Last November I drove to a private grove in the southern Sierra Nevada to meet the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, a band of renegade foresters working to clone and move the big trees north, out of their native range, to cooler and wetter climates. I was skeptical of this, because I had spent the last few years very invested in California’s native-plant movement, which holds that genetics is tied to place for a reason, and that human meddling in natural processes like species migration often leads to disaster. But I decided to join Archangel anyway, just outside the Sequoia National Forest, where some of the world’s top tree climbers would be hoisting volunteers hundreds of feet up a sequoia. This was the fun part. The work involved taking cuttings and green plant tissue to grow into clones, before planting them in places like Eugene, Oregon—almost six hundred miles north—where Archangel had resettled two thousand sequoia seedlings earlier in the month.
Few scientists would agree with their approach—human-assisted migration is an idea that goes more or less directly against decades’ worth of environmentalist thinking in the US, which has generally held a preservationist ideal that would see plants and animals living how and where they did before 1492. “Assisted colonization is tantamount to ecological roulette,” the prominent ecologists Anthony Ricciardi and Daniel Simberloff wrote in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, in 2009, “and should probably be rejected as a sound conservation strategy by the precautionary principle.”
Yet the idea has persisted, and gained new currency as the threats of climate change become clearer. Activists called the Torreya Guardians, for example, are working to save the Florida torreya—one of the most critically endangered conifers in the world—by planting it far outside of its tiny north Florida range, where the tree has been afflicted by a mysterious fungal blight. The US Forest Service’s recovery plan for the tree is restricted to its native but damaged habitat.
I came to Camp Nelson, about thirty miles from Fresno up Highway 190 and the Tule Canyon, to visit a so-called “lost grove,” away from the tourists who beat the paths in the more famous stands. I found a cross between a throwback botanical expedition and a religious camp revival, with children hugging gigantic trees, some adults whispering as though they were in a temple, and others talking in almost alchemical language about the habits of flora. “See all this dust,” an old man said as I got out of the car. “The trees eat rock dust.”
It was the first time I’d seen a sequoia on private land. The US Forest Service, which manages 80 percent of the West’s forestlands, barred Archangel from collecting on its grounds after The New York Times and The Washington Post covered the attempts by the group’s founders, David Milarch and Terry Mock, to clone the Methuselah bristlecone pine, the oldest tree in the world, and one whose location is supposed to be kept secret. The Forest Service, Mock later told me, found the resulting photos highly objectionable. The seventy-year-old Milarch, a large and charismatic chain smoker and big talker, has become over the last few decades a messianic figure to a band of true believers. But Mock—a wiry, inquisitive sixty-eight-year-old who seemed as shy about talking to reporters as Milarch was tired of it—once ran a native-plant business, and immediately understood why I’d been curious to come. He became my guide to a very new way of thinking about place, plants, genetics, and the future of the world.
“You came to the wrong place if you have that native dogma,” he told me at the grove. “It’s a crisis. You gotta try something.”
“To see the Bigtrees you must travel far and climb high,” wrote California forester Donald Culross Peattie, in what could easily be the greatest field-guide entry ever written, at the start of his Natural History of North American Trees, first published in 1953. From San Francisco or Los Angeles, you cross the Central Valley, and then begin the slow rise up the gentle western slope of the Sierra, which ascends at an easy 2 percent grade along the lush west flank and drops off like a shorn cliff from the bare crags of the eastern peaks. “Up through groves of Black Oak and Blue” you go, in a landscape I think is the most perfect on earth—a place arid enough that bugs and mold are usually only minor nuisances, but spotted with springs and creeks to drink from, and where summers are invigoratingly dry and warm without being oppressive and winters are snowy and magical without feeling menacing or inescapable—and then past cedars so big that Peattie admonishes the uninitiated not to confuse them with sequoias, which grow at altitudes between five thousand and seven thousand feet, and which, once seen, cannot be mistaken for anything else.
Here are some things you can learn from Peattie: sequoias are, of course, the largest of all trees, and the most massive freestanding organisms in the world. They live as long as three thousand five hundred years, longer than all trees but the Chilean alerce and the bristlecone pine, which grows east of here, over the Sierra crest and across the Owens Valley. I like to stand at certain vantage points in the Sierras and imagine that I can look north to the three-thousand-year-old Bennett juniper, west to the sequoias, east to the bristlecones, and south to the ancient clonal stands of Mojavean creosote bush, and be somehow at the center of a circle of inexplicable, primordial genetic wisdom.
You will never find a lonely old-growth sequoia, because they live in groves, of which only seventy or so still survive. You don’t have to be a mystic to think that this is because they are sociable old trees—we are only now learning how plants communicate underground and through aerosols they emit, and in a sequoia grove it doesn’t take long to notice they are working together to form a special environment: a grove provides an airy break from the denser, darker, and more juvenile west-slope forest; it is a place where “the bright world,” as Peattie puts it, “is never shut away.” This means that sunlight and snow reach all the way to the forest floor; a thirty-foot snowdrift looks like “a mere anklet” on a tree that grows nearly three hundred feet high and can have a hundred-foot circumference.
But now the mighty may fall: more than one hundred million California evergreens have expired in the last decade, mostly in the southern and central Sierra, where the sequoias live. They have been killed by drought, heat, insect infestations, and inscrutably complex interactions between these. The trees are part of a trend of mass die-offs that has quietly been sweeping the world, from a surge of tree mortality in Siberia, to the billions of trees that died after a drought in the Amazon in 2010, to an unexplained collapse of monumental African baobab trees over recent years. Die-offs in the US have been just as widespread, from the old-growth forests of Hawaii, to the yellow cedars of Alaska, to the woodlands of Massachusetts, to the southwest, where 350 million piñon trees died from drought in 2002 and 2003. We don’t know enough about what causes disasters like these, much less how to prevent those that may come soon. “Given the high degree of uncertainty in our understanding of how forest species and stands adapt to rapid change,” James S. Clark, the lead author of a major study of forest mortality, said in 2016, “it’s going to be difficult to anticipate the type of forests that will be here in twenty to forty years.” The study found that nearly all American forests, even the seemingly moist and cool eastern woodlands, are in danger of mass death or decline.
These die-offs are both a result and a driver of climate change: twenty-five percent of global carbon emissions is currently absorbed by the photosynthetic processes of forests, and preserving and growing forestlands around the world is one of the central pillars of the Paris Agreement. But forests are also at the heart of a horrific feedback loop—warming causes tree die-offs, which then fuels more warming: British Columbia recently went from being a net carbon absorber to an emitter, after the majority of the province’s lodgepole pines died suddenly from beetle infestations.
Many forests cannot adapt quickly enough. The sequoias once thrived across the intermountain West but, for 4,500 years, have seen their refuge shrink to a narrow band in the Sierras, where they drink from the once-reliable spring snowmelt, and sprout in the dusty mineral soil. They’re so deeply tied to the place, and the place is so deeply tied to them, that it’s hard to imagine the big trees living anywhere else.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about the sequoia’s connection to place, because of a nonprofit called the Arroyo Seco Foundation, where I help operate a nursery dedicated to the plants that grow in the minute part of the world drained by the Arroyo, a tributary of the Los Angeles River. I had always believed it self-evident that, in an ideal world, the Arroyo basin would be populated only by plants that evolved to grow in its climate and decomposed-granite soils, building a home for the microorganisms, pollinators, birds, and mammals that in turn enliven these soils, inseminate the flowers, spread the seeds, and generally work with the plants to create an ecosystem that’s whole and healthy.
But in the summer of 2018, I watched as native plants were scorched in a matter of hours, as the thermometer at our Pasadena nursery rose to 118 degrees, and mature, theoretically drought-tolerant sages desiccated so abruptly that they didn’t even have time to shed their fragrant leaves, as they usually do—they just died. I found this very upsetting, and I began to wonder whether the plants I considered to be native were still the ones best suited to this landscape, and what it even means to have a native habitat in a state where more than half of the state’s plant species could soon disappear from the vast majority of the lands they now inhabit, hemmed in to redoubts where they’ll be ever more at risk from fire and climate change. This would be especially troubling here: California has more, much more, botanical diversity than any other state. Its topography is so diverse that species have been able to survive in isolated niches, like the one the sequoias occupy. And California’s climate has protected them. The state is among a group of climatic regions that have become cradles of biodiversity—relatively gentle, Mediterranean-type zones that provide a refuge “because they are some of the only nontropical regions [that] have been able to avoid historical periods of either desertification or glaciation,” as biogeographer Lesley Lancaster put it.
But for how long? A drastic portion of California’s plants may go extinct without some kind of intervention. And since we have already intervened on the climate that these plants depend on, perhaps it’s silly to think of a pure, untouched nature. Silly—and uncomfortable. I began to wonder about how we apply the idea of nativeness to humans. This seemed rich, in a country where we have done our damnedest to extirpate the native population, and where blood-and-soil nativism among the whites who displaced them led to the election of Donald Trump, whose policies make it all the more impossible to address the environmental cataclysm wreaking destruction upon the plants of California. These questions are not actually new: the great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould dismissed the notion of native superiority as “romantic drivel” in 1997. Alwin Seifert, a German botanist once described as “one of the leading landscape architects of National Socialism,” took the idea to a grotesque extreme, writing in 1929 that he “wanted to bring garden art into the struggle”—in other words, to use native plants to fight rootless cosmopolitan globalists. I still loved my native plants, but an ecology that embraces the jumbled world as it is seemed worth exploring.
This was on my mind as I drove up from Los Angeles to meet Milarch and Mock when, high up in the canyon, a spark plug blew out of the engine of my 4Runner and slammed against the inside of the hood. I lost power, and the revolting smoke from my truck blended with the haze from a wildfire up ahead. Two construction workers offered me a ride to a mountain lodge. Inside, the cheerful proprietor greeted me as though she’d been waiting for me—which in fact was the case. “You come up here much?” she asked. I said I did. “Then you know that people know everything that goes on up here,” she said. “I’ve known you were broken-down for half an hour already. You’re here for the tree people. Hop in my truck. I’ll take you.”
This is one of the two sides of Sierra life, which can be inhospitable—not to say deadly—for the nosy, but which lacks the proud wariness that characterizes so much of the rest of the rugged West. It’s still the heart of California, so it’s impossible to forget that, in the scheme of things, we’re all from somewhere else.
She dropped me outside the tavern in Camp Nelson, population 187, where I used a satellite-linked phone to arrange a thirty-four-mile tow back to Porterville, and then went to find the “tree people,” as everyone seemed to be calling them. The vaulted Camp Nelson lodge was deserted save for a paunchy, gray-bearded man splayed regally in a picnic chair. I asked if he knew David Milarch. “Milarch,” he said slowly. “I’ve heard of him.” He invited me to sit down. “Smoke from the fire is clearing,” he said, indicating with a wave a five-thousand-acre burn that was being attacked by a helicopter just over the ridge. I sensed that this was David Milarch, and I apologized for missing our meeting time, explaining the problems with my rig. His responses seemed to speak as much to the world as to me. “Yep… this right here is the middle of it,” he said, meaning that in an unprovable and unscientific way, this land of little rivers and big trees, which were drying up and possibly dying, was an epicenter of the calamity that was sweeping California. “Trees are the answer, in the end,” he said. “They make this place.” And he was hopeful. “We collected sequoia cones last year. And those seeds had a fucking 90 percent success rate. Can you imagine something that’s four thousand years old being that viable? And that’s just to make one seedling to replace itself. So those are pretty good odds.”
“The point is you just never, never, never, never give up,” an amazingly fit and tan man in his fifties explained to me when I asked about Archangel’s propagation methods. His name was Jim Clark, but he preferred to go by Tree Machine. I wanted—thinking of myself as a fellow nurseryman and all—to see what Archangel’s lab back in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was like, and Tree Machine was glad to the point of bursting to show me. He presented a spiral notebook where he’d bound their deck. I was amazed by how large, pristine, and efficient it looked, like the futuristic sorts of labs where cannabis companies do their experiments these days. “The secret ingredient to our success is patience,” he explained. “It takes a long time, and you can’t hurry the process up. You just have to be there with the stuff day after day after day.” He turned the page to an image of a tiny cutting, only a few millimeters of young growth.
“This is the magic; this is the future,” he said. “This is where you can take a very small amount of material and put it in a sterile environment, perfect nutrition, perfect light, perfect humidity, perfect pH, and they grow up perfectly because they got perfect conditions, no competing organisms.”
The slide showed a bunch of glass jars, each with a bit of green inside and a small layer of activated carbon to absorb castaway compounds. Plants poop waste just like humans do; the carbon gives the infant trees a kind of diaper that absorbs the excreta.
“These baby-food jars each have, like, four to six trees in there,” he said. “So you take two hundred, multiply by four to six in this space, through three or four shelves.” That was a lot of trees. They could, in a sense, propagate exponentially. “The sequoia seed itself is like the size of a grass seed,” he continued. “It’s tiny, and it produces this thing. I know, the power of DNA, huh?” I was enthralled. Micropropagation has actually been around since the early twentieth century, but it remains an obscure, expensive, and complicated operation at scale. It also raises serious questions about how much cloning, exactly, is too much: all the trees created from those millimeters of green would be genetic copies of the source tree, with the same genetic potential that helped the parent tree to grow into an ancient champion, but also with all its idiosyncratic frailties. And all those baby trees would carry the genetic mutations that would have accumulated in the source tree over the centuries, some of which would likely be problematic. This question of mutations is often posed to the Archangel group. “There’s probably some truth to the evolution of the DNA,” Mock later told me. “But that also means there’s truth that these organisms can age incredibly successfully.”
Tree Machine flipped the page. “Now you’re going to see the results,” he said. The roots on the clones were thick and luscious. They made me audibly gasp—they were as thick as the tiny trunks on the infant trees. “Oh yeah, buddy,” he said with a grin. “These are pushing the lid, and the roots are wrapping around the whole thing. The Milarchs”—David and his sons, Jared and Jake—“are just so good at this. We joke about how they could get a Popsicle stick to push roots.”
He flipped to the last slide, a photo of Milarch. “We’re in the shade of a thousand-year-old cedar grove.” He turned to a volunteer named Don, a retired ophthalmologist from Indiana and a devoted acolyte. “You were there. I took a picture of David, and look at the light.” Milarch seemed washed out by light, while others in the photo appeared much darker. These two straitlaced midwestern men with crew cuts seemed to be suggesting that the cedars had cast a halo around this stubborn old arborist.
Don perked up. He had gone with Milarch to South Manitou Island, in Lake Michigan, to talk with park rangers who’d asked how to care for some five-hundred-year-old cedars. “A guy was taking a picture with him,” he said, “and he’s dark, and everything else is just light surrounding David, just like you had a spotlight on him. And what’s amazing about that is that the Forest Service doesn’t want anything to do with David. [The rangers] got the word from Washington: Don’t touch this guy. He’s toxic. But they wanted him and they got him.”
I had not come to hear the Milarch legend, which has been told in a TED Talk and also in a wonderful but obscure little book called The Man Who Planted Trees: A Story of Lost Groves, The Science of Trees, and a Plan to Save the Planet, by a science journalist named Jim Robbins, who mostly treats Milarch with as much reverence as his followers do. Milarch was a third-generation nurseryman growing shade trees on his family property near Grand Rapids. For decades, he traveled the country as a competitive arm-wrestler, winning glory in a macho bar subculture and cultivating vices—hard drinking and harder-headedness—until his body began to break down. His liver failed in 1991, and Milarch says he was legally dead for five minutes, during which time otherworldly beings brought him back from the afterlife to plant trees and save the planet. A doctor told him he’d need his feet amputated, but he refused. He had a mission that would require standing up, he said.
“Everyone pretty much knows what charismatic megafauna are,” Terry Mock told me. “Lions and elephants and the species that you see that make people want to save an ecosystem to save that beautiful animal. And so our idea was that we wanted to fight for the charismatic megaflora. And what I thought was that to do that we needed a charismatic mega-man. David Milarch was that man.”
In the two and half decades since they began their champion tree project, they have planted trees at Mount Vernon, on the grounds of the US Capitol (this required an act of Congress for approval), and throughout the West, preaching the gospel of reforestation. A happy coast redwood can grow a remarkable ten feet a year. This isn’t much by itself, but gathers force when you consider large-scale projects anchored by huge, fast-growing trees. Before Archangel started, no one even knew they could be cloned. “When David got the idea of cloning redwoods,” Don told me, “he went down and talked to Bill Libby—the world-renowned expert on coast redwoods—and he told David, ‘You cannot clone a redwood that’s older than eighty years old.’ Well, a few years later David came and handed him a redwood, with the DNA right there. And he admitted he was wrong. He didn’t like being wrong, but he actually came on board.” “There may be some startling, important science that comes out of it,” Libby later told The Oregonian.
They worked with the Forest Service; they cloned a tree for Clint Eastwood (it died) and procured a million-dollar grant from a group called the National Tree Trust. But their taste for publicity, their unorthodox ideas, and Milarch’s irascibility eventually meant they alienated both organizations and a fair number of environmentalists who came to work with them. One big opportunity fell through when Milarch and his son Jared went to Patagonia’s headquarters to meet with the company’s outdoor-hero founder, Yvon Chouinard, who wanted to help fund the group by selling a line of T-shirts with champion-tree designs on them. Everything was fine until a group lunch. “To tell you the truth, I don’t even remember the joke, but I think it was something about big breasts,” Milarch told Robbins. “It was just casual, but it constituted the downfall of the deal.”
This all left Milarch with a reputation for being difficult, which, now that I was meeting him, made perfect sense. We spoke for a while, and then Milarch, apparently bored, turned to me and said, “You ought not to miss that wrecker,” and ushered me out of his presence. But he said we could arrange a way to get back together tomorrow, so I could join them at the tree climbing.
I spent a long Friday night dealing with the car in Porterville. The next day, having not heard back from Milarch, I got up at seven to hitchhike back up to Camp Nelson. I met Milarch at the lodge, where he seemed surprised and almost annoyed that I’d made it back up the hill. “I had a rash once,” he said when he saw me back again. He was again posed regally, smoking and talking with Don, the former ophthalmologist, and Don’s wife, Linda, who had driven out together from South Bend, Indiana. There were about thirty people at the grove, and Milarch gave off an air of Old Testament patriarch. “I feel better being up here than I have in a long while,” he said. Cindy Spiegel, the co-founder of Spiegel & Grau, and an Archangel boardmember, later said that she thought being around the trees had relieved her of a cold. Climbers came down, repeating, one after another, that their lives had just been changed forever. Milarch’s son Jake, a thirtysomething father of two, handled boughs they’d taken from the new growth. As he walked he seemed to almost bounce, thanks to the feet-deep duff of sequoia needles.
But even this buoyancy has a dark side. Between 2014 and 2016, at the height of California’s calamitous drought, the sequoias began to shed needles prodigiously. They were stressed, and they did what any living thing does, which is begin to shut down, turn inward, conserve resources for an emergency. Then they began to die.
The drought finally lifted in the spring of 2016, and in the end all but a few of the sequoias made it through. But many other Californian evergreens did succumb: I have a favorite southern Sierra canyon where my best friend and I go to backpack and fish, and it’s a heartbreaking place to hike if you’re paying attention: above the healthy live oaks and deciduous blue oaks are ponderosa pines, and at the ridgetop the pines mix more or less evenly with fire-red incense cedars—the most beautiful, in their color and graceful symmetry, of all Californian conifers. But it takes only a glance upward to realize that every single one of the cedars is stone-dead, their carcasses preserved by the tannins in their trunks. You look closely and notice that a number of the ponderosas are dead, too, and realize that the next big combination of drought and heat will probably kill the rest of them, and that that whole expanse could soon change from forest to dusty wasteland. And who is to say that next year won’t kill off the oaks—the short drive toward the San Joaquin Valley reveals a sunbaked savanna with scores of bare oak skeletons, reminders of a lush California we have already lost and cannot hope to ever get back.
These tens of millions of dead trees were a natural accelerant for the fires that swept through the area in 2018 and killed millions more trees, and at least 100 people. I am only a bit older than thirty, but still old enough to have reported in the Sierras at a time when a hundred-thousand-acre fire in this state felt like a local cataclysm, an event to remember. But standing there in Camp Nelson, I couldn’t even remember how many hundred-thousand-acre fires we’d had that season. We could see the plume of the nearby fire—disquieting, since the Camp Fire was still burning at the time, having just rolled through the town of Paradise and killed scores of people within minutes.
“You goin’ up?” Mock asked. I have never been a fan of heights. But I figured that they’d gone to the length of bringing world-class climbers and all these mysterious ropes, clasps, and pulleys here to give someone like me a once-in-a-lifetime chance, which might soon become a never-in-a-lifetime chance. Suddenly I was being hoisted up the trunk of a tree that presented itself as a wall so large you could hardly tell it was round. And I did feel unspeakably moved, as I rose hundreds of feet up the trunk toward the lower branches, realizing that I had never seen sequoia greenery up close, that I had never touched a needle on a living branch, something I do with most Californian conifer species so often that I can differentiate many of them by smell or taste. I had never actually noticed that the sequoia has two leaf patterns—splayed hemlock-like needles and cedar-like scale leaves—for reasons I could not at the moment puzzle out and that I didn’t much care to ask about later. As far as I see it, we’ll never understand everything about why plants are the way they are, just as we’ll never really understand the same thing about people. And it’s better that way.
I’d been planning to camp, but I’d left all my gear in my towed truck. So I hung aimlessly around the lodge and talked with Mock while the Archangel crew cooked up a chicken stew for dinner. He’s a quick talker, but intensely humble. He makes no long-term plans for himself. When we talked about connecting over Christmas, a few weeks away, he shrugged. “That’s so far in the future, I couldn’t possibly know what I’ll be doing.” He is the trustee for 160 acres of land in southern Oregon, which he has poured his children’s inheritance into, but it’s not, as he said, “what you’d call a fixed residence.” He’s going through chemo and his plans for a permaculture palace have been held up for years by the local county’s planning commission, so he often stays on friends’ couches.
But he’s a tree person, and that seemed to take precedence over narrow human concerns. He had begun planting a redwood forest on his land, north of the redwoods’ traditional range, and this is a small but real boon: an adult redwood can store 250 or so tons of carbon dioxide. One government estimate predicted that reforestation projects could double the 16 percent of American emissions that are now absorbed by trees. But human-implemented forestry projects often fail when they’re planted with too little genetic diversity or with nonnative and unsuitable tree species. Massive reforestation projects in China and British Columbia have been plagued by these problems, and Milarch and Mock were trying to find a new way, using their—in theory, at least—fast-growing trees as anchors in a diverse forest. We do urgently need to learn better methods for growing a healthy forest quickly—which, like anything in the plant world, can be learned only by doing.
Mock suggests that we can both manage and participate in nature. For centuries in this area, the Miwok tribe sent burns through the Sierra understory to encourage the growth of black oaks, which produce the acorns they ate. Was this “natural”? How long did a person or a plant have to have been in the area to count as “native”? It’s a tricky road to go down: the great crops of the pre-Columbian southwestern cultures, the drought-tolerant corn and amaranths that I now grow at my house for fun, aren’t actually native—they were introduced thousands of years ago by cultural exchanges in what is now Mexico.
