How did the Golden State become green?
Early explorers in California, seeking a mythical island “adjacent to Earthly Paradise,” found a landscape starkly different from today’s: a savannah and chaparral, with grassy hills, dry and brown much of the year. Few areas had abundant trees. Redwoods and sequoias clustered in the north, a few species of pine and oak grew at the central coast, and the Joshua tree made its home in the desert. As Farmer (History/Stony Brook Univ.; On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape, 2008, etc.) reveals in this illuminating, panoramic history, the state’s native trees soon had much company. In the 18th century, Spanish Franciscans imported fruit and nut trees, which they planted around their missions. After the gold rush in 1849, many newcomers from the East “missed the shade, the green, and the chatter of songbirds.” Others saw trees as economic opportunity. Farmer focuses on four species affected by human intervention: the endemic coast redwood, heedlessly cut down by lumber companies; citrus trees, which created “a landscape of social inequality, racial injustice, and environmental pollution”; palms, a symbol of glamor to southern Californians; and the Tasmanian blue gum, a species of fast-growing Australian eucalyptus, imported to “provide fuel, improve the weather, boost farm productivity, defeat malaria, preserve watersheds, and thwart a looming timber famine.” As early as the 1880s, planters deemed eucalyptus a disaster: Wind toppled them easily, they proved to be a “venomous feeder” of soil nutrients, and they grew so fast that other plants could not thrive. Moreover, their wood contained so much water that it was useless for lumber. Farmer makes clear that greed was not the sole cause of bad decisions. Naturalists seeking spiritual enlightenment, environmentalists beset with “botanical xenophobia” and the government were just as likely to proceed without considering complex and fragile ecological consequences.
Knowledgeable, wise and compelling, Farmer’s book uncovers the subtle and surprising webs connecting the social, cultural and natural worlds of California, and the planet.