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

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This fascinating and groundbreaking work tells the remarkable story of the relationship between Americans and their trees across the entire span of our nation’s history.

Like many of us, historians have long been guilty of taking trees for granted. Yet the history of trees in America is no less remarkable than the history of the United States itself—from the majestic white pines of New England, which were coveted by the British Crown for use as masts in navy warships, to the ...

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Overview

This fascinating and groundbreaking work tells the remarkable story of the relationship between Americans and their trees across the entire span of our nation’s history.

Like many of us, historians have long been guilty of taking trees for granted. Yet the history of trees in America is no less remarkable than the history of the United States itself—from the majestic white pines of New England, which were coveted by the British Crown for use as masts in navy warships, to the orange groves of California, which lured settlers west. In fact, without the country’s vast forests and the hundreds of tree species they contained, there would have been no ships, docks, railroads, stockyards, wagons, barrels, furniture, newspapers, rifles, or firewood. No shingled villages or whaling vessels in New England. No New York City, Miami, or Chicago. No Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, or Daniel Boone. No Allied planes in World War I, and no suburban sprawl in the middle of the twentieth century. America—if indeed it existed—would be a very different place without its millions of acres of trees.

As Eric Rutkow’s brilliant, epic account shows, trees were essential to the early years of the republic and indivisible from the country’s rise as both an empire and a civilization. Among American Canopy’s many fascinating stories: the Liberty Trees, where colonists gathered to plot rebellion against the British; Henry David Thoreau’s famous retreat into the woods; the creation of New York City’s Central Park; the great fire of 1871 that killed a thousand people in the lumber town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin; the fevered attempts to save the American chestnut and the American elm from extinction; and the controversy over spotted owls and the old-growth forests they inhabited. Rutkow also explains how trees were of deep interest to such figures as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Teddy Roosevelt, and FDR, who oversaw the planting of more than three billion trees nationally in his time as president.

As symbols of liberty, community, and civilization, trees are perhaps the loudest silent figures in our country’s history. America started as a nation of people frightened of the deep, seemingly infinite woods; we then grew to rely on our forests for progress and profit; by the end of the twentieth century we came to understand that the globe’s climate is dependent on the preservation of trees. Today, few people think about where timber comes from, but most of us share a sense that to destroy trees is to destroy part of ourselves and endanger the future.

Never before has anyone treated our country’s trees and forests as the subject of a broad historical study, and the result is an accessible, informative, and thoroughly entertaining read. Audacious in its four-hundred-year scope, authoritative in its detail, and elegant in its execution, American Canopy is perfect for history buffs and nature lovers alike and announces Eric Rutkow as a major new author of popular history.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Some hip post-modernists regard a forest as a density of mind-deadening repetition, but our ancestors knew better. In fact, our expanses of shady coniferous canopies attracted the attention of the English Crown as early as 1584 and our great cities could not have been built without our abundance of wood. Eric Rutkow's American Canopy escorts readers through the neglected contributions of timber to our nation's history. The chronicle of one essential that the vast majority of us take for granted.

Vicki Powers

Publishers Weekly
The unintentional destruction of the oldest tree in recorded history, a 5,000-year-old bristlecone pine, opens environmental lawyer and historian Rutkow’s first book—an ambitious, panoramic view of American history from the perspective of our trees and forests, with a large supporting cast of humans. Some are familiar faces, like John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed) and Henry David Thoreau, while others are less well-known, such as Frederick Weyerhaeuser, the father of industrial logging. America’s rapid industrial expansion after the Civil War wouldn’t have been possible without an abundant supply of cheap lumber. Industrialization denuded the forests and heralded an era of more frequent and larger forest fires, most notably the little remembered Peshtigo Fire of 1871 in Michigan and Wisconsin, perhaps the deadliest forest fire in history. Rutkow writes of the growing appreciation of nature as a source of spiritual renewal, a change in consciousness that led to the conservation movement and the environmental movement. Better stewardship of America’s natural resources has been the broad trend of the past century, Rutkow concludes, though there is “a long lineage of Americans realizing that they had abused their greatest renewable resource when it was too late.” Though a great potential resource for students, the book may prove too dry for general readers, and not original enough for specialists. Agent: Eric Simonoff, William Morris Endeavor. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
“An original and often surprising take on American history.” —Wall Street Journal

