I am especially fond of the literary genre called “nature writing.” Authors like Henry David Thoreau, Mary Austin, Edward Abbey, Ellen Meloy, and many others give me great pleasure because they describe the natural world around them in knowledgeable yet personal terms. When I read their prose, I not only share their experiences but I also learn something about the environment and its flora and fauna. Such prose genuinely stretches my mind. Jim Robbins’ new book, The Man Who Planted Trees, is a model of this sort of writing. Simultaneously smart and engaging, it encourages the reader to explore new ideas and to rethink old attitudes toward the nature of trees.
Robbins is a well-published science writer for the New York Times, Smithsonian, Audubon, and a host of other established and respected venues. He has two particularly valuable talents. First, he explains complex scientific processes in easy-to-understand terms. Believe me, this is not as effortless or as easy as Robbins makes it seem! His description of the evil pine bark beetles that are eating their way through the forests of the American West, for example, is not only informative but totally fascinating. On page after page, the reader learns new things about trees and their predators (human, as well as ‘natural’). Second, Robbins narrates personal stories that make the forests come alive, both scientifically and humanistically. The main character is David Milarch, “the man who planted trees,” but many other men and women appear who are equally as charming.
Milarch’s goal in life is to preserve a gene pool of the most resilient trees. He travels throughout the world, collecting specimens of “champion” trees—the biggest, the strongest, the oldest, the most likely to survive—and then attempts to clone them into viable replicas of themselves. With occasional setbacks but with more successes than failures, he soldiers on. Interspersed between the episodes of Milarch’s quest are chapters about the trees themselves. Giant sequoia, bristlecones, redwoods, sitka spruce, maples, oak, yew, and even willows. As Robbins explains, “this book is not just about planting trees. It is about the state and the likely fate of the world’s forests as the planet journeys into a possibly disastrous century of soaring temperatures.”
He always comes back to Milarch, however, and to Milarch’s ambitious project. The ebb and flow of the man’s work with champion trees blends Milarch’s personal charisma with his ongoing efforts to convince the scientific community that his work is legitimate and will eventually be fruitful. At the same time, The Man Who Planted Trees pursues the need for forest preservation. Our physical lives depend on healthy trees for “light, moisture, nutrition, and photosynthesis.” Trees can even be used to correct our environmental mistakes. Willows, for example, can serve successfully as filtration systems and as pollution combatants. Our psychological well-being depends on trees, too. Robbins details how inner-city life is improved by the presence of green belts and mini-forests. He even argues that humans might actually react physiologically to trees. Milarch would most definitely agree. To follow that train of thought, too complex to explain in a sentence or two, you’ll have to read The Man Who Planted Trees.
Despite its scientific underpinnings, this provocative book raises more questions than it answers. I like its combination of moderate speculation shored up by carefully selected, clearly articulated data. In fact, I’m still mulling over its ideas and its prognostications. And I’m still thinking about all I learned regarding trees, champions and otherwise. A.R.
The following books by Jim Robbins are also available: Open-Focus Brain; A Symphony in the Brain: The Evolution of the New Brain Wave Biofeedback; Last Refuge: The Environmental Showdown in Yellowstone and the American West;