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

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.

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