Trees in Paradise: A California History

Trees in Paradise: A California History

by Jared Farmer

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From roots to canopy, a lush, verdant history of the making of California.

California now has more trees than at any time since the late Pleistocene. This green landscape, however, is not the work of nature. It’s the work of history. In the years after the Gold Rush, American settlers remade the California landscape, harnessing nature to their vision of


From roots to canopy, a lush, verdant history of the making of California.

California now has more trees than at any time since the late Pleistocene. This green landscape, however, is not the work of nature. It’s the work of history. In the years after the Gold Rush, American settlers remade the California landscape, harnessing nature to their vision of the good life. Horticulturists, boosters, and civic reformers began to "improve" the bare, brown countryside, planting millions of trees to create groves, wooded suburbs, and landscaped cities. They imported the blue-green eucalypts whose tangy fragrance was thought to cure malaria. They built the lucrative "Orange Empire" on the sweet juice and thick skin of the Washington navel, an industrial fruit. They lined their streets with graceful palms to announce that they were not in the Midwest anymore.

To the north the majestic coastal redwoods inspired awe and invited exploitation. A resource in the state, the durable heartwood of these timeless giants became infrastructure, transformed by the saw teeth of American enterprise. By 1900 timber firms owned the entire redwood forest; by 1950 they had clear-cut almost all of the old-growth trees.

In time California’s new landscape proved to be no paradise: the eucalypts in the Berkeley hills exploded in fire; the orange groves near Riverside froze on cold nights; Los Angeles’s palms harbored rats and dropped heavy fronds on the streets below. Disease, infestation, and development all spelled decline for these nonnative evergreens. In the north, however, a new forest of second-growth redwood took root, nurtured by protective laws and sustainable harvesting. Today there are more California redwoods than there were a century ago.

Rich in character and story, Trees in Paradise is a dazzling narrative that offers an insightful, new perspective on the history of the Golden State and the American West.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this meticulously researched tome, Farmer (On Zion’s Mount) explores California’s history and politics through the lens of four of the state’s most notable trees: redwood, eucalyptus, orange, and palm. “California’s genius may be green, but its underlying beauty is brown,” notes the author. “By transforming the treescape, Californians did more than make dreams reality. They altered ecosystems.” To his point, surprisingly, most of the trees associated with the Golden State didn’t originate there. Eucalyptus was imported from Australia and orange trees came from Spain (they often needed to be heated with oil pots during cold snaps). Most California palms are not native to the state, with the exception of the fan palm, although they do thrive in Southern California’s coastal areas. Yet despite being arboreal immigrants, each became a symbol of a different part of the state: redwoods are associated with Northern California, oranges with Southern California, palms with Hollywood, and eucalyptus throughout. (For those interested in learning more, Farmer includes a detailed list of suggestions for further reading.) The book offers a thorough look at the natural aspects of this massive, diverse state, and while extremely detailed, Farmer’s engaging prose holds readers attention. (Nov.)
Los Angeles Times
“The wealth of research makes this an important addition to the California bookshelf. Farmer shows us how devoted, destructive, foolhardy, ambitious, greedy, enriched and showy Californians can be—not just in relation to our trees but also in general.”
Boom: A Journal of California
“If you’ve ever eaten a California orange, seen a palm on a postcard, or marveled at a redwood, this book is for—and about—you. Farmer’s work is detailed and nuanced. Trees in Paradise weaves environment and culture into a single narrative.”
OnEarth Magazine
“Trees in Paradise is a compelling work, from its description of the ghastly treatment of sequoias, 'simultaneously degraded and sacralized,' to its evocation of the sweet-scented splendor of orange groves blooming in the dusk of a Pasadena suburb.”
“At once an accessible read and a prodigious work of scholarship, Trees in Paradise will serve as the authoritative work on its subject for decades to come.”
Sir Peter Crane
“A sweeping and brilliantly observed history of the promise and pitfalls of the California Dream, as seen through the intertwined lives of trees and people.”
Eric Jay Dolin
“A breathtaking, dramatic, and insightful history of California as seen through the rise and fall of the state’s most iconic trees. Beautifully written, every page is a revelation, bringing to vivid life the myriad ways in which California’s landscape was transformed by human greed and desire, often with disastrous results. You will never think about a tree or the California Dream in the same way.”
David Quammen
“A small group of savvy historians and ecologists—from William Cronon to Daniel Botkin and others—have in recent decades been alerting us to a neglected reality: that much of ‘nature’ as we perceive it is human-arranged. Jared Farmer is an important voice within this corps. Peering at California as landscape and dreamscape, he sees the forest for the trees.”
William Deverell
“This brilliant new work of California history is a magnificent achievement—imaginative, learned, and very important.”
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-10-05
How did the Golden State become green? Early explorers in California, seeking a mythical island "adjacent to Earthly Paradise," found a landscape starkly different from today's: a savannah and chaparral, with grassy hills, dry and brown much of the year. Few areas had abundant trees. Redwoods and sequoias clustered in the north, a few species of pine and oak grew at the central coast, and the Joshua tree made its home in the desert. As Farmer (History/Stony Brook Univ.; On Zion's Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape, 2008, etc.) reveals in this illuminating, panoramic history, the state's native trees soon had much company. In the 18th century, Spanish Franciscans imported fruit and nut trees, which they planted around their missions. After the gold rush in 1849, many newcomers from the East "missed the shade, the green, and the chatter of songbirds." Others saw trees as economic opportunity. Farmer focuses on four species affected by human intervention: the endemic coast redwood, heedlessly cut down by lumber companies; citrus trees, which created "a landscape of social inequality, racial injustice, and environmental pollution"; palms, a symbol of glamor to southern Californians; and the Tasmanian blue gum, a species of fast-growing Australian eucalyptus, imported to "provide fuel, improve the weather, boost farm productivity, defeat malaria, preserve watersheds, and thwart a looming timber famine." As early as the 1880s, planters deemed eucalyptus a disaster: Wind toppled them easily, they proved to be a "venomous feeder" of soil nutrients, and they grew so fast that other plants could not thrive. Moreover, their wood contained so much water that it was useless for lumber. Farmer makes clear that greed was not the sole cause of bad decisions. Naturalists seeking spiritual enlightenment, environmentalists beset with "botanical xenophobia" and the government were just as likely to proceed without considering complex and fragile ecological consequences. Knowledgeable, wise and compelling, Farmer's book uncovers the subtle and surprising webs connecting the social, cultural and natural worlds of California, and the planet.

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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Barnes & Noble
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8 MB

Meet the Author

Jared Farmer, a Utah native and former Californian, is the author of On Zion’s Mount, a landscape history awarded the prestigious Parkman Prize for literary excellence. He teaches history at Stony Brook University and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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