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American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  820 ratings  ·  129 reviews
In the bestselling tradition of Michael Pollan’s Second Nature, this fascinating and unique historical work tells the remarkable story of the relationship between Americans and trees across the entire span of our nation’s history.

This fascinating and groundbreaking work tells the remarkable story of the relationship between Americans and their trees across the entire span
Hardcover, 416 pages
Published April 24th 2012 by Scribner (first published April 17th 2012)
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Paula Koneazny
Dec 31, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
Interesting, but insufficient. Perhaps all histories are notable as much for what they leave out as for what they put in. Retelling American history by looking to the trees is a worthwhile endeavor, however. It skews our perspective just enough to make us look at what we already know in a fresh way. That said, Rutkow doesn't deviate from the traditional approach of viewing history as the consequence of the acts of Great (or at least infamous) White Men. Most of the actors in the drama here have ...more
Erin Bartels
Jul 02, 2013 rated it it was amazing
A unique lens through which to view our country's history. At times, hard to read, not because of the prose (which was excellent and engaging while still being informative, professional, and unbiased) but because of the cringe-inducing activities of both our forebears and ourselves. It is amazing that our country has any trees left after what it has endured at the hand of man. But Rutkow manages to give us hundreds of years of history, ring by ring, in a tone that never wags fingers or condemns ...more
Gary Brecht
Nov 26, 2012 rated it really liked it
Not being a “tree hugger” by nature, I was a bit reluctant to pluck this one off the library shelf. However, Eric Rutkow’s history of America, told through our nation’s relationship with trees and forests, managed to enkindle within me a spark of concern over the fate of our planet. The author traces the evolution of our nation’s attitude towards woodlands; from the early colonists’ view of forests as an obstacle to be tamed, to a resource for survival, to a restorative place for the human soul. ...more
Feb 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
Really good book. Not just about trees but each chapter is a vignette on how a certain tree influenced life in America; through housing, agriculture, business, economy on into the future.
May 03, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Overall, a very balanced and informative book. I particularly liked his treatment of the 19th century and the early 20th century. His history of the logging industry, the growing awareness of the importance of our forest resources and the development of the National Forests were particularly interesting to me. I feel his treatment of the late 20th century tended towards the political. I would have interested to hear of Nixon's attitude towards the myriad of environmental legislation passed duri ...more
Jun 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
Trees define much of American history, we learn here in this interesting book from wood’s point of view. Billions of trees lived in North America four hundred years ago. This book tells the story of timber here since then in its many roles. For example:

Our ancestors landed and used cheap, abundant wood for fuel, furniture, shelter and buildings as well as tools and transport. The settlers from Europe found a density of trees here that dwarfed what they left in their rockier homelands.

Oct 15, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Occasionally a little dry, though I never found it boring. Just a solid, interesting read about the single best part of the U.S. American Canopy is about the way trees shaped the country throughout history, and made me deeply sad that I'll never be able to see the majestic primeval forests that were "capable of growing taller than nearly any others on earth, to reach proportions almost incomprehensible to London shipwrights (or, for that matter, modern-day Americans)". I have a particular love f ...more
Joe Zagrodnik
May 10, 2012 rated it really liked it
The best history books bring long deceased historical figures back to life, instilling the same hopes, fears, and passions in the reader that the characters experienced themselves. Usually, these figures are known for their role in major events or for having a positive influence that radiates far beyond their physical lives. Historian Eric Rutkow illuminates one of these under-appreciated participants in the American history narrative, but Rutkow’s main character is not a person but rather an ea ...more
Aug 29, 2018 rated it liked it
i love trees
trees are nice
can you believe how important lumber was throughout history?
can you believe peoples keep cutting them all down?
i hope the apocalypse
comes in the form of tree zombies
or ninja polar bears

why did reagan not like trees?
Quinn Rollins
Jan 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, science
A very interesting take on history, as told through the lives of American forests. A completely unique perspective, and one that I hadn't ever considered. It made me look at the country and history and life in a different way. What's not to love? ...Dutch Elm Disease, THAT'S WHAT. ...more
Becky Loader
Sep 10, 2019 rated it liked it
Interesting read about the role of trees in the development of the United States. Unfortunately, the author gets a little preachy.
Nick Fanelli
Dec 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book is absolutely fantastic.
Feb 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing
A thoroughly enjoyable, albeit a little overwhelming in its detailed history, book that provides a look at our history from the perspective of our trees, our exploitation and consumption of them, their contribution to critical phases of the country’s development and our eventual movement to protect them and the ecosystems of which they are part.

The book was part of the genre of storytelling from the perspective of a particular product or commodity’s effect on the world, e.g., Mark Kurlansky’s bo
A couple months ago I was having an extra hard day, and Panda decided the cure would be to visit the new Palo Alto public library and pick out a book. This one practically jumped into my hands, and has been a perfect bedtime companion for weeks -- I even took it to Yosemite with me so it could visit the great Sequoias :)

The overarching theme of the book is America's changing relationship to trees and forests. Given that the author was a student at Yale, home of the first professional forestry sc
May 04, 2015 rated it really liked it
Given the author's day-job as an environmental lawyer, one might excuse him for writing, or at least expect him to write, a soapbox screed on environmentalism. And yet, in American Canopy, one finds a measured and virtually opinion-free telling of the history of America's relationship with its trees. It's a more interesting tale than one might expect, and is well-written and well-researched to boot. The relationship between humans and nature is a complex one with much gray area. American Canopy ...more
James (JD) Dittes
Just as Howard Zinn did for American history in the 1980s, Eric Rutkow has found a new lends through which to interpret events that are part of the historical record.