“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.’” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“A lively story of driven personalities, resources that were once thought to be endless, brilliant ideas, tragic mistakes and the evolution of the United States. Rutkow has cut through America’s use and love of trees to reveal the rings of our nation’s history and the people who have helped shape it.” —San Diego Union Tribune

"An excellent book for both academics and general readers, this is highly recommended." -Library Journal

"An even-handed and comprehensive history that could not be more relevant...The woods, Rutkow’s history reminds us again and again, are essential to our humanity." —Business Week

"A deeply fascinating survey of American history through a particularly interesting angle: down through the boughs of our vanished trees." -Boston Globe

“For those who see our history through the traditional categories of politics, economics, and culture, a delightful feast awaits. In this remarkably inventive book, Eric Rutkow looks at our national experience through the lens of our magnificent trees, showing their extraordinary importance in shaping how we lived, thrived, and expanded as a people. A beautifully written, devilishly original piece of work.”

—David Oshinsky, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Polio: An American Story

"Right from its quietly shocking prelude—the cavalier and surprisingly recent murder of the oldest living thing in North America—Eric Rutkow’s splendid saga shows, through a chain of stories and biographical sketches that are intimate, fresh, and often startling, how trees have shaped every aspect of our national life. Here is the tree as symbol and as tool, as companion and enemy, as a tonic for our spirits and the indispensable ingredient of our every enterprise from the colonization voyages to the transcontinental railroad to Levittown. The result, both fascinating and valuable, is a sort of shadow history of America. Toward the end of his finest novel, F. Scott Fitzgerald writes that the 'vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of human dreams.' AMERICAN CANOPY retrieves those trees and does full-rigged (on tall, white pine masts) justice to the dream."

—Richard Snow, author of A Measureless Peril and former Editor-in-Chief of American Heritage

"AMERICAN CANOPY marks the debut of an uncommonly gifted young historian and writer. Ranging across four centuries of history, Eric Rutkow shows the manifold ways in which trees—and woodland—and wood—have shaped the contours of American life and culture. And because he has managed to build the story around gripping events and lively characters, the book entertains as much as it as informs. All in all, a remarkable performance!"

—John Demos, Samuel Knight Professor of History at Yale University, and author of Entertaining Satan, winner of the Bancroft Prize in American History, and The Unredeemed Captive, which was a finalist for the National Book Award

