June 01, 2012

American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation

JoAnne L. Dunec

Eric Rutkow, American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation, Scribner, 2012.

Man has too long forgotten that the earth was given to him for usufruct alone, not for consumption, still less for profligate waste.

—George Perkins Marsh, Man and Nature, 1864

In his introduction, Eric Rutkow observes, “[h]ow easy it is to forget that much of American history has been defined by trees.” He continues:

Each year, the average American consumes roughly 250 board feet of timber, 200 square feet of plywood and other structural panel products, and 700 pounds of paper and paperboard. More than 2.5 million American’s hold jobs directly dependent on the country’s woodlands. Nearly 20 percent of the nation’s freshwater originates in the national forests. . . . Trees also provide raw materials for countless medicines, plastics, technological devices and artificial food. Additionally, some believe that our trees will hold the key to the country’s future, as they have in the past. Our illimitable forests, which extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store much of it as wood and other plant matter, may provide an opportunity to combat global warming.

American Canopy explores “[h]ow trees changed from enemy, to friend, to potential savior. How forests morphed from obstacles to timber reserves to tree farms to sanctuaries of nature [and h]ow wood built the country.” Rutkow explains:

This story is uniquely American. No other country was populated because of its trees quite like the United States. Nowhere else has the culture been so intimately associated with wood. Entire states were peopled specifically for their trees: lumbering in the Northwest; orange growing in Florida and Southern California. Such great American cities as Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and Seattle would have looked completely different without the early commercial opportunities that trees provided. The industrial advance of the late nineteenth century—America’s great surge forward—may have been exploiting steam trains, telegraphs, and electricity, but it depended on cheap, abundant wood for rail ties, fuel, buildings, and utility poles. The nation’s military might also owe its fair debt to trees, unsung heroes of both world wars—for forests were recruited alongside soldiers. And after World War II, when a fast-rising population needed new housing, it was cheap timber that allowed for the sudden emergence of the suburbs, where, it should be noted, a tree could be found in every yard.

He continues:

It is no surprise that trees would shape America more than other nations. After all, America has some of the most spectacular tree resources on the planet. Forests once covered almost half of the contiguous states, a staggering 950 million acres. The diverse geography across the country gives America ideal soil for almost any type of tree, from the palms of Southern California to the pines of New England. The United States is home to the world’s biggest trees (the giant sequoias), the world’s tallest trees (the coastal redwoods), and the world’s oldest trees (the bristlecone pines). The biggest single organism on earth is also a tree species—and is also American—a stand of quaking aspens in Utah, known as Pando; it reproduces clonally, weighs sixty-six hundred tons, and is tens of thousands if not millions of years old.

Even the birth of our nation involved a tree. The Sons of Liberty used the now famous Liberty Tree in Boston as the focal point for the popular protests which led to the American Revolution. Familiar political terms, “log-rolling” and “stump speech” derive from trees. Notes the author, “‘[l]og-rolling,’ a term for trading favors to advance legislation, derived from the practice of neighbors teaming together to roll logs off of newly cut land [and t]he ‘stump speech,’ another staple of American politics, was once a campaign oration literally delivered from atop a tree stump, [reflected] a wide spread practice when ever-present stumps formed natural platforms.” Trees remain potent symbols as witnessed by the Survivor Tree, a Callery pear tree found alive at Ground Zero, dedicated at the 9/11 memorial in New York City.

However, observes the author:

[t]he journey has been neither straightforward nor certain. Along the way have been many obstacles, and some outright failures. Threats of a “timber famine” lingered into the mid-twentieth century. Diseases decimated two of the nation’s most beloved species. Logging and pollution severely reduced the numbers of many others. Fears over job security nearly allowed the country’s last stands of old-growth forest to be wiped out. The tropical rain forests continue to fall. Climate change is but the latest—and perhaps most consequential—challenge to the nation’s forests. . . . America’s forests and trees are more necessary now than ever.

JoAnne L. Dunec