Jim Robbins,
The Man Who Planted Trees
(Spiegel & Grau, 2012)

While I was reading The Man Who Planted Trees, the city cut down the healthy, 50-year-old ash tree in front of my window. The reason: it was too close to the street light. I had written a letter to the city in defense of trees, but it didn't do any good. At this point my respect for David Milarch went way up. We live in a society that isn't likely to value trees until we've cut them all down and realized, as the saying goes, that we can't eat money.

The Man Who Planted Trees is an eclectic mix of tree facts and the story of David Milarch of the Champion Tree Project. I found both to be interesting. One of the most arresting facts New York Times writer Jim Robbins presents is how much forest loss we've already experienced due to climate change. Millions of acres of pines have been destroyed by beetles whose active season has expanded from one month to six. Losing trees creates a positive feedback loop that increases warming, which increases forest loss, and so on. Somehow, that news has barely made a blip in the radar of the environmental movement. The unprofitability of studying trees means that we're facing a future in which we don't really know enough to predict what will happen to trees or how to mitigate damage.

That's where Milarch comes in -- an unlikely environmentalist who had a transfiguring near-death experience in which he was told to come back to Earth and save trees by cloning the biggest and the oldest. The reasoning is that these trees are survivors that might be able to preserve and pass on beneficial genes in a hostile future. Milarch is a charismatic character, and his faith in his own project and in grassroots efforts is pretty inspiring for anyone who has ever wondered if it's possible for one individual to make a difference.

Interspersed between Milarch's story are chapters (some read more like brief essays) covering a range of tree topics, from a concise scientific overview of what climate change is likely to hold for trees to the psychological benefits of trees, excursions from the Champion Tree Project and finally a bioplan, a call to action to all of us to plant trees in our own neighborhoods. Right now.

The Man Who Planted Trees achieves an unusual balance between the grim realities of climate change and optimism that hardworking individuals can still save what matters most. It's also one of the more approachable tree books I've come across (especially compared to The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, & Why They Matter), spanning many different disciplines without lingering too long in any one. The science is accessible and immediate, if a little perfunctory. In the end, it reaches the same conclusion that Jared Diamond did in Collapse, albeit from a very different direction: civilizations that destroy all their trees don't tend to make it. I hope we're wise enough to act on that conclusion.

Speaking for myself, I'm at least a little inspired. After the tree was cut down, I contacted the city arborist and am in the long, slow process of negotiating with my tree-unfriendly condo association to get a new one planted.

book review by
Jennifer Mo

6 April 2013

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