientists here and abroad, mythinking on the issue has changed. Planting trees may be the single mostimportant ecotechnology that we have to put the broken pieces of our planetback together.
Take the growing number of emerging infectious diseases.Their connection to the natural world is one of the most revelatory things Idiscovered about how little we understand the role of forests. I learned thatthere is a surprising single cause that connects a range of viral diseasesincluding hantavirus, HIV, Ebola, SARS, swine flu, and West Nile virus withbacterial diseases including malaria and Lyme disease. Rather than just being ahealth issue, these deadly diseases are, at root, an ecological problem.
To put it in a nutshell, the teams of scientistsresearching the origins of disease say that pathogens don’t just mysteriouslyappear and find their way into human populations; they are the direct result ofthe damage people have done, and continue to do, to the natural world, and theyare preventable. “Any emerging disease in the last thirty or forty years hascome about as a result of encroachment into forest,” says Dr. Peter Daszak,director of EcoHealth Alliance, a New York–based international NGO that ispioneering the field of conservation medicine. “Three hundred and thirty newdiseases have emerged since 1940, and it’s a big problem.” Most of thesediseases are zoonotic, which means they originate in wildlife, whether in batsor deer or ticks, which then infect people who live near the forest. It’sbelieved, for example, that the human immunodeficiency (HIV) virus crossed thespecies barrier from monkeys to humans when a bushmeat hunter killed achimpanzee, caught the virus from the animal, and brought the disease out ofthe jungle and into the world of humans. Fragmenting forests by buildingsubdivisons in the oak forests of Long Island or logging in the mahoghanyforests of Brazil degrades the ecosystems and exacerbates disease transmissionto humans.
So this book is not just about planting trees. It isabout the state and the likely fate of the world’s forests as the planetjourneys into a possibly disastrous century of soaring temperatures. Preciselywhat such rapid warming is doing, and will do, to the forests is unknown, butmore virulent pests and diseases, drought, climate extremes, high winds, and anincrease in solar radiation will likely take a steep toll on the forests.
We are beyond known limits,and traveling farther beyond them every day.
What will happen to the trees and forests? There is noformal predictive model because trees and forests have been poorly studied;there are no long-term data, and the world’s forests are extremely varied andcomplicated. Despite the lack of data, it doesn’t take an ecologist to imaginewhat could happen. Apparently, though, it takes a journey into another realm tocome up with an idea about what might be done to save our oldest trees in theevent the changes become catastrophic.
My journey into the world of trees started in 2001, whenI read an article about an organization called the Champion Tree Project. Atthe time, the group’s goal was to clone the champion of each of the 826 speciesof trees in the United States, make hundreds or thousands of copies, and plantthe offspring in “living archival libraries” around the country to preserve thetrees’ DNA. A “champion” is a tree that has the highest combined score of threemeasurements: height, crown size, and diameter at breast height. The project’scofounder, David Milarch, a shade tree nurseryman from Copemish, Michigan, avillage near Traverse City, said he eventually hoped to both sell and give awaythe baby trees cloned from the giants. “Clones,” in this case, arehuman-assisted copies of trees made by taking cuttings of a tree and growingthem—an old and widely used horticultural technique for growing plants. Unlikea seedling, which may have only 50 percent of the genetics of its parent, aclone of a tree is a 100 percent genetic duplicate of its parent.
I have always been drawn to big old trees, and the ideaof making new trees with the genes of champions was compelling. I proposed astory to The New York Times science section about the idea, got the assignment,and drove to Big Timber, Montana, not far from my home, to visit MartinFlanagan, a lanky working cowboy and tree lover who helped gather materials forMilarch’s Champion Tree Project in the West. On a bluebird day in May, Flanagandrove me down along the Yellowstone River, bank-full and the color of chocolatemilk, as the spring sun melted snow in the mountains. He showed me severallarge trees, including a towering narrow-leaf cottonwood. “This is the one Iplan to nominate for state champ,” he said excitedly, spanking the tree withhis hand. “It’s a beauty, isn’t it?”
There wasn’t much to the Champion Tree organization, Ifound out. It was mostly a good idea with a tiny budget, with Milarch andoccasionally one of his teenage sons working out of his home in Michigan;Flanagan working part time in Montana, driving around in a beat-up pickup truckgathering cuttings; and Terry Mock, from Palm Beach, Florida, who was thedirector.
Over the next week I interviewed Milarch several times byphone, and he talked to me about the need to clone champion trees. “Thegenetics of the biggest trees is disappearing. Someone’s got to clone them andkeep a record. No one knows what they mean. Let’s protect them so they can bestudied in case they are important. A tree that lives a thousand years mightknow something about survival.” I also interviewed several scientists whoagreed that researchers don’t know the role that genetics plays in thelongevity and survivability of trees; it simply hasn’t been assessed.Environmental conditions, including soil and moisture, are obviously criticalas well. Two identical clones planted twenty feet apart might grow fardifferently. Almost all of them said, however, that in the absence of study,it’s Botany 101 that genetics is a critical part of what’s essential to along-lived tree. If you want to plant a tree and walk away and have it live, itmakes sense to plant a tree that is the genetically fittest you can find. Thebig old-timers have proven their genetic mettle; they are survivors. Or asGeneral George Cates, former chairman of the National Tree Trust, put it to me,“You can bet Wilt Chamberlain’s parents weren’t five foot one and five foottwo.”
