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Our forebears: They came, they sawed, they saved page 2
Books in Mind: "American Canopy," reviewed by Scott Howson

Date published: 10/12/2012


Everywhere they looked and as far as they could travel were trees. Europe and the British Isles had virtually run out of trees many years before, forcing their cultures to adapt to limited supplies of imported wood. America promised an endless supply, and our American history follows surprisingly closely the pursuit of that promise.

"American Canopy" tells a story we think we know. Log cabins. Walden Pond. Paul Bunyan. Johnny Appleseed. Our culture is rife with familiar tales told against the backdrop of forests. But for the most part we don't think to plug these tales into our history. "American Canopy" places Thoreau's two years on Walden Pond in the context of a growing and justified national concern that the New England forests--the same "endless" forests that attracted the English to settle merely 200 years before--were depleted of firewood and lumber. Thoreau wanted to see what living in the forest felt like before it was gone.

Johnny Appleseed--aka John Chapman--may have been eccentric, but his travels across western Pennsylvania and Ohio had a purpose.

In the early 1800s the government, hoping to replace the exiled Indians with white homesteaders, offered 100-acre tracts to anyone who planted apple trees. To the government, establishing an orchard was a sign of civilized self-sufficiency. Chapman stayed ahead of the wave of settlement, claiming thousands of acres for himself, then selling his apple saplings to those coming behind him so they could plant on their own claimed land.


Our part of Virginia's virgin forests was apparently not of remarkable value, and they were eaten up into mundane fence rails, firewood, barns, bridges, and, of course, houses. The forests transformed into pasture and farmland, and much of it eventually returned to new-growth forest.

As we grew from settlement to colony to nation, our appetite for wood became voracious. The ships that brought everyone over to America were all made of wood. The wagons the settlers built when they got here were wooden. When canals were dug, the lock gates, work buildings, and barges were wooden. Houses, barns, buildings, benches and tables, water mills and windmills, even cisterns and water troughs, all wood.

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