By Emily Kallas
Confession, this piece has been sitting in my drafts for a few months. But since today is Arbor Day, it felt only fitting to discuss this Dusted ReDiscovery title: The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees, and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet by Jim Robbins. Originally published in 2012 by Spiegel & Grau, this book is part nature essays, part biography.
Stepping back a moment, my deep appreciation for trees really started to develop when I was a freshman in high school and had the unforgettable opportunity to meet Nobel Peace Laureate, Dr. Wangari Maathai. Maathai is most well known for founding The Green Belt Movement; an indigenous grassroots organization focused on the cultivation of trees, environmental conservation, and women’s rights. Her daughter, Wanjira Mathai has carried on her legacy, while building her own, and was most recently recognized in TIME’S 100 Most Influential People of 2023. If you want to learn more about Dr. Wangari Maathai (trust me, you do), I highly recommend starting by reading her memoir, Unbowed.
(Emily, giving a presentation to Wangari Maathai, 2005)
But ultimately, this piece isn’t about Wangari Maathai, or The Green Belt Movement. This quasi-review is about journalist Jim Robbins and David Milarch - the man who planted trees.
I received my first copy of this book ten years ago, through work, when I was just starting out in the book industry as a bookseller. Genuinely interested in the subject matter of tree preservation, it is still a mystery why it took me so long to finally read the book. I figured it was about time.
At a brief 203 pages, Jim Robbins brings his journalist style of writing to book, each chapter feeling like a consumable article from either National Geographic or Orion Magazine. It doesn’t really start to feel like a biography of David Milarch (which I believe was the goal), until almost a third of the way into the book; even though David Milarch is the throughline and is even mentioned early on in the book.
When not focused on Milarch, Robbins’ writing creates an ecosystem, a network; sharing quick introductions to different types of trees, their impact, and ultimate importance to the environment, and how dangerous it is to lose even a single species.
Along with the vast research and interviews Jim Robbins has done in preparation for this book, the backbone of this book is third-generation nurseryman, David Milarch.
Although never stated in the book itself, David Milarch could be considered a spiritual ecologist. While he doesn’t consider himself a religious man, Milarch talks openly about being guided by angels - a result of a near-death experience caused by severe alcoholism. For him, it was a transformative experience. He has been sober since, although chain smokes like a fiend. In the book, he even reports that the angels keep in touch with him, usually guiding him on different insights on tree preservation, along with the occasional guidance elsewhere in his life and those around him.
So if he isn’t religious, how can he be a spiritual ecologist? Spiritual ecology proposes that there is a spiritual facet to all issues related to conservation, environmentalism, and earth stewardship. While the practice has existed since as early as the 16th century, it has only recently been considered an “emerging field.” Some well-known spiritual ecologists include: Thích Nhất Hạnh, Rudolph Steiner, Winona LaDuke, Wendell Berry, Pope Francis, Richard Rohr, and many, many more…
Whether you believe in what David Milarch says that he has witnessed, the results are undeniable. In 2008, he founded The Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that “locates and propagates the world’s largest and most iconic trees.”
Propagation, Preservation, and Planting. All good, right?
Everywhere you look, it seems like companies are making promises to plant a tree with each transaction. Just earlier today, I saw an ad for a phone game that claimed you can redeem in-game tokens to plant a real-life tree (as long as you play long enough.) I also saw a credit card claiming to redirect 80% of its profits to reforestation.
And while I have yet to do a deep dive into the legitimacy of these companies and their eco-friendly claims, it sure feels like the promise to plant trees is becoming the throw-away line for businesses to claim that they are making active efforts and fighting climate change. But even if their claims were true, is it even what they should be doing at this point? But if not planting trees, then what?
Arborists and Environmentalists around the world are making the argument not only against the mass planting of trees, but instead spending those same resources on maintaining the trees that are already in existence, ensuring their survivability.
Ultimately, I don’t think either of these acts is enough, but I am no expert in the field, and I already feel like I have digressed and rambled on a bit too much at this point….
So okay, this book, The Man Who Planted Trees, is it worth buying? Is it worth reading? Well, yes and no.
Despite the ten-year mark since initial publication having passed by last year, I am holding out hope that the publisher, along with Jim Robbins, decides to compile and publish an updated edition. So much has happened in the past decade, and it would be fascinating to see how the information and data have evolved over the course of that time. Because, ultimately, while some of the information is simply outdated, The Man Who Planted Trees is still very relevant to today’s conversation and calls to action regarding climate change.
While Ink and & 8-Bit will keep the copy I read on the bookshelf dedicated to Trees and Nature Preservation, I am going to recommend maybe waiting to purchase a copy until there is an updated edition of The Man Who Planted Trees.
(Trees from my trip to Vancouver, Spring 2022)
DUSTED REDISCOVERY DECISION: KEEP
Here at Ink & 8-Bit HQ (Our tiny apartment), just under 4,000 books fill our shelves. And believe it or not, we have not read all of them. In fact, we have owned many of these as of yet unread books for several years. Since there are so many books and so little time, we try to make a point of picking up a book every once in a while that has been sitting unread on our shelves for perhaps too long. This is practice. we call Dusted ReDiscoveries.
A gentle reminder, at no extra cost to you, every sale through our bookshop supports Ink & 8-Bit, helping us pay our bills and allowing us to be able to keep reading and writing and sharing everything we love with you!