Dr. Frank Gouin, a plant physiologist and the retiredchairman of the horticulture department at the University of Mary-
land, is a friend of the project and spoke to me insupport of the notion of cloning. He had cloned a big tree himself, thelegendary 460-year-old Wye Oak on Maryland’s eastern shore. “These trees arelike people who have smoked all their lives and drank all their lives and arestill kicking,” Gouin said. “Let’s study them.” And the way to perpetuate andstudy them, he said, is just the way Champion Tree proposes.
My story about Champion Tree ran on the front of theScience Times section on July 10, 2001, with several color photographs ofvarious champions, and over the next few days other media picked up the story.After a flurry of interviews, including eleven minutes on the Today show,Milarch, flabbergasted at the reach of the Times, called me. “It put us on themap, big time,” he said. “I can’t thank you enough.” He said he wanted to cometo Montana to meet me and give me a gift of a champion green ash tree as athank-you. Though I loved the idea of a champion of my own, professional ethicsprevented me from accepting the gift. “Let’s plant one on the Montana capitolgrounds instead,” he suggested.
Fine, I said, a gift to thestate.
With the attacks of 9/11, the tree planting wouldn’t comeuntil the following year. On a warm, sunny June day, David Milarch came to myoffice in downtown Helena and introduced himself with a big hand. He is ajovial bear of a man, six foot three with broad shoulders and big arms. Helooks like a lumberjack and was dressed like a farmer, in a short-sleevedsnap-button shirt, jeans, and a plastic foam farm cap that said OLYMPICS 2002,and he carried a hard-shelled briefcase. There is a bit of Viking in him, notonly in his outgoing personality and swagger but in his ruddy complexion,though the hair that is left is white. A small strip of wispy white bearddidn’t cover his ample chin. A belly spilled over his belt.
Milarch has the charm gene, and I liked him right away. Aborn storyteller, he laughs loudly and frequently, and he has a flair for thedramatic and a fondness for announcing things rather than just saying them. Heis an expert in the use of compliments, but pours it on a little too thick sometimes.As we talked he flipped open his briefcase and pulled out a crumpled pack ofMarlboro Lights, put one in his mouth, and, in a practiced move, lit acigarette with one hand by leaving the match attached to the book, folding itover, and lighting it with his thumb.
Over lunch, I expected a chat about the science of bigtree genetics. I was wrong. As we sat down at a local restaurant, Milarch begana story. In 1991, he told me, he died and went to heaven. Literally. A seriousdrinker, he had quit cold turkey. The sudden withdrawal of alcohol causedkidney and liver failure, and a friend had to carry him to the emergency room,where a doctor managed to stabilize him. The next night, his wife and hismother beside him, he felt himself rise. Not his body, he said, but hisawareness—he could look down from the top of the room and see himself lyingthere. It was a full-blown near-death experience, a phenomenon also known asdisambiguation, something, at the time, I’d never heard of. His consciousness,he said, left the room and soon passed through brilliant white light—“It waslike a goddamn blowtorch!” he told me. On the “other side” he was told itwasn’t his time, that he still had work to do on earth, and he needed to goback. When his awareness returned to his body, he sat up in bed, shocking hiswife and mother, who thought he was dead.
The experience changed him—afterward he felt more aliveand more present—and he understood, for the first time, he said, the importanceof unconditional love. He appreciated his children and family more, and had adeeper connection to music and art. He felt more intuitive and more spiritual,even more electric, so charged that he couldn’t wear a wristwatch or use acomputer—they were affected by his body’s electrical properties, which had beenenhanced somehow. He wasn’t perfect; there was still some of the old Davidthere. But it existed along with this new part of him.
Months later, still adjusting to this new life, he wasvisited in the early morning hours by light beings, who roused him. The bigtrees were dying, they told him, it was going to get much worse, and they hadan assignment for him.
In the morning he told his kids that the family had amission—to begin a project to clone the champion of every tree species in thecountry and plant them far and wide. They were a farm family in the middle ofwhat many call nowhere, a world away from environmental groups and fund-raisingand politics and science. But the Milarchs were hopeful, naïvely so, and unawareof the obstacles that confronted them.
Lunch came and I was quietly incredulous. Was I reallyhearing this? I thought he was joking or spinning a yarn, but he said it allwith a straight face. It was, to say the least, the most unusual origin of a sciencestory I’d ever heard. I’d had no inkling of any of it during phone interviews.It didn’t diminish the science, as far as I was concerned, because all thescientists I’d interviewed for the story said cloning trees to save genetics isa scientifically sound idea. Where people sourced their inspiration didn’tmatter if the science passed the test. Still, it was curious. And thischain-smoking tree farmer who liberally deployed the F-bomb didn’t fit the moldof the typical New Ager.