Library Journal
Environmental lawyer and American history doctoral student Rutkow embarks on a journey spanning 400 years to reintroduce Americans to the importance of trees and end the too-common practice of taking trees for granted. In this thoroughly researched book, he demonstrates that the foundation, exploration, and expansion of the United States were not based solely on the deeds of humans. Rutkow argues, instead, that the endeavors of early Americans could not have been successful without this particular natural resource. Far from a dry read, this book's prose and tone will immediately draw readers into the story of the remarkable aid trees gave not only to past Colonists and settlers but also to present-day industries. VERDICT Rutkow tells stories both poignant (e.g., the destruction of the world's oldest tree) and inspiring (e.g., the formation of national parks to protect forested areas) and presents the facts of this history in an easy-to-absorb and clear manner. An excellent book for both academics and general readers, this is highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 10/21/11.]—Kyrille Goldbeck-DeBose, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg
Library Journal
"The woods are lovely, dark and deep": or maybe not so lovely to the first European settlers of this country, who found the forests positively foreboding but were soon exploiting them. Doctoral student Rutkow offers one of those specific takes on history that could be a real delight; the publisher is certainly enthusiastic.
Kirkus Reviews
An appreciation of how much American history was shaped and defined by trees. From the earliest "plantations," as colonial settlements were known in the 17th century, to our understanding of today's climate change, forests have been a driving force in both national development and consciousness, writes Rutkow in this impressive survey. Although the book suffers from a lack of material on the Native American experience with the forests, Rutkow is in command of a prodigious amount of material, which he carefully keeps in forward motion. The author unhurriedly wends his way from the "marketable commodities" of timber-trade–based colonization, through the political symbolism of the Liberty Trees and the Charter Oaks, to the rise of the ornamental-tree business and Benjamin Franklin's efforts to catalog American trees. As he chronicles the importance of hard cider on the frontier ("the first great American drink"), the rise of the transcendentalists and the citrus industry, rail and telegraph, the denuding of the Lake States and the excitement generated by Arbor Day and Earth Day, Rutkow knits numerous vest-pocket biographies into the picture. These include both high- and low-profile actors, from Johnny Appleseed to Henry David Thoreau, Gifford Pinchot to Gaylord Nelson, William Levitt to Teddy Roosevelt, who helped fashion "an overarching philosophy that all natural resources ought to be managed with an eye to sustainability and efficient use." A meaty history of the American forest and a convincing testament to its continued political, cultural and environmental importance.
Colin Woodard
Rutkow makes some hyperbolic assertions at the outset…but the general arguments are sound and enlightening…American Canopy is, at its core, a collection of tree tales, many of them wonderfully enjoyable…readers will come away from this, Rutkow's first book, with a greater appreciation of the role of both forests and trees in our ongoing national story.
—The Washington Post
Business Week
"An even-handed and comprehensive history that could not be more relevant...The woods, Rutkow’s history reminds us again and again, are essential to our humanity."
San Diego Union-Tribune
“Rutkow has cut through America’s use and love of trees to reveal the rings of our nation’s history and the people who have helped shape it.”
San Diego Union Tribune
“Rutkow has cut through America’s use and love of trees to reveal the rings of our nation’s history and the people who have helped shape it.”
David Oshinsky
“A beautifully written, devilishly original piece of work.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781439193549
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 4/24/2012
  • Pages: 406
  • Product dimensions: 6.44 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author

Eric Rutkow is a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School. He has worked as a lawyer on environmental issues across three continents. He currently splits his time between New York City and New Haven, Connecticut, where, in addition to writing, he is pursuing a doctorate in American History at Yale. This is his first book.

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Read an Excerpt

American Canopy


  • Introduction

The Death of Prometheus

ON THE MORNING of August 6, 1964, thirty-year-old Donald Currey was leading several men up a trail along Wheeler Peak, the highest mountain in Nevada. One of Currey’s companions wore a U.S. Forest Service uniform, a second lugged a chainsaw, and a third carried a camera to document the event that would follow. They hiked through the thinning air for several hours, past clusters of piñon pines and Utah junipers. Eventually, the men reached the timberline, a point 10,750 feet high on the mountain, where tall plants yielded to the onslaught of nature’s winds and nothing survived beyond scrubby vegetation. There, on the environment’s edge, Currey’s team would encounter one of the world’s more remarkable trees, the bristlecone pine. And there, they would change five thousand years of history.

The bristlecone pine is found only in the mountains of the southwestern United States at altitudes that sustain few other life-forms. The rugged environment sculpts the bristlecones into a dramatic, gnarled form, more horizontal than vertical, the physiognomy of an endless battle against the elements. On the wind-facing side, sand particles sheer away outer bark in a process called die-back. The wood beneath looks almost polished, as though it has been petrified alive. John Muir, the eminent naturalist, wrote that the bristlecone “offers a richer and more varied series of forms to the artist than any conifer I know of.” The trees can grow up to thirty feet high and twenty around, but often maintain living needles in only a small section—an indoor Christmas tree’s worth of green—which produces the distinctive prickle-tipped purple cones that lend the conifer its name.

