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Our forebears: They came, they sawed, they saved

October 12, 2012 12:10 am

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.

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.

"Plank roads"--literally boards on the ground--stretched one board at a time for hundreds of miles. Railroads depended on wood for cars, trestle bridges, and millions of crossties, and for many years wood was the primary fuel for steam locomotives.

All of the world's first generation of aircraft were made of American Sitka spruce. The first cars were built on wooden frames. Wood has been essential, throughout our history, to our ability to move people and things from place to place and to shelter them where they settled. That's really something.

While trees were playing a vital and direct part in the westward development of our continent, America began to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the part forests played in national life. In the early years, forests were thought of only as an endless supply of trees. Over time, and usually in small steps, Americans have come to see forests as environmentally and psychologically important living organisms.


At the close of the 19th century, as the depletion of the virgin forests became obvious, popular support grew for government action to protect what remained. The creation of the National Park and National Forest systems consisted of clumsy, fitful, and politically cantankerous efforts that stretched over decades into the early 20th century.

A decade and a half later, during the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt placed a great deal of political and financial capital in the New Deal's Civilian Conservation Corps. This massive program planted 2 billion trees, reclaimed extensive natural watersheds, built fire roads and shelters, and probably saved our public woodlands. National policy on forest management has taken a long time to mature, but it has provided what seems to be a successful approach.

Looking back, it is easy to see the progression in American thinking about trees. Our concept of how we should treat forests is, obviously, vastly different from that of our forefathers. The early settlers could not have possibly imagined the amount of money and manpower our generation spends on protecting forests. Conversely, we could not possibly imagine what it feels like to stumble upon an endless supply of wood. But what we would both recognize is the ongoing conflict between those who see the trees and those who see the forest.

This conflict was an issue in the hardwood forests of New England, in the Southern yellow pine forests of the Gulf Coast, in the fir and spruce forests of the Northwest, and even in the cherished giant sequoia groves of California. This conflict is what urged people to organize, push for legislation, and eventually establish government programs to ensure that America will always have good, healthy forests.

Today, America is successfully keeping the two sides apart, promoting tree farms for trees and building things while protecting our remaining wilderness areas for the forests and the people who love them. The conflict isn't settled, but we have come to realize the need for both forests and trees. How we got to that realization is a very interesting story.

Scott Howson, a former Fredericksburg vice mayor, is an environmental activist with a lifelong love of hiking through the forest and making things from wood.

Next month: Archer Di Peppe discusses "Ambrose Bierce: The Devil's Dictionary, Tales, and Memoirs."

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