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Things with Feathers: Sometimes hope is green

Tree cutting

Tree cutting (credit: Gary Howe, from Scientific American article)

I have just one topic to cover this month, because it is a big one – well, it is about big things, some of the biggest living things there are.

The Archangel Ancient Tree Archive has a mission to clone trees and plant them, to help restore forests with these cloned trees, and to maintain a genetic archive. The trees they are making the clones from are what they consider “champion trees,” being among the largest, and sometimes oldest, members of their species.

The man who started this project, David Milarch, grew up as the son of a nurseryman, and became one himself as an adult. His focus on cloning the big, old trees, however, came after a near-death experience in which he was told he had to come back, because he had work to do – and another, later visitation by beings who told him that this, cloning the champion trees, was what he had to do.

Many plants can be propagated – cloned – by taking cuttings. Many houseplants can be grown this way, a stem cut and placed in a glass of water, to develop new roots and become an entirely new plant that is a genetic clone of the original. Many trees can be cloned, too. Some plants need the cut end of the stem dipped in something that stimulates root growth, as water alone, or damp growth media won’t be quite enough (if you are DIYing, try adding a freshly cut willow branch to the water – willows are readily clonable with cuttings, and they produce root growth hormones that stimulate other plants, too).

However, while many biologists believed that cloning these trees was a good idea for genetic reasons, they also felt the big OLD trees were so difficult to clone it wasn’t practical: while they may still flower and produce fruit, old trees are very difficult to clone through cuttings.

Milarch set out to try anyway, because the power of the vision/encounter he had was so profound (he came out of the “visit” with 10 pages of hand-written notes and a powerful sense that this was the right thing to do) and over the years he and collaborators have had enough success to keep going, with 1,000s of saplings resulting.

Some of the logic is this: the really old trees are survivors. They have lived through hundreds, even thousands, of years on this planet. They did not succumb to insects, virus or fungal infection, or any previous climate fluctuation. And in the past 200 years, we have cut down absolutely MASSIVE numbers of old growth trees, reducing genetics that had survived for centuries, and had been contributing to the regrowth of the forests around them.

There is a very great deal we do not understand about trees or forests, and if these last old growth trees died, we would lose the ability to learn from their genetics – as well as their ability to keep contributing to the genetic pool. So in addition to making clones to help rebuild forests, by adding more sources of these genes back in, the project also functions as a living archive of genetic material.

I have lost track of what got me pointed toward this work originally, but at any rate, Jim Robbins, who writes for the New York Times, wrote an article on Milarch’s work in 2001, and then later found out the unusual back story motivating him. This later led to a book, The Man Who Planted Trees (Amazon link).

There’s a little Q&A with Robbins at the Amazon page, which includes this:

Q Why are trees important?
Milarch has often said that trees are more important than we know. And as I talked to scientists and read papers they confirmed that notion: we have underestimated the trees, vastly. They are a kind of eco-technology that sustains our lives here on the planet and that humans can’t duplicate. There is a whole range of ecosystem services provided by trees and forests that many people don’t know about. They filter our water and can clean up the nastiest kinds of toxic wastes. They soak up greenhouse gasses to mitigate climate change, protect us from harsh UV rays, and are a heat shield and natural air-conditioner for cities and suburbs. David Milarch talks about them as the filters of the planet. As we all know, when you take the filter out of your aquarium, the fish die.

I picked up the book recently, and it was really a remarkable read. There is a lot of really fascinating information in there about trees and forests – and a LOT of really incredible mystical goings-on and lucky meetings and synchronicities as well, not just with Milarch, but a number of people he has met and worked with on this work.

One of the things that struck me most were the sections talking about the chemicals trees (and other plants) emit into the air, and what the many impacts of those are, which includes the above-mentioned UV-protection. The tiny tiny particles of these vapors are sufficient to help block sunlight. The other impacts this mix of chemicals has on the rest of the ecosystem is little understood – but keeping in mind for how long we and everything else evolved in a rich mix of plant-emitted vapors, and how much of that has been changed so quickly, and it is a little frightening.

A lot of work in this field has been done by a botanist named Diana Beresford-Kroeger, who believes the role of the chemicals emitted by trees is overlooked and poorly understood. One of her books came to the attention of David Milarch’s wife, Kerry, who then passed it to him; they later met and she joined his project. One of Beresford-Kroeger’s beliefs is that the clouds of aerosols emitted by forests help to disinfect the air, in addition to passing on protective benefits to wildlife that come into contact with them. We know a small amount about how plants communicate to each other via airborne chemicals, but almost nothing about the impacts on us of these chemicals.

The impact trees have on water quality, and the creatures living in the water, is also important. Their importance for shading water, and filtering it through taking it up from theirs roots, is relatively well-known, but what trees put into the water can also be very important. From the book:

. . . Experiments have proven that [phytoplankton’s] numbers are greatly enhanced when iron is added to the ocean.

