David Milarch hovered above the bed, looking down upon his own lifeless body lying there. A loving husband and father, a life derailed by alcoholism, a life saved by a seemingly divine plan to clone trees. From a life-threatening trip to the emergency room -- to building a “Noah’s Ark” filled with tree genetics for repopulating the ancient trees of the world -- a near-death experience planted a seed that has grown into a most remarkable journey. At first glance, his story seems farfetched. It may even sound impossible. As David would say, “Impossible just takes longer.”
A third generation nurseryman, David Milarch grew up working on his father’s tree farm. In 2008 David founded the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive (AATA) with a mission to restore “the lungs of the planet.” The AATA grew out of an organization David had started many years earlier with his family, the Champion Tree Project. David has spent the last 20+ years cloning old-growth trees, the oldest and largest living organisms on our planet. These trees store carbon faster than any other species on Earth. A mature Sequoia weighs 1,000 tons, 40% of which is stored carbon. “Before we even knew the role trees play[ed] in our ecosystem,” David says, “we cut them down.” In the United States alone we have cut down 98% of our old growth forests.
With climate change looming large, David has turned his lifelong love of trees into a quest to clone and regenerate the champion trees that we have lost. “The Era of Preservation is over. There aren’t enough old-growth habitats left to preserve. We’re entering the Millennium of Restoration. We’ve got to rebuild with the best we’ve got, the largest and oldest living things on earth.”
Through the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, David’s mission is to propagate the world’s most important old growth trees before they are gone, reforest the Earth with the offspring of these trees, and archive the genetics of ancient trees in living libraries around the world for the future.
David’s travels down this path started twenty-four years ago with a devastating near-death experience. To look at David before and after that experience is to see two different men. "I was an atheist, a biker, an alcoholic arm wrestler, a bare-knuckle fighter that really didn't love anything or myself, or respect anything," he said in an interview. "Until this happened."
Facing the sadness and regret that his drinking had caused, he decided to quit cold turkey. He placed a bottle of vodka and a six-pack outside the bedroom door and locked himself inside. He wound up in the hospital three days later with a failing liver and kidneys. When he returned home it was with the understanding that he had only a little time left. In his bed, looking back on his life and accomplishments, David kept returning to thoughts of his wife and sons, to the tree farm.
Suddenly, he felt himself floating, looking down at his body lying there motionless. To his right hovered a beautiful woman radiating light. “We’re here to help,” she said. Those angels took David on a remarkable journey through brightly lit tunnels to a sandy beach. “You have work to do,” they said. David recovered.
One night during the following winter he woke up and heard a voice. “Get a pad and pen,” the voice said, “and go to the living room.” He awoke again hours later with a pad and pen in his lap and page after page of writing. What he found written there would become the outline for his life’s work. That outline turned into The Champion Tree project and evolved into the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive. The summer following his writing experience, David and his son Jared collected their first DNA samples.
It is easy to draw parallels between David’s own story and vision for the future of old growth trees. Perhaps looking at his own history and seeing a similar fate in store for our planet’s old growth trees, David dedicated his effort and energy towards giving the trees something he himself had graciously received, protection from destruction, a chance for new life. A heavenly presence to protect and transform what is left of our old growth forests.
From an early age David was gifted a first-hand look at the astonishing beauty of a forest of trees. The weeding, digging, and planting he did as a boy on his father’s farm also acquainted him with the notion that nothing worth protecting can be preserved without hard work, love, and dedication. Throughout David’s life, he has been uniquely prepared to fulfill his role as preserver. It is his mission now to spread his knowledge, his love, and his story with the world so that he may fulfill his own divine mission: to rebuild the world’s first old-growth redwood forest. “Our trees,” he says, will be “gifts to our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, gifts to the world.”
In recognition for his work, David has been awarded, among many others, the Garden Clubs of America Distinguished Service Award, the National Daughters of the American Revolution National Conservation Medal, National Garden Clubs Award of Excellence for Conservation, Biography Magazine’s Hero Award, and the Grant Thornton Leader and Innovator Award.
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