Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

INTO THE WOODS: PART TWO

Why an eccentric band of tree lovers is cloning an ancient forest Add to ...

“God rays,” says one, pointing a finger.

“The light is so soft – and buttery,” says another.

“And with the mist” – an intake of breath – “amazing.”

“If you want to talk to the Creator, this would be a good spot,” someone whispers.

On a sunny California afternoon, fog rolls off the Pacific Ocean through a forest of old-growth coastal redwoods like dry ice wafting across a stage on cue. Massive, fluted columns rise into the sky, a natural Greek temple of wood in a setting so otherworldly that scenes from Return of the Jedi and Jurassic Park have been filmed here. A veil of white mist diffuses the light, rays of which pierce the damp, dim forest; long, pointy fingers from above.

A colourful cast of Shakespeare-esque characters from a play that could be called A Midsummer Day's Dream has gathered in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, 64 kilometres south of the Oregon boundary, to take in the iconic grandeur of some of the tallest, oldest living organisms on the planet.

There's David Milarch, a large man of 62 hard years, the unconventional Oberon of the group, white-haired and gristly, chain-smoking and cursing. A self-confessed “wild soul” with a youth spent in motorcycle gangs, he now has a grand vision to clone 100 of the world's oldest, most iconic trees, not just to preserve them for sentimental reasons, but with the hope that saving their genes will be useful in the face of climate change. “I'm doing this for the world's grandchildren,” says the co-founder of Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, a not-for-profit organization based in Michigan.

With Mr. Milarch is Meryl Marsh, global field director of Archangel and the Ariel of the band, sylph-like and ethereal, given to stretching out on any available surface, including a thick limb, 200 feet up, of a giant redwood, which she climbs to prune samples of new growth for cloning.

Over there, deep in the underbrush, moves Michael Taylor, a reclusive Puck character, happier in the forest than among people, who slides through the tangled terrain, nimble as a deer. World-renowned as a big-tree hunter, he has spent the better part of 25 years discovering, identifying and measuring ancient redwoods.

The man dressed in chinos and a collared, casual shirt is Richard King, a 55-year-old Texas oilman and prospective Archangel donor.

Are they intuitive saviours of the planet as it moves through climate change, ahead of science? Or evidence of the anti-reason, post-Enlightenment age in which we live, a merry tribe of enviro-nuts in the forest?

In any case, they're bringing attention to trees – a ubiquitous presence treated with the kind of lazy disregard the rich might show to loyal servants. Such a lack of appreciation is perilous, experts say. Not only are trees crucial ecosystem-filtering agents, forests provide numerous health benefits for humans, some of which are only now being scientifically proven. And there's “huge uncertainty” in the global forestry community about their ability to survive the predicted rapidity of climate change in their fragmented and degraded state.

Born of the trees

Sap runs in Mr. Milarch's blood. As a fourth-generation arborist and owner of a nursery in Copemish, Mich., he witnessed the demise of many tree species through insect infestations and logging, but it wasn't until he had total renal failure 17 years ago – a near-death experience that involved angels and a “tunnel of light,” he says – that he had a “moral awakening” about what he could do to save arboricultural as well as grow and sell “bulletproof” trees.

In 1996, with his two sons, Jared and Jake, he started the Champion Tree Project, a not-for-profit initiative that identified some of the oldest, largest and most historically significant trees in America and then cloned them for propagation. Among them were Methuselah, a bristlecone pine in eastern California scientifically proven to be the world's oldest tree at 4,842 years, and the Cousins Tree, a beech on Teddy Roosevelt's Sagamore Hill estate on Long Island, N.Y. A 46-centimetre clone of the Cousins Tree was planted with much media fanfare on the same spot as the original when it died after being struck by lightning in 2006. Mr. Milarch donated the clone, requesting nothing in return.

What was clear was that big money can grow on trees. Archangel often “gifts” clones of iconic trees to donors who aren't necessarily environmentally minded but who respond to their historic and spiritual significance. Three years ago, Mr. Milarch and Leslie Lee, a Michigan-based businesswoman and philanthropist, launched Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, and took the cloning of ancient trees global. In addition to cloning environmental hard workers known for skills such as carbon-sequestering and phyto-remediation (the ability to remove toxins from soil), the wish list includes the mythic kauri trees of New Zealand and the ancient cedars of Lebanon, widely mentioned in scripture.

Cloning the mighty redwoods

First on Archangel's to-clone list were ancient redwoods – now only native to California and Oregon but genetic ancestors of which once thrived in many parts of the world, fossil records show. Bigger, grander and more showy than other tree species, they inspire awe, something environmentalists have long leveraged. Mr. Milarch, a gentle but passionate man not prone to emotional sobriety, is quick to point out that only 5 per cent remains of the original old-growth redwood forest, and of that, only 10 per cent is protected. “If you had one-half of 1 per cent of your life savings left, wouldn't it be time to do something?” he asks.

But if there's heightened emotion in the green community, it reflects the worrisome uncertainty in the scientific one about how trees, which have been on the planet for millions of years, will cope with today's climate change. “What's alarming is not the amount of change that's predicted as much as the speed with which it's happening,” says Sally Aitken, a forest geneticist at the University of British Columbia who is not involved with Archangel.

