Master arborist talks trees at library

Ilena Peng/Town Crier
Apple Park’s master arborist Dave Muffly, dubbed the “tree whisperer,” leads a May 22 lecture at the Los Altos main library.

When Dave Muffly began working as Apple Park’s master arborist, he was known as “the acorn guy.” Approximately 9,000 trees later, publications like Wired magazine and the Los Angeles Times have dubbed him the “tree whisperer” – the man who can make trees grow anywhere.

Muffly, who spoke in front of a packed room at the Los Altos main library May 22, describes “tree whisperer” as his “superhero name,” but science – not magic – sets the foundation for his success rates.

“I know all these different disciplines and they all come together with trees,” he said in an interview after his May 22 lecture. “The reason I can succeed is because I understand geology, I understand soil, I understand climatology, I understand evolutionary biology. You put it all together and you can do what I do, but in my industry, knowledge at my level doesn’t happen.”

A Stanford University graduate and Santa Barbara resident, Muffly spoke for more than an hour at the community forum hosted by local environmental organization GreenTown Los Altos. Ninety-nine people attended the talk, some of them relegated to sitting on the ground because all the seats were full.

Muffly launched the California Billion Trees Initiative last month, setting the initiative’s goals based on scientific research. He aims to plant a billion more trees based on new research released earlier this year that a trillion more trees could stabilize the climate. Muffly hopes the trees will be planted by 2030 because of a 2018 United Nations report that the planet’s climate will be a “Venus-like hothouse” if the carbon concentration isn’t lowered within the next decade, he said.

Muffly estimated that he will need a million volunteers to plant a billion trees, but thinking big has become his norm after his work on the 133-acre Apple Park in Cupertino.

“What Apple got me used to doing was adding a bunch of zeros to everything I did – add a zero to the number of trees, add maybe some more zeros to cost, so it was just a matter of adding zeros,” he said. “I learned to think really, really big because I had to, and now I feel like my mind is just expanding as far as seeing what’s possible.”

Resilience is key

Muffly emphasized planting more “resilient” trees that suit the current climate to ensure their survival, as native trees like coastal live oaks die out because of changing climates.

“We actually need the trees to grow,” he said. “We don’t need some feel-good project where we plant millions of trees and you come back a year later and 90% of them are dead.”

The master arborist referred to the identification of resilient species as the “arsenal of ecology,” which he plans to expand on this summer as he collects acorns for the Billion Trees Initiative. He is also reaching out to organizations statewide who may be interested in buying and planting trees.

“I think that if I can make the seeds available and I can educate the brightest and most influential Californians, I think it’ll take care of itself from there,” he said.

Muffly now works as a consulting arborist who helps design tree plantings for what he called “prominent” clients but said he primarily considers himself a science teacher.

“It’s just what I am,” he said. “It’s just what I do because I know all this information that is increasingly rare as we more or less abandon basic science in America. I’ve got all this rare knowledge and it’s just the most satisfying thing in the world to share it and have people appreciate it.”

Kris Jensen, executive director of GreenTown, first met Muffly in 2010 while they were planting trees in East Palo Alto. He said the organization wanted to hold a community forum with Muffly to educate others about trees as a tool for preventing climate change and garner volunteers to help plant trees.

“It’s not like you can just stick (a tree) in the ground and hope for the best,” he said. “There’s certain steps that you want to take to make sure the tree has a healthy start and then hopefully … those volunteers will be around to help support the tree over its lifetime. … We’re not the experts on that and we want to work with those who really know how to do this really really well, rather than reinventing the wheel.”

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