In 1958 the bristlecone pine had created a giant measure of excitement within a tiny segment of the scientific community when a National Geographic article declared that the species produced the oldest trees on earth. Edmund Schulman, the scientist who wrote the piece, explained that he had used tree-ring dating—literally counting up the annual rings in the trunk—to identify multiple bristlecone specimens in California’s Inyo National Forest that were more than four thousand years old. The most impressive find, a tree containing 4,676 rings, was named Methuselah, a nod to the longest-lived figure in the Bible. The National Geographic article asserted that the oldest bristlecones were located “at the western limit of their range” where Methuselah grew, suggesting that Schulman’s biblically named discovery was quite possibly the world’s oldest tree.

Schulman’s finding held great promise for a variety of reasons. Tree rings recorded climatic activity with remarkable precision—wetter years generated widely spaced rings, drier periods kept them close, and all trees in a given area corresponded. Consequently, these bristlecones were silent but scrupulous witnesses to several millennia of droughts, floods, shifting rivers, and retreating glaciers. Their rings offered scientists, specifically dendrochronologists (those who study tree rings), a chance to reconstruct the local climate to dates contemporaneous with the building of the Egyptian pyramids.

Currey, a graduate student in geography, was hoping to exploit this relationship between trees and history. He wanted to develop a climatic timeline connected to glacier growth and rock settlements in the Southwest as far back as 2000 BCE. His research centered on geological features in eastern Nevada’s Snake Range, a mountain chain capped by the imposing 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak. Bristlecones near the range’s timberline held valuable data within the rings of their trunks.

Currey’s research site was several hundred miles east of the Methuselah find. Thus, he anticipated finding only specimens much younger than those featured in National Geographic. During the summer of 1964, however, he stumbled upon something unexpected. A bristlecone stand in the national forest tract known as the Wheeler Peak Scenic Area appeared to contain trees as old as anything that Schulman had described. An eager Currey began to take samples of the trees using his twenty-eight-inch-long Swedish increment borer, a sophisticated hand tool with an aperture approximately the size of a drinking straw that removed a fragment of the trunk without causing permanent damage. Day after day, he scrambled over the limestone soil and the deposited rock that surrounded the bristlecones, carrying his notebook and Swedish borer alongside, collecting samples that he could later analyze under a microscope.

Currey’s 114th specimen was the most spectacular that he encountered. He measured it as having “a dead crown 17 feet high, a living shoot 11 feet high, and a 252-inch circumference 18 inches above the ground.” Such a wide base would have required four men with arms outstretched to encircle it. Currey also noted that the tree’s bark, which was necessary for its survival, was only “present along a single 19-inch-wide, north-facing strip.” The winds and sand had worn away everything else. But the tree was alive and still producing its compact bunches of needles on a three-inch-wide shoot.

Currey attempted to sample this tree, which he labeled WPN-114, but his borer broke. He tried again and damaged his reserve borer. Without equipment, he was suddenly stymied. This ancient specimen stood before him, its rings holding the secrets to several thousand years of climate change, and he had no way to study it, not with his borers, anyway.

Currey appealed to the district Forest Service ranger, explaining that he wanted to cut down WPN-114 and study the cross-section directly. At the time, sawing down trees for dendrochronological research was not uncommon—even Schulman admitted in National Geographic to felling three samples, though not Methuselah itself. The Forest Service ranger consulted with his supervisor and determined that the tree “was like many others and was not the type that the public would visit” and that it would better serve science and education. The supervisor concluded, “Cut ’er down.”

Shortly thereafter, on that August 6 morning, Currey led the cutting team up Wheeler Peak. When they reached WPN-114, the men took turns sawing away at the tree. Several hours later there was nothing left but an enormous stump.

Currey brought the prepared samples to his microscope and began counting tree rings. Then he made a startling discovery. There were 4,844 rings, nearly two hundred more than in Methuselah. And WPN-114 had been cut down several feet above its true base, losing access to some of the earliest rings. The tree could have easily been five thousand years old. Schulman had been wrong about where the oldest bristlecones lived.