Climate models show that for trees in North America to stay in their environmental comfort zone, to which they are currently adapted, they would have to migrate 700 kilometres over 70 years. But studies from the last ice age have estimated how fast trees can migrate. “They can only shift their range at about 100 metres a year” to survive the climate change under way, Dr. Aitken says. Redwoods, in particular, live in what scientists call a “narrow climatic niche.”

The concern has led to widespread discussion in policy and academic circles, leading many to support “assisted migration” – humans helping trees move. Some scientists warn that assisted migrations that are too extreme put other trees at risk.

Nonetheless, Mr. Milarch's vision is to reforest parts of the world with cloned ancient redwoods. (The species, grown from seed, has been planted with success in parts of the world, including Australia and New Zealand.) Most redwoods live 1,000 years, and only a few live 2,000 to 3,000 years, and that's why Archangel wants to use their clones for reforestation. Some scientists question whether it's the genetics of ancient trees or simply the superior environment in which they happen to grow that causes their longevity. But in an effort to be thorough and cautious, Archangel has cloned ancient coastal redwoods and giant sequoias (their cousins) across the full range of their habitats – from the coldest extreme to the hottest and driest.

“It's an interesting, though unproven, idea that trees that have gotten very big or very old have some very special qualities for lasting over long periods of time in substantial swings in climate,” says William J. Libby, a global expert on clonal forestry and professor emeritus at University of California, Berkeley, who acts as a consultant for Archangel. “You can't say that about any one tree, but if you gather 100 such trees, it's pretty likely that you have some trees that are better able to do that than just your average tree.”

In wanting to ensure the preservation of the species, Mr. Milarch points to the stellar environmental skills of redwoods and the fact that they grow quickly for their first 800 years, at which point they slow down. Large ones store huge amounts of carbon sucked from the air. The thick bark acts as a fire retardant, but even if they do burn down, the root system produces sprouts more quickly than most of the species that grow in the same habitat. Those attributes would come in handy in an increasingly carbon-emission-rich, hotter, dryer climate. And since they are a gentle species, not bullies quick to muscle out other kinds of trees in a competitive environment, they could use a little human help, some experts say.

Despite the unknowns, many scientists agree with Dr. Aitken, who calls Archangel's archiving of the genetics of ancient redwoods a “very useful tool.” The uncertainty around climate change makes the preservation of genetic diversity “an insurance policy” against a range of climate conditions, she says, and an invaluable source of study for scientists.

The magic of the forest

In Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, when the characters enter the forest, they fall under a magical enchantment. Lo and behold, it happens still.

“I feel happy and relaxed in here,” Mr. King says as he looks around the forest, as if it's a ballroom filled with unexpected friends. After reading about Archangel's mission to clone giant redwoods in The New York Times, he called to see about buying some for a ranch he owns in Wyoming. He thought their scale would suit the mountain vista. A single, cloned ancient redwood runs from $500,000 to $1-million (U.S.).

“This is how you're supposed to feel,” Mr. Milarch remarks from his perch, resting against a fallen tree.

And no, it's not the work of fairies. Scientists now know that forests help humans in many ways, the most basic being they offer a mega-dose of oxygen. In addition, scientific studies have shown that airborne chemicals from plants help to lower stress-hormone levels as well as pulse rate and blood pressure. Some studies on “forest medicine” have also shown that volatile complex compounds increase anti-cancer proteins in humans.

Mr. Taylor, who discovered the world's most voluminous redwood, the Lost Monarch, in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in 1998, as well as countless others, long ago realized that the ancient forest was “my therapy,” the only place he could feel calm. A wiry, skittish man of 44, he works as a bounty hunter for Archangel, defying wild animals and drug cartels growing marijuana deep in the woods to identify giant redwoods on private property, as national parks and timber companies will not allow them to clone giants on their land.

Not feeling moved by the overwhelming majesty of ancient redwoods would be like turning up your nose at an audience with the Pope. A sculptural work of art; a giant wall of soft, twisted bark with painterly accents of moss, lichen and the gossamer netting of cobwebs, the ancient tree defies description.

“The bark's like the swish of a woman's gown,” Mr. King muses as the group “fern-swims” with Mr. Taylor to view the Terex Giant, a redwood measuring 23 feet in diameter.

A quiet, protective cocoon from the outside world, the ancient forest works its magic on the senses, the heart and the mind. “You're in a time warp,” Mr. Milarch preaches in a misty, reverential voice. “You're standing beside something that started its life before Christ was born.” Antediluvian and mysterious, the forest seems impervious to something as logical and controlled as scientific investigation, which in turn makes it even more unfathomably beautiful, a metaphor for life itself.

Archangel knows the treasure it has stored, even though it is still unproven that a forest of trees from the clones of ancient coastal redwoods and giant sequoias would flourish in a competitive environment. The group has yet to plant any of them, hundreds of samples of which are now being nurtured in several propagation facilities. “We don't tell anyone where those are,” Mr. Milarch breathes, between puffs of his Marlboro. He offers a worried look beneath the cap. “That's a secret.” He wags a gnarly finger. “People might come after them.”



Sarah Hampson is a reporter and columnist for The Globe and Mail.

Single page

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories