My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I didn’t know more about the history of trees and forests in the US than that I’d heard that once a squirrel could have traveled across the continent on tree tops and never touched ground. I knew that old-growth forests had more to offer their environment than their wood, something that replanting did not restore. This book expanded my understanding considerably. Rutkow explores our varying attitudes toward trees and links them with the history of the development of the nation.
Two links were particularly striking. First, one reason Virginia was colonized was to send lumber back to England. Rutkow told of Richard Hakluyt’s proposal for a lumber producing colony that first failed because of dangers on the high seas, but was accepted when reintroduced twenty years later after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Rutkow told of the depleted supply in England accompanied by the need for wood for ship building for one thing; for example, a 100 ton warship required 2000 mature oaks, or 50 acres of forest. The second link to history that surprised me was the shift from tents to house troops to barracks in World War I and how that increased the need for lumber.
Rutkow organizes by chronology, by geography, and by theme. Though that order requires some back and forth movement in time, his signals are easy to follow. He has endnotes for the scholar, but they are referenced to text by page and not note numbers, so they do not distract from the story for the more casual reader.And Rutkow is a good story teller. We learn the link between hard cider (made from unpredictable quality apple trees grown from seed) and Johnny Appleseed’s doing some of the first planting of trees as well as handing out seeds; this story is accompanied by quite a character sketch of Johnny’s appearance and religious motivation. Rutkow tells of various stages and developments of attitude toward forests through sketches of key figures: Names that appear throughout are Olmsted, Weyerhauser, Muir, and Pinchot along with others who seek to beautify, to use, to enjoy, and to steward resources. The evolving mission of the Forest Service is traced in detail.
As Rutkow says in the epilog, the book is about how “trees shaped our society and how we shaped them in return.”