A Story of Lost Groves, the Science of Trees, and a Plan to Save the Planet
By Jim Robbins
The cast of characters reads like a science fantasy novel: Methuselah, Twin Stem, Old Blue, Gramma, Stagg and Waterfall. But these names aren’t the names of hobbits and elves; they’re behemoth trees — Champion Trees.
The Man Who Planted Trees chronicles the adventures of a veritable Noah of the tree world, David Milarch, a Michigan nurseryman who, following a near-death experience, began a quest to locate and save genetic material from some of the oldest and healthiest specimens of trees. Thus the Champion Tree Project was born, with a goal of cloning the Champion of each of 826 species of trees in the United States in order to save our forests and ecosystem — as well as being a hopeful lesson about how each of us has the ability to make a difference.
Sequoia sempervirens at Prarie Creek Redwoods State Park, Hoopla, California
Author Jim Robbins experienced the devastation of dead and dying trees and its effect on his own Montana environment. Robbins, writing of his own awakening, realized “that North America’s cordillera, the mountains that extend from Alaska to northern New Mexico, and that include my patch of forest, were ground zero for the largest die-off of forests in recorded history.” While Robbins’s tone is urgent, it doesn’t compromise his crystal-clear science. His descriptions highlight the interdependence of trees not only with their immediate surroundings — the rhizosphere, “the vast complex root system and the soil and the microorganisms affecting, and affected by, the roots” — but also with the planet as a whole, explaining the vital work performed by trees in cleaning pollutants from the air and absorbing some of the extra carbon that’s throwing off our climate’s balance, causing global warming. And he describes how trees serve as guardians of our fresh water systems.
Robbins’s approach is a solid counterweight to Milarch’s unique, and equally crystal clear, spiritual vision. He followed Milarch from one giant tree to another: sequoias on the coast of California, white oaks in Maryland, bristlecone pines in Colorado, a rare forest of dawn redwoods in China, stinking cedars in Florida and ancient yews in Europe. The sheer size of these trees brought awe; coupled with extensive research and interviews with leading environmental scientists, Robbins soon came to appreciate Milarch’s view. Because trees create oxygen, filter water and also can cleanse the atmosphere of large amounts of pollutants, the planting of trees “may be the single most important ecotechnology that we have to put the broken pieces of our planet back together.”
“When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago. The second best time? Today.”
The Man Who Planted Trees: A Story of Lost Groves, the Science of Trees, and a Plan to Save the Planet, Jim Robbins, Random House, 2015, 256 pages, $17.99, ISBN-13: 978-0812981292 paperback