One of the best parts of my running life has been the trails I’ve run over the years, whether it’s a simple 5K through the woods of the Serenbe community near my home here in Atlanta to some truly amazing runs I’ve taken through forests around the Southeast.
(By the way, you all shared some amazing suggestions for trail runs in this Friday discussion thread we held a couple of weeks ago — I simply have to make it up to Washington state one day to run Judith’s suggestion, the Enchantments Trail.)
I never gave much thought to the environments I ran through all those years. I don’t mean to say I ignored them; I did appreciate their beauty, and loved the feeling of being in nature as I ran, listening to the wind rush through the tree limbs and leaves, and the animals in the distance.
But beyond that, I just hadn’t thought about it much. That’s until I had a conversation with a few friends last night, when I remembered an interview I did way back when I worked as a journalist for The Weather Channel’s weather.com.
Back then, I’d heard a story about a man named David Milarch, who lives with his family in a tiny Michigan town called Copemish. There, with his family, he runs the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, a nonprofit that seeks to replicate the genetic material of the world's biggest and oldest trees and replant them anew, all around the world.
So I decided to reach out to him. And as interesting as his work with trees was, his own story was even more interesting.
“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 told me when we talked by phone. “Until this happened.”
“This” was his near-death experience, sparked by a decision to give up drinking back in the early 1990s. Now in his 70s, Milarch had quit alcohol cold turkey by locking himself in a bedroom with a bottle of vodka and a six-pack of beer outside the door — to beat the bottle, rather than hiding from it, he thought.
Three days later, his failing kidneys and liver landed him in the hospital. Recovering but still critically ill at home, he experienced a sensation that felt like being lifted up out of his own body and taken, he told me, “to the other side.”
“There were lots of light beings and what I call angels,” he added. “I was told, ‘you can’t stay. You have to go back. We have work for you to do.’ And boy, they weren’t kidding!”
It didn’t take long for him to figure out what that was:
“After I went to the other side, and saw what was going on… let’s just say everything changed. I think it’s one of those things you’d have to be there to understand it.
But after you pass over, if you’re one of the fortunate ones that gets to come back and help the earth, I think that you’ll put every ounce of your energy and all of your will behind trying to help all living things on this earth. You’ll put all those other things away, that foolishness. That’s my read on it.”
Through his family’s garden nursery business, Milarch had long experience working with planting and raising trees. So he put his mind to marshal it toward his new mission: saving the planet’s remaining old-growth forests.
“People have always taken trees for granted,” he told me. “When we saw our forests and our trees, we’ve looked at [them] as a commodity, as firewood or wood for building homes. What we didn’t realize was that all along, during this deforestation of our planet, no one had really studied these great ancient trees. Here in the United States we’ve cut 98 percent of our old growth forests down. There’s only 2 percent left.”
Why does this matter? Because a single mature giant sequoia tree, for example, weighs about 1,000 tons. And 40 percent of that weight is carbon it stores when it breathes in carbon dioxide from the air — so a single tree can store 400 tons of carbon.
“You take that times trillions and trillions of trees that we’ve cut down, and you can see why we’re not pulling the CO2 out of the air as we should be — because the things that do are gone.”
There’s more, so much more, to Milarch’s story. From the special methods he developed to grow new giant sequoias and redwoods in his laboratory in Michigan to the missions he undertakes with his family and staff to replant the trees at (secret) locations around the world, the work he’s been doing for nearly 30 years now is an inspiration.
The reason I share it with you today is, remembering him and the conversation we had fills me with hope. Because hope can be hard to come by, especially when it comes to our natural environment — something we all treasure, if nothing else because we love to run through it.
“I’ve been 20 years pursuing something that I was told was impossible,” Milarch told me when we talked by phone several years ago. “But I think this should be one of the most hopeful stories for everyone, because I don’t have a college education. I live in one of the most economically depressed areas in the United States. I’m not wealthy. I live in a village of 150 people.
So if an uneducated poor person, living in the middle of nowhere, only starting off with the help of his sons and his wife, can cause what we’ve caused to happen around the world, just think of the chances are that you have — with some money, with a college education, living in a place where there is a greater number of people.
That should be great hope for anyone listening or reading — if David Milarch can do it, I know you can do it.”
Amen, brother. Amen.
As always, keep in touch and let me know how your running is going — and have an amazing, amazing run out there today.
Races you might love running... in forests
The summer begins in eastern Idaho with this gorgeous “mountain to meadow” run through the mountains along the Montana-Idaho border, among the trees of the Lolo and Clearwater National Forests. In July, run amidst the “silent giants” of Oakland, Calif., in one of the Bay Area’s largest natural stands of coast redwood trees, which can grow to a height of nearly 400 feet. You’ll probably be pretty sore after a race called “13.1 miles of pure hill” through North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest. In August, take in spectacular views of the Columbia River when you run across Oregon’s famed Bridge of the Gods and into the foothills of the Cascades. Run where the ice age carved the landscape of what is now Wisconsin at this September half, through “dense deciduous forests, under tall pines, over rocky ridges and across open prairies.” Later that same month, you can run in “a celebration of the woods” through Michigan’s nearly million-acre Huron Manistee National Forest. In October, run this “fast and flowy” half marathon through the forest surrounding North Carolina’s U.S. National Whitewater Center along the Catawba River. If you’re in Georgia this fall, head to Jekyll Island for a fast, flat run under moss-draped oak trees that tower over grassy lawns. You’ll follow a winding route among the wooded trails of Ohio’s 33,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park at this October race, on a route Runner’s World said is one of the nation’s most beautiful. (And if you missed out on signing up this amazing run through the majestic redwood forests of California’s Humboldt Redwoods State Park, you can sign up now for next year’s race.
A (tree) read I loved
I learned so, so much about old-growth forests, the inner lives of trees — yes, it’s true! — and David Milarch’s amazing story from Jim Robbins’s 2012 book The Man Who Planted Trees. It’s a great read 👍
Words to run by
“Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.”
— John Muir