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Dock in the Arbor

Jim Robbins on embracing (and planting more) trees


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I love trees. So naturally, I'm a fan of the 1953 fable The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono. In the story, a shepherd transforms a barren landscape by planting a gazillion acorns; years later, there are forests of lush paradise where humans thrive.

Now science writer Jim Robbins has just released a 2012 nonfiction book with the same name, The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet. I am right now buried in a second reading, amazed at how little I really know, how little anyone knows, about trees.

Simply put, you must read this book. I suspect it took courage for Robbins to self-consciously cross the boundaries of science to get to the truth: what we don't know about trees can hurt us. It already has.

Science is only part of this amazing story, but it's a start. Global forest die-off, attributed to everything from sudden oak death to beetles, may be due to human-induced climate change, supporting proliferation of pathogens. From climate science to mysticism, Robbins's quest is to find out everything there is to know about trees. Trouble is, very little is known about trees, but what is now being discovered is astounding.

Robbins considers trees a form of eco-technology more effective than anything that humans can engineer. For removing toxins from water, for example, there is evidence that a stand of quick-growing black willows is more effective than a multimillion-dollar treatment plant. These trees take up even the nastiest heavy metals and purify water. The clumps of willows look nicer, too, and house wildlife while preventing erosion and turning carbon dioxide into oxygen as sidelines—all free services.

Studies suggest that epidemic diseases, from AIDS to swine flu, are effects of deforestation; had the forest ecosystems been left intact, the infectious agents would not have escaped into human populations. Medicinal uses of plants have been around for thousands of years and are still being discovered. This makes the global deforestation going on right now even more tragic.

The Champion Tree Project investigated in Robbins's amazing book chronicles the efforts of layman David Milarch, compelled to preserve the genetics of the world's largest and therefore most robust specimens of trees. So many old, massive individual trees have been lost that most of the trees with which we are familiar are genetic scrappers, possessing only some of the stout attributes found in the champs—including disease resistance and, well, majesty.

The clarion call from the forests is hopeful, and we all can make a difference. Read the story, then plant trees.


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