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Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation

by Eric Rutkow

Pub Date: April 17th, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-4391-9354-9
Publisher: Scribner

An appreciation of how much American history was shaped and defined by trees.

From the earliest “plantations,” as colonial settlements were known in the 17th century, to our understanding of today’s climate change, forests have been a driving force in both national development and consciousness, writes Rutkow in this impressive survey. Although the book suffers from a lack of material on the Native American experience with the forests, Rutkow is in command of a prodigious amount of material, which he carefully keeps in forward motion. The author unhurriedly wends his way from the “marketable commodities” of timber-trade–based colonization, through the political symbolism of the Liberty Trees and the Charter Oaks, to the rise of the ornamental-tree business and Benjamin Franklin’s efforts to catalog American trees. As he chronicles the importance of hard cider on the frontier (“the first great American drink”), the rise of the transcendentalists and the citrus industry, rail and telegraph, the denuding of the Lake States and the excitement generated by Arbor Day and Earth Day, Rutkow knits numerous vest-pocket biographies into the picture. These include both high- and low-profile actors, from Johnny Appleseed to Henry David Thoreau, Gifford Pinchot to Gaylord Nelson, William Levitt to Teddy Roosevelt, who helped fashion “an overarching philosophy that all natural resources ought to be managed with an eye to sustainability and efficient use.”

A meaty history of the American forest and a convincing testament to its continued political, cultural and environmental importance.