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Commanded by Angels to Preserve the Earth’s Canopy

In honor of Earth Day, read how a near-death experience inspired a Michigan tree farmer to launch a reforestation project.

Sunset view over Danube river.
Credit: Getty Images
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Death was near, my body shutting down. I lay limp in my bed at home, barely aware of my wife, Kerry, and my mother at my side. All I felt was sadness. And regret. What a waste. I was an alcoholic, too often an embarrassment to Kerry and our two sons, Jared and Jake. I didn’t want my kids to see me like this.

Too late, that summer of ’92, I’d tried to get sober—cold turkey, here in my bed. But my liver and kidneys couldn’t take the sudden withdrawal. I could barely breathe, my lungs filling with fluid. A friend took me to the emergency room, where they gave me a blood transfusion, but the doctor’s face was grim.

“We need to put you on dialysis,” the doctor said. “That will give you time to say good-bye to your family.” I’d come home a day ago. I was still alive. Barely.

Forty-one years. What had I accomplished? I was proud of the boys. Jared was 12 and Jake was 10, my helpers on our family tree farm. I’d tried to encourage them, told them to never give up on their dreams. But Kerry was really the one who’d seen to their upbringing.

The farm, 150 acres in northern Michigan, was my other passion. We grew shade trees: maples, locusts, birch. Did my life even matter?

Suddenly I felt a hard pulse in my chest, like a thud. I floated from the bed toward the ceiling. I looked down. My body lay in the bed lifeless. I looked awful, bloated, my skin yellow and gray. Like I’d washed up on a beach. Is this it? I thought. My time on earth over?

I felt a touch, gentle, yet firm, on my right arm. I turned to see a beautiful female in a radiant white gown. There was a fragrance, sweeter than any flower. I breathed it deep into my lungs. “We know you’re scared,” she said. “But we’re here to help.”

“Who are you?” I said.

“We’re here to help you,” she repeated. To my left there was another female, nearly identical to the first, holding my other arm. Angels? I wondered to myself. What could they want from me?

We left the confines of the house and entered a tunnel of light. The walls were a brilliant white, except for the glow of a thin pink and blue helix running through it. Then we shot off, like we were on the tip of a missile. It scared the starch out of me. But it was only for a few seconds.

I stepped out onto a vista. Below me a white, sandy beach leading to a vast body of water. In the distance a gleaming metropolis, lit by a prism of light, like a sunrise. I felt a comfort I’d never dreamed possible.

Love. Unconditional love. It seemed to flow all around me, like waves caressing me. My sadness, my sense of failure left me. I wanted to stay here forever.

Dozens of light beings, radiant, glowing personages walked toward me on top of the water. They didn’t have wings. They wore white gowns but the light, shimmering around each of them, was golden.

In the midst of them was another angel, a towering presence. He looked to be at least ten feet tall. He was clearly leading the others. Under a dark blue cape he wore a translucent gown of lighter blue.

I heard a booming sound, like thunder. It was the lead angel. “You can’t stay. You must go back.”

“But…” I started.

“You have work to do,” he said. Work? What kind of work? I didn’t want to leave. But before I could get another word out I was back hurtling through the white tunnel with the first two angels to my bedroom. I lowered back into my body, and then they were gone.

But what was the work I was supposed to do? “Wait! Wait!” I shouted, suddenly sitting upright.

“David, what’s wrong?” Kerry said, taking my hand.

It took a moment for me to know where I was. “It’s nothing,” I said. “But I know I’m going to get better. There were angels…”

Kerry squeezed my hand. “Don’t talk,” she said. “You’re so weak.”

Day by day, week by week, my body healed. It wasn’t easy. But every morning and night, I saw a small white glow near the ceiling. I lived for those moments, an assurance that God was still with me. What is the work he wants from me? I wondered. It made me nervous, not knowing. What if I can’t do it?

But there was no further instruction. By fall I was strong enough to get out of bed. One day, with halting steps, I went out to the porch and sat in a lawn chair. Everything seemed more alive than I remembered it, the chickadees, jays and finches singing so joyfully from their perches in the trees.

I could almost sense what they were feeling—there was gladness and celebration, an energy about them, but also an unease—something not right in their world. It was amazing, like I was getting a glimpse behind a magical curtain.

Could this be what God meant for me? To be more in tune with nature? I could do that. It was kind of nice actually.

But that wasn’t the only change. I had no interest in alcohol. I got misty-eyed just sitting outside with the birds, working next to our sons on the farm, eating one of Kerry’s home-cooked meals. I had a tenderness and compassion I’d never felt before. I couldn’t understand it. Why was this happening to me?

Then one winter night I awoke just after 1:00 a.m., surprised to find the bedroom lit by the warm glow that had given me such comfort. The light grew brighter and brighter until it was blinding. I covered my eyes with my hands, but it barely made a difference.

Kerry was sound asleep by my side. “Okay, I’m listening,” I said. “Just tell me what I need to do.”

A soft, warm female voice said, “Get a pad and pen and go to the living room.”

I rose out of bed, found a legal pad and a pen and sat nervously on the edge of my leather chair. But the voice was gone. My eyes grew heavy. I awoke with a start and looked at the clock. 5:55 a.m. But what about…I looked down at the pad in my lap. Page after page, filled with a detailed, formal outline.

I stared in wonder at the words: Dying trees. Champion species. Cloning. Reforesting. It was my handwriting, but nothing I’d ever even thought about. I had no memory of taking any of it down.

My heart raced as I read through what I’d written. The earth’s trees and forests getting sicker, weakened by pollution, drought, disease and bugs able to survive the warmer winters.

I was to clone the biggest, strongest, hardiest trees—trees that had lived hundreds, even thousands of years—so the world could one day be restored to its natural order by the giants of the forest. I felt like Noah, a simple man told to become a shipbuilder and a zookeeper and…

There had to have been a mistake. I wasn’t a scientist. I didn’t know the first thing about cloning or the environment. Where to even begin?

I needed help, a second opinion. I went to Jared’s room and shook him awake. “I need you to read this and tell me what you think,” I said.

Jared’s eyes opened wide as he read. “Dad, this is amazing,” he said.

“Can I help? We need to do this.”

“You really think we can?” I said.

“Why not?” he said. “You’re always saying nothing’s impossible.”

That summer, nearly a year after the angels first visited me, Jared and I collected our first DNA from a sugar maple, after learning the technique from researchers in Oregon. Seventeen years later my original outline became a reality.

It’s grown from my family and me into a nonprofit with nearly a dozen employees and volunteers, the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive.

We’ve taken DNA from more than 60 of the most magnificent trees on the planet, coast redwoods, giant sequoias, bristlecone pine thousands of years old, willow and yew—enough to create thousands of trees. We’ve been helped by angels—both heavenly and earthly— every step of the way.

We’re all called to help the earth. You don’t have to be a scientist. You only have to listen to the angel beside you.

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