Thirty-year-old Donald Currey had unintentionally felled the most ancient tree ever discovered—an organism already wizened when Columbus reached Hispaniola, middle-aged when Caesar ruled Rome, and starting life when the Sumerians created mankind’s first written language.

The next year, Currey quietly published his discovery in the journal Ecology. The three-page article, written in the scientific passive voice, acknowledged that WPN-114 was the oldest tree on record but postulated that future research would yield many older specimens.

However, the only thing that the future actually yielded was a growing controversy over why WPN-114 was allowed to be cut down in the first place. The forest ranger who had claimed that the tree held no interest for the public had been wrong. Conservationists knew about the bristlecones and had earlier named WPN-114 “Prometheus” after the Titan who stole fire from Zeus, gave it to man, and then suffered eternally for his action. These conservationists claimed that the Forest Service had acted recklessly in permitting the cutting. Stories that a member of Currey’s team had died carrying a slab of Prometheus down Wheeler Peak left some observers suggesting that the tree had taken a life to remedy the injustice. Several dendrochronologists attacked Currey as an ignorant graduate student who didn’t know how to handle a borer and had little or no scientific reason to fell this particular sample.

Evidence supported both sides of the controversy, depending on which accounts were used, and new perspectives leaked out over the decades. As late as 1996, the Forest Service ranger who authorized the cutting wrote a memo to correct “the many rumors,” and Currey himself gave the occasional interview up until his death in 2004. The only facts that anyone seemed to agree upon were that WPN-114 was the oldest tree ever discovered and that Americans had intentionally killed it.

THE DEATH OF Prometheus was a tragedy, something to reflect upon with disbelief. Some of us, the more environmentally inclined, may react with anger, even outrage, knowing that scientists discovered such a marvelous tree only to steal it with a hasty and arrogant hand. After all, nothing can bring the elder statesman of the plant kingdom back. Others among us, perhaps more than would admit it in public, may simply shrug. It was one tree hidden on a mountain almost no one visited, whose only distinction was having been there longer than logic would suggest, a literal freak of nature, a sideshow act in wood. There are plenty of other bristlecones.

But to treat the felling of Prometheus in isolation misses much of the story. The controversy was not merely a localized battle between dendrochronologists, conservationists, and the men holding sap-stained chainsaws. It was a tiny chapter in a much larger narrative of trees and America, or trees and Americans, two members of the natural environment who are constantly acting on one another, and over time changing as a result. Trivial details in the Prometheus story represent important shifts in America’s relationship with wood, trees, and nature.

Take the location of the tree, for example. Wheeler Peak Scenic Area was part of a national forest, a type of government-controlled land first created in the late nineteenth century. For much of American history, the idea that the government would control some of the forests seemed ridiculous, an affront to the spirit of individualism and private property that helped build the country.

The controversy itself formed part of a long lineage of Americans realizing that they had abused their great renewable resource when it was too late. Sometimes, this awakening involved a single tree, like the Liberty Tree that the Boston patriots could not protect from the axes of the British redcoats. Other times, it was a single species, such as the American chestnut, which was once the mightiest forest tree and now is little more than a legend due to an imported disease. Often, it was an entire forest, like the white pine belts of New England and the Lake States, which fell victim to America’s logging industry.

The death of Prometheus offers only the tiniest window into this rich and wide-ranging history of Americans and their trees. The tale of how they shaped each other over time is simply too large, too multilayered, too varied for any single bristlecone on a lonesome timberline in Nevada. This larger story, however, forms the subject of American Canopy.

HOW EASY IT is to forget that much of American history has been defined by trees.

Giovanni da Verrazzano, the first European to leave a detailed account of a journey to North America, marveled in 1524 that “the wooddes [were] so greate and thicke that an armye (were it never so greate) mighte have hydd it selfe therein.” He labeled this heavily forested land Acadia, meaning “idyllic place.” The trees, in his opinion, were the most useful thing the land had to offer.