The importance of iron led one path-breaking scientist to make a unique connection. The Erimo Peninsula on the north coast of Japan saw its forests clear-cut and its hills turned into pasture long ago. The change drove off the schools of fish that once teemed there, and caused a decline in oyster populations. Katsuhiko Matsunaga, a Japanese marine chemist, spent years studying the relationships between forests and oceans. His key finding is that even where iron is abundant in parts of the ocean, it is oxygenated, which means it is not readily available for the tiny creatures. What can make iron available to phytoplankton to perform photosynthesis, however, is fulvic acid, one of several humic acids that comes from the decay of leaves and other organic matter. The ongoing, natural decomposition of centuries of tree leaves and other material on the forest floor, and the leaking, leaching, and washing of this chemical stew into the ocean, is vital to increasing coastal phytoplankton, and thus the things that eat them, and those that eat them, from oysters all the way to whales.

And forest restoration projects in this and other areas of Japan did lead to significant restoration of fish populations (here is a scientific paper about some of that work).

There are many great examples throughout the book about how trees can and are being used to help clean up waste and restore ecosystems, but what I found most incredible were the tree-saving stories. Among the more emotionally powerful things I read about, here are two.

In the old growth forests in California and Oregon, there are some massive stumps. The biggest trees white settlers found were highly targeted for lumber. Or to cut and take around and show people as a novelty. Some of those stumps were once extraordinarily large redwoods. Many trees, including redwoods, will clone themselves by sending up “suckers” from their bases. While the cut trees will never regain their previous size or strength, these stumps are not actually dead. Collaborating with a man who is really into finding big trees, some of the Archangel crew went to the Fieldbrook Stump, the remains of the oldest coastal redwood ever known, took cuttings, and were able to successfully clone it, along with several other redwoods – trees that were cut down in the 1890s, with diameters of 30 feet or more.

Sequoias are another species under threat; there are only about 10,000 trees, in not very many places. Sequoias like to be in moist conditions. Increasing drought, like we are likely to see more of due to global warming, is a threat to their species. In this book and in other places, I’ve read about about the debate about what to do about (and for) them in the future: Water them? Start planting them other places? Or leave them alone to adapt or die, because we may have to make tough choices like that?

There is a subdivision in California that was once a logging operation; it started in the 1940s, and the family cut pine, fir, and cedar. However, they never touched a sequoia on those 670 acres. (When Robbins asked the son of the original owner why, “he just smiled and said he didn’t know.”)

The Rouch family still owns over five hundred acres of the land, though, including a man-made lake that Sonny built himself and what David Milarch referred to as the Lost Grove of sequoias, which is right where it shouldn’t be, not below the tree line but at the very top of the mountain. . .

This grove is critical to the Ancient Tree Archive mission. “Sequoias like moist feet,” says Milarch, “but these trees are high and dry. They have adapted to dry conditions without much moisture and at the southern end of their range.” In other words, they could be a critical genotype for life on a hotter and drier planet.

So they took cuttings here, and from the Waterfall Tree, the 3,000 year old largest-diameter single-stem tree in the world and fifth-largest (by volume) sequoia, and after three months of careful work and prayer, got some of their clones to sprout.

The original old growth forests are effectively gone from many parts of the world; in the United States, they have been reduced to about 2% of their original size. But we can stop cutting them – and their family lines can keep going.

Milarch’s work started in the United States, but now collections of big tree genetics are occurring in Ireland (which has also seen massive destruction of its old growth forest), and there are plans to collect genetics from big old trees in many other places as well.

This effort is, to me, one of the most incredible examples of hope I have come across. It is a huge undertaking, with a lot of uncertainty involved (cloning success for the old trees is about 4%), and the results will not be truly understood for many, many decades, if not centuries. In the meantime, it is encouraging a deepening understanding of our biosphere and the intricacies of the ecosystems we live in, preserving life that could otherwise have been lost, and helping to provide for a better future for those who come after us.

(Want more? Here’s an article that is largely an interview with Milarch.)


  1. Thank you for sharing this!

    I’ve been rather down in the doom-and-gloom stuff over our degrading environment lately, but this does give me some hope.

    There are giant trees from my childhood that are long gone, that I still mourn…

    Liked by 3 people

  2. the aerosol emissions are certainly interesting. Aerosols emitted from the forest is how the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia got their name.

    I still think there is hope – even away from old growth areas, their seeds have contributed to secondary growth forests, and likely preserve many of their genes.

    I think it would be a growth thing here in the Pacific Northwest to find some beetle-resistant lodgepole and clone them. Otherwise our pine forests are going to become fir forests in a generation. I have noticed that I have a lot of fir saplings growing in open spaces, but very few pines. While I do take comfort that the forest will evolve, (from pine-dominant to fir dominant), losing an entire species would suck!


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