By Erin Crowell
High in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, 7,000 feet above sea level, Meryl
Marsh dangles from a tree limb the size of an oak trunk, reaching for a
new growth branch a facial hair in comparison to the 400-foot-tall
sequoia it and Marsh are attached to.
Marsh, 29, is a collector for the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive (AATA), a
Traverse City-based non-profit that propagates, reforests and archives
some of the worlds oldest growth trees, some over 3,000-years-old.
These include the towering and iconic Coast Redwood, Mountain Ash, Bur Oak
and Cedar of Lebanon, among others just a few of the 100 tree species in
the world that Archangel believes are the most important for archiving in
living libraries, for reforestation and to help restore planetary health
through carbon sequestration and oxygenation.
While others would cringe at being so high, Marsh says she enjoys it.
You dont want to come down, she says. Its the most peaceful view,
and you get this overwhelming sense of calm and peace.
In order to fulfill their mission, the organization must enlist the work
of a professional tree climber to obtain specimens that can beat timesat
the top of these 400-foot-tall trees; but instead of contracting out
climbers for each job, which can be pricey, the organization decided to
train two of its own: Marsh, a field operations coordinator based in their
Traverse City officeand Jake Milarch, propagation supervisor and fourth
generation nurseryman. Jakes brother, Jared, founded Milarch Brothers
Nursery and Landscaping, while his father, David, founded AATA.
Marsh and Milarch spent several days training with ArborMaster, a
Connecticut-based business that provides safety, skills and productivity
training for people and organizations that work with, in and around trees.
These industry sectors include utility line clearance companies,
government, military, commercial/residential, universities, landscape and
Depending on the industry sector, training through ArborMaster includes
everything from tree climbing and rigging to large tree pruning and aerial
Were more specialized in that we use the most non-invasive way to get in
and get out, says Marsh.
Archangel does not use climbing boots with spikes and the only cutting
involves taking small samples of new growth about a foot in length,
Those growths are generally located where the tree gets the most sunlight
sometimes at the very top, adds Marsh.
But before Marsh can even set foot on a tree, there are several steps in
the propagation process.
The firstand most obviousis locating a tree, then the group must get
permission from landowners, determine the best time of year to access it
and how to get there.
Depending on the tree and its height, collection can take anywhere from a
couple of hours to an entire day.
The longest process is setting the line, which involves anything from
throwing a weighted bag over the crotch (where the trunk splits) to using
the big shot a sling shot off an eight-foot pole that shoots the line
over a large limb, up to 300 feet in the air.
Tree climbing and rock climbing are very similar in that both are
considered sports and require vertical travel, using very similar
equipment this includes a harness, helmet, climbing rope, carabiners and
other hardware, although the design may be slightly different.
What separates them most definitely is by way of ascension. Rock climbers
use the rock to climb, while tree climbers must access limbs hundreds of
feet in the air via rope.
Marsh uses an ascender attached directly to the rope to hold and move
upward as she takes out slack, a type of pull and step that has her inch
worming upas she puts itwithout putting one foot or hand on the tree
You have to use an ascender, otherwise youre completely cashed because
youre moving your own body weight, she says.
While the equipment helps, the job is still taxing.
It requires a lot of strength and endurance.
Although fairly new to the sport, Marsh credits her climbing ability to
her athletic background. The Western Michigan University graduate ran
track, where she double majored in writing and music, a far cry from her
I do use writing in this position pretty often, Marsh concedes about her
current job as a field operations coordinator, which involves seeing a
project from beginning to end.
I also do a lot of marketing; but I didnt have a background in
horticulture. Im constantly on a steep learning curve, learning the ins
and outs of propagation and cloning and environment function. Im never
finished learning that stuff.
Born in California and raised in Hartland, Michiganwith a post-college
stint in ChicagoMarsh spent a few years out of college in Belgium. It was
living there and a meeting with AATA former executive director Leslie Lee
that Marsh became responsible for global operations.
Two years later, Marsh spends a majority of her time in the Traverse City
office and every other month out in the forest canopy.
We just returned from a two-week collection trip in California. Before, I
was in Ireland for 10 days doing oak collections. The forest is temperate,
green with moss and ferns. You get up there and theres trees growing out
of other trees and limbs so wide you can lay down on them.
AATA has traveled to several U.S. states, the Sierras, numerous places in
Michigan, as well as the Netherlands.
We want to get to Austria and New Zealand, she adds. We have trees
specked out all over the world; its just a matter of funding.
While Marsh enjoys escaping from the rest of the world on her climbs and
being places very few have ever wandered, she believes the best part about
her job is being a part of the overall mission.
What were doing is not for our lifetime. You have to have vision for the
future, but you also have to effect change on a daily basis. You climb a
giant sequoia that has literally been standing for the last thousand years
you have to wrap your mind around it. To think, I am part of a living
heritage that will be around, hopefully, for another thousand years.
For more information on the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, visit
ancienttreearchive.org. The New York Times also recently featured the
organization in an April 9 article: nytimes.com.