Trees in the U.S.: We came, we sawed
Trees in the U.S.: We came, we sawed
Histories of our country used to focus, overwhelmingly, on political, military or business men. But in recent years the protagonists of serious studies are often nonhuman. Eric Rutkow, a lawyer studying to acquire a doctorate in history, has written “American Canopy,” a history of trees in the United States.
Little trees, exotic trees, but above all big trees in magnificent forests. That was the predominant way European settlers viewed North America in the 17th century. There seemed little but immense forests to behold, an impressive but also frightening wilderness, an “uncivil place,” to use one nervous quotation.
But as colonists settled in, they realized that there was a good side to this. Europeans had been cutting down trees to construct buildings and provide heat for many years, leaving a shortage of wood. Now, a vast new source of timber had opened up. Settlers went about the task of cutting with fervor and dispatch and kept at it for four centuries. British domination of North America regulated this grand reserve of woodlands; from the evidence supplied in “American Canopy,” it is easy to see why British statesmen were anxious about signs of rebellion. But an independent U.S. was as eager as ever to sell wood and wood products, and the urge to replace forests with farms followed American expansion from one ocean to the next.
Of course not all of our country was equally well supplied with trees. Beyond the Mississippi Valley the soil grows less fertile, and much of the Louisiana Purchase was once called the Great American Desert. That didn’t prevent settlers from chopping down trees they did find, and thus making the land more desertlike.
This trend did not go unnoticed. In the mid-19th century farsighted observers began to point out the eradication of trees, and to propose plans of reforestation. J. Sterling Morton was a noted advocate of tree-planting, and was the founder of Arbor Day, nationally the last Friday in April. This movement gained strength; most of Rutkow’s book is a chronicle of that cause.
Two men, in particular, became famous advocates — John Muir and Gifford Pinchot. This book follows the customary practice in contrasting the philosophies of these ardent nature lovers. Muir was a physically tough, spiritually gentle enthusiast for primitive life. Pinchot, on the other hand, was a more urbane student of forestry, eager to preserve forests with the end of exploiting their product in a sustainable manner, allying the natural world with the goals of a developing industrial society. The two worked together on practical matters, but their long-distant goals were opposed.
The public figures who championed conservation were almost all on Pinchot’s side. The most famous of this group was Theodore Roosevelt, whose reputation has increasingly been built on his record as a conserver of natural resources. Roosevelt took a famous jaunt into the woodlands of California with Muir, impressing the latter with his stamina.
But Roosevelt also was a close friend of Pinchot. The presidents before Roosevelt had set aside wild areas as public preserves, but TR outdid them in his zeal. No successor was quite as ardent, but the author points out that many were extenders of his policies, especially the second Roosevelt, Franklin, who described himself as a tree-lover.
In recent years the growth of national parks has continued, with some agitation under the least sympathetic chief of state, Ronald Reagan. But the advance of concern for trees has kept up with the wood-devouring demands of industry.
There is much in this book on the prevalence of wood products in our life, but more on their deeper significance. This book is not merely a history, but an eloquent advocate of, as Rutkow writes, “how trees change from enemy, to friend, to potential savior.”
Joseph Losos is a St. Louis investment adviser.