But Verrazzano’s observation is high praise, for there is simply nothing else in nature quite as helpful to man as a tree. Timber is a universal building material, essential for shelter, furniture, tools, and countless types of transport. The initial English efforts to colonize America depended, in no small part, on a desire to secure timber for construction of the great naval fleet that would soon come to define the British Empire. Once European settlers began to infiltrate America’s mighty forests, many would build dwellings that were little more than felled logs, stacked in a pile, sealed with a bit of mud and straw. Even now, most homes are constructed mainly with softwood timbers and sheets of plywood. Trees were also the nation’s essential source of fuel for hundreds of years. Wood was used in the forges and furnaces of almost every American manufacturing industry, every steam engine, and every family hearth. Furthermore, the pulp of trees is the source of manufactured paper, an unsung pillar of advanced society. The transition to inexpensive wood-pulp paper, which began in the 1860s, allowed for an explosion in written materials—daily penny papers, dime novels, low-cost stationery—that would forever alter the culture of the country. The creation of every horseshoe, wagon, carriage, gun, bottle, ship, train, and early airplane required trees. Every mine, corral, stockyard, tannery, mill, refinery, dock, barge, telegraph and telephone line, and early oil derrick required trees. James Hall, the famous American geologist, once said, “Well may ours be called a wooden country; not merely from the extent of its forests, but because in common use wood has been substituted for a number of the most necessary and common articles—such as stone, iron, and even leather.”

But to speak of timber or fuel or pulp is to flatten trees into a single dimension. They also provide sustenance: sap into sugar, seeds into nuts and fruits. Their foliage brings life to desolate landscapes, their roots stability to shaky soils. Finally, on a hot summer day, there are few pleasures that rival hiding in the shade beneath the boughs of a noble oak.

Over the years, technology has obscured the vital role that trees have played in shaping society. Steel and plastic replaced timber. Coal and oil substituted for firewood. Digital screens are crowding out paper copies. Industrial food chains have left almost no one relying directly on the forests for dinner. Sometimes it seems like this was always the way, man’s dominion over nature. Americans interact with trees that have been circumscribed, commoditized. Our furniture is a thin veneer of wood placed over synthetic materials. The wooden supports of our homes are tucked away from view with drywall and vinyl siding. Forests are cordoned off in carefully delimited regions, far away from the cities and suburbs. The juice from the fruit of trees has been pasteurized and homogenized.

This separation from nature makes it easy to forget just how important trees are to our lives today. 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 Americans hold jobs directly dependent on the country’s woodlands. Nearly 20 percent of the nation’s freshwater originates in the national forests. And these same national forests provide more than seven billion activity days for vacationers, hunters, fishermen, and hikers. But these are just the most obvious dependencies. 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 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. The same is imagined of tree planting. Scientists are also working to develop new processes that might turn trees into sources of renewable energy.

Thus, even as we have found many ways to replace trees, they remain as important as ever.

AMERICAN CANOPY explores this remarkable evolution. How trees changed from enemy, to friend, to potential savior. How forests morphed from obstacles to timber reserves to tree farms to sanctuaries of nature. How wood built the country, and apples united it, and trees imbued its great cities with life. How trees became part of the political calculus for westward settlement, as necessary as water and air, valued by settlers, speculators, surveyors, and soldiers. Americans started as people frightened of the woods, transitioned into a nation that consumed these woods for profit—along the way turning the tree into a lifeless, deracinated object—and finally arrived at the present point. Today, few of us understand where timber comes from or what to call any given tree species, but most of us share a sense that to destroy trees is to destroy part of ourselves.

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 owed 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.

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.

