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Books in Mind: "American Canopy," reviewed by Scott Howson
TREES are important. They are the stuff of our houses, the heat in our stoves, the ever-present apples and oranges in our kitchens, and the brown paper bag we carried them home in. Trees are a major source of the oxygen you're breathing.
Since the earliest times trees have influenced the course of civilization, and as a result of our ever-growing need to harvest this resource, humans have introduced permanent, visible, and global alteration of Earth's landscape. Today's Americans' view of forests as well-managed national parks and highway corridors is a sharp contrast to the forests of our ancestors--dangerous wildernesses where lives could be savagely lost.
Yet throughout our history and to this day, American families are driven to clear a spot in the middle of the forest to build a home with the trees they've cut down. It's happening today in every subdivision in every American county--only now the lumber comes from New Zealand.
The history of America's kinship with forests and management of trees is the focus of Eric Rutkow's "American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation [Scribner, 2012, 416 pp]," which does a pretty good job of telling a complicated and at times controversial story with academic precision, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions. But the story of America's trees is so much a part of our culture that no editorial comment is needed; the story stands on its own.
It begins with the virgin forests that had for centuries been home to native tribes, but which, suddenly in the early 1600s, were seen by the English as an unbelievably rich resource, theirs for the taking. To the natives the forests were their homes and their source of food, water, and clothing. To the English they were so much lumber. The natives saw the forests while the English saw the trees.
The English, and subsequently all early settlers, believed they had stumbled upon a truly infinite supply of wood--infinite not only in quantity, but also in quality and in the variety of tree species found here. In the 17th century, wood was essential, and good-quality wood was a highly prized luxury. English explorers were awestruck by the tall, straight oak and pine stands, so important to England's shipbuilding. There was abundant lumber for building homes, farms, and factories, and ample firewood for cooking and heating.