But there had to be a limit. I asked him what would happen if I planted a sequoia on the land I’d grown up on, in southwestern Ohio. It was a practical question: more than half the oaks and beeches in the woods behind my childhood home had died just in the twelve years since I’d left home—the result of an infestation of invasive Tarzan-vine-like Oriental bittersweet that was killing the trees almost as fast as my family and I could kill the parasites. The choice, as I saw it, was between an emergency reforestation project and letting the woods perish completely, another minor note in a dark symphony of worldwide disaster.
“The best way to find out is to plant one seed,” Mock said. “But we do know from experience and the latest science that you have to pay a lot more attention than we have to the microclimate and microorganisms in the soil.” This is where the mystery reasserts itself. “Because it’s a partnership between microorganisms and the big guy,” he said. “That’s what makes the whole thing work.”
We still don’t understand the unseen interaction between microorganisms, soil fungi, insects and other pollinators, and others further up the chain. Native gardens in Southern California do seem healthier than nonnative ones—there are more lizards, more hummingbirds and bees; the ground itself seems somehow more alive. But having nonnatives around doesn’t necessarily hurt, and might actually help. In December I toured the Gottlieb Native Garden in Beverly Hills, a famous, private native-plant garden, and was surprised to see a thriving and huge (for the species) desert mesquite tree. Mesquites are hardly native to LA’s Westside, but the little system was thriving, buzzing with pollinators and other small fauna. Maybe I’ll plant mesquites someday the way Mock plants redwoods in Oregon. I have not felt, these last few years, that there is much hope left for the South Sierra, for my childhood forest in Ohio, or for this world. But if we could make a political project where large numbers of people felt true intimacy with their local landscape—where everyone felt native on this deep level—it seems at least possible to build an environmental movement where people feel less disempowered and hopeless than at least I have these past few years, where it feels possible to actually do something.
We stayed up drinking late that night. It was far from the first time I’d gotten faded with a bunch of new friends in the Sierras, but it had the air of a different sort of bacchanal—at once a wake for a passing world and, perhaps, amid the smoke and the beer, a toast to a vision of a new planet.
The next morning I bummed a ride back. Mock and I talked over schemes to buy land and take up reforestry projects. We ate honeycrisp apples as we talked. “It’s funny how most people would never know that every one of these came from a clone,” Mock said. “That if you took your favorite apple and fertilized it, it wouldn’t be a honeycrisp anymore.”
This stuff can get wild when you look into it. Los Angeles once had a thriving walnut industry, but a commercial English walnut is almost impossible to grow in Southern California. The industry was built by grafting English walnut cuttings onto the local, native black walnut rootstock, the result of which was a hybrid native-transplant walnut tree, in what may be the single most evocatively Californian act of arborism ever committed.
“Yeah, it’s funny,” Mock continued. “I used to be so down on all the old botanical heroes—the guys who came and collected plants all over the world and brought them back to England to grow. But now I’m doing exactly what they did.”
He was obviously proud of the work, and I thought he had a right to be. I did not believe that he, Milarch, and company would save the world by planting big trees, but I did feel that people like them, working together, just might—they were bold enough to try something new, but were as deeply rooted and conscious of their environments as any people I’d ever met. This might be the exact combination of traits we all need to embody if we’re going to fight this catastrophe while avoiding the trap of humans-know-best arrogance that led us here in the first place.
“To me, ‘native’ just means that you’re a knowing part of an ecosystem,” Mock said. “That you understand your place in it, and know at least on some level how it works.” The history of the world’s environmental disasters is one of the unintended and unforeseen consequences. Short of simply abolishing civilization, I have never felt there was much hope we could break the cycle of lurching from one calamity to the next until the whole system falls apart. But maybe we can. This may be the moment when the bill finally comes due, or it may be when we as a society learn to be slightly more native, wherever we are.