American Canopy takes these magnificent American trees as its subject, but the story is most often one of personal drama. Americans, after all, are half the equation. The Sons of Liberty used a famous tree as a center for popular protest that helped spark the American Revolution. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were avid horticulturists who traded tree specimens as they negotiated the Constitution—Jefferson even considered the introduction of the olive tree to South Carolina as one of his greatest achievements. John Chapman, a man most Americans know as Johnny Appleseed, sold his trees to settlers looking to establish residence in the Ohio Valley. Henry David Thoreau helped awaken a nation to the beauty of woodlands. John Muir then used his passion for trees and unbounded nature to champion the creation of national parks. J. Sterling Morton, one of the first settlers in Nebraska, tried to turn the Great Plains into a forest by creating Arbor Day. Later, President Theodore Roosevelt, with his close confidant Gifford Pinchot, struggled to save the great western forests from industrial ruin. And in the following generation, President Franklin Roosevelt—a tree lover if there ever was one—looked to the nation’s woody resources as a way to ameliorate the Great Depression. Each man’s story tells a small fragment of a much larger tale, a tale that becomes the story of America.

This relationship with trees has been one of the great drivers of national development. It belongs in a conversation with other forces that helped to forge American identity: the endless frontier, immigration, democracy, religion, slavery and its legacy, the struggle for labor rights, the expansion of civil rights, and free market and state capitalism, to name a few. And like all useful cicerones, the trees show us a picture of America at its best and at its worst.

History has lost or buried many of the episodes highlighted in American Canopy. To learn about trees is to discover a side of the nation’s past that is rarely told. No one has ever treated America’s trees in all their dimensions as a subject for historical study. Pieces of the story for certain, but not the story itself. Perhaps it is because trees have been so integral to American history that it becomes easy to overlook them. People notice the unusual, not the ubiquitous. Like so many Americans, historians are guilty of taking trees for granted.

But trees are the loudest silent figures in America’s complicated history.

MEANWHILE, Prometheus turned out to be one of the loudest trees of all, though only in death. With each year that passed and without the discovery of an older bristlecone, the tree’s reputation grew, as did the controversy over its cutting. The felling of Prometheus convinced conservationists to take a more aggressive stand to ensure that such ill-advised chain-sawing was never repeated. Donald Currey even became one of the foremost advocates for greater controls over the region that contained the bristlecones. These efforts helped to create, in 1986, the Great Basin National Park, a heavily protected area that includes Wheeler Peak Scenic Area. And today all bristlecone pines, standing or down, receive federal protection. Thanks to these measures the bristlecones can continue to fight their eternal battle with nature’s wind undisturbed and to silently record America and the world as they change. But for Prometheus, all that remains is an unmarked stump and a footnote in history. It is still the oldest tree ever discovered.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Death of Prometheus 1

1 From Discovery to Revolution 11

2 The Fruits of Union 40

3 The Unrivaled Nature of America 71

4 Forests of Commerce 99

5 A Changing Consciousness 129

6 New Frontiers 168

7 Under Attack 201

8 Trees as Good Soldiers and Citizens 228

9 Postwar Prosperity 268

10 The Environmental Era 308

Epilogue 345

Acknowledgments 349

Notes 351

Bibliography 380

Index 390

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 28, 2012

    Highly recommended - You will want to share this with friends.

    This thoroughly researched but sparsely annotated historical 'novel' sends the reader through time in the companionship of of the leafy inhabitants of our forests, cities and gardens, some the oldest living inhabitants of earth. We learn why trees have been our faithful servants and were principal factors in the siting of cities, the outcome of great naval wars, and even the colonization of America. Our dependence on trees, even today, and human society's voracious appetite for wood and wood products and the habitats where trees hang on to species survival are laid out in a fascinating series of vignettes that you will want to share. This is an educational, eye-opening, but most of all fun read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 21, 2012

    This unusual book documents an element of history that few know

    This unusual book documents an element of history that few know and certainly is not taught in college. This superb book tells the story of trees in American history and how they affected American social, cultural, economic and political life of Americans from our first settlers up to present day. I found this fascinating tale superbly written filled with intriguing anecdotes of famous and not so famous Americans. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in American history and loves to learn about less recorded incidents and a dimension of our country less known.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 27, 2012

    Lightningeye

    Hi everyone

    0 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 26, 2012

    Echowind

    "The clan. It isnt the same! Its now small and scrawny-thanks to me.."

    0 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 5, 2012

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    Posted February 1, 2013

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