In his case, he focuses on the trees.

Many familiar events are missing from Rutkow's account. The first war to be mentioned is World War I, during which harvests of the Sitka spruce were militarized to support airplane manufacture. There is barely a mention of Washington or Lincoln--although the two Roosevelts are covered lavishly.

Aug 17, 2012 rated it really liked it
This book is about the role trees have played in american history. how our huge amount of natural resources were an advantage in both world wars and helped build our navy when masts were made out of wood (england had depleted their forests and were forced to buy ours). many important figures like franklin, FDR, TR, frederic law olmsted, gifford pinchot, johnny appleseed. sounds boring to read about trees but it was not. there was even an effort to plant trees from canada to texas during the Dust ...more
Jul 12, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Really an amazing book. The author does a great job walking through the history of America and our relationship to the trees. The book had a lot of information, ready well, and was well organized.

I feel that up until the last 20 pages, he remains mostly factual and scientific. The author clearly has an opinion which tarnishes an otherwise pleasant read.
Apr 29, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I finally got this back from the library and am digging back into it. Stupid work that ruins my reading schedule.

Great read about the importance of forests to humans.
Carol Douglas
Apr 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
American canopy is the history of trees in the United States since the coming of Europeans. If you love trees, it's a painful book.

I didn't know that the Eastern forests were filled with giant trees. The giant white pines that covered most of the New England were destroyed for lumber. Poplars were taken for ship masts. Representatives of the English crown tried to prevent colonists from taking tall trees that were supposed to be reserved for the king, but the colonists foiled them.

After ravagin
Jul 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: american-mind
While reading this book, I was constantly amazed by Rutkow's breadth of knowledge. Every sentence was densely packed with new facts, but arrayed in such a well thought-out narrative structure that they never felt overwhelming. From the very first settlements in the North American continent, to the suburbs of Southern California, Rutkow provides his readers with a new vantage point from which to view the history of the United States. But beyond that, he also provides new insight into the world ar ...more
Jesse Melton
Sep 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Although it can get kind of dry in places, the story is fascinating and the writing is very well done. The sections about Colonial America are especially insightful.

It’s also a great review of the consequences of poor natural resource management. The British were out of trees and had no hope of maintaining maritime dominance without them. They bet, and ultimately lost, the Empire on gaining unlimited access to the trees in North America. Heavy handed colonialism in forestry practices had stirre
Curtis Bozif
One of those books that feels both cursory and longish. Each chapter, could itself, be expanded into an entire book.

One critique I do have, and that I've seen leveled by others, is that there is almost no time spent on the relationship between Native Americans and the forests of America. From the knowledge they provided the earliest Europeans to their role in the the Environmental Movements of the 60s and 70s. At best, these omissions are missed opportunities, at worst, they're a careless overs
Jul 06, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“As we rush headlong into the twenty-first century, the physicality of trees seems more vital than ever. The modern workplace and home are becoming increasingly antiseptic. Americans now spend their days staring into computer screens that receive information as if by magic. Daily life seems alarmingly virtual. Trees provide the antidote. The smell of pine needles, the crunch of autumn leaves, the roughness of bark are all reminders that we are a part of nature. Tree hugging, in its most literal ...more
Cindy Dyson Eitelman
Feb 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2020
It started off just as I'd expected--all about the white pines of the Eastern U.S. and their use as masts in British sailing ships. Fully one-quarter of the way through I was on target for a five-star review and many hours of happy enjoyment. The story of Dutch Elm Disease was heartbreaking as expected. But then it got more and more general--less about individual trees and forests and more about men and timber harvest operations and all kind of depressing stuff. I eventually gave up. I wanted mo ...more
Jim D'Ambrosia
Oct 11, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
It was fine; maybe a touch light-weight. I was hoping for a more systematic history/natural history of the nation's forests, but it was more of a grab-bag. As a grab-bag, it was fine, with interesting chapters and details within the chapters. My favorite parts were the details about how the country's consumption of wood changed over time.

Fun fact: "The transition to inexpensive wood-pulp paper, which began in the 1860s, allowed for an explosion in written materials—daily penny papers, dime nove
May 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book will be enjoyed by anyone who loves trees. I love trees and found most of this book fascinating. Other times it seemed to drag on through meticulous details. I think i would have loved it more if i listened to it on audiobook or if it were 100 pages shorter :) i can’t imagine how long and dense the the pre-edited version was.
Ford Prior
Jun 08, 2018 rated it liked it
As a tree nerd, this was kind of a disappointment because it dove way too deep into the history of American naturalism and eco-stuff, and not enough nerding out on specific trees. This guy kinda sees trees as a economic asset, which they totally are in the context of US history, so maybe I shouldn't have been surprised. ...more
Jul 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Holy hell what a read! In depth, entertaining, sad and very informative.

This is the type of book you could read five or six times and still gather more great info. Mr Rutkow has done us all a favor by producing this tome of knowledge and if you're interested at all in trees or the history of the US this is a great read.
Allane Wood
Dec 15, 2020 rated it really liked it
Infuriating and illuminating. Sad to think so much of our post-contact history depended on ravaging such an important, and often renewable, resource. The book is very Euro-centric and white-male oriented ~ which is probably not surprising; just wish it was more inclusive of other perspectives. That said, I learned and better understand the last 400 years of our culture, economy, and politics.
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Eric Rutkow is an assistant professor of history at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, and the author of The Longest Line on the Map. His first book, American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation (2012), received the Association of American Publishers’ PROSE Award for US history and was named one of the top books of the year by Smithsonian magazine. He earned his BA and Ph ...more

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