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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.

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