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

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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 of our nation’s history.

Like many of us, historians have long been guilty of taking trees for granted. Yet the history of trees in America is no less remarkable than the history of the United States itself—from the majestic white pines of New England, which were coveted by the British Crown for use as masts in navy warships, to the orange groves of California, which lured settlers west. In fact, without the country’s vast forests and the hundreds of tree species they contained, there would have been no ships, docks, railroads, stockyards, wagons, barrels, furniture, newspapers, rifles, or firewood. No shingled villages or whaling vessels in New England. No New York City, Miami, or Chicago. No Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, or Daniel Boone. No Allied planes in World War I, and no suburban sprawl in the middle of the twentieth century. America—if indeed it existed—would be a very different place without its millions of acres of trees.

As Eric Rutkow’s brilliant, epic account shows, trees were essential to the early years of the republic and indivisible from the country’s rise as both an empire and a civilization. Among American Canopy ’s many fascinating the Liberty Trees, where colonists gathered to plot rebellion against the British; Henry David Thoreau’s famous retreat into the woods; the creation of New York City’s Central Park; the great fire of 1871 that killed a thousand people in the lumber town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin; the fevered attempts to save the American chestnut and the American elm from extinction; and the controversy over spotted owls and the old-growth forests they inhabited. Rutkow also explains how trees were of deep interest to such figures as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Teddy Roosevelt, and FDR, who oversaw the planting of more than three billion trees nationally in his time as president.

As symbols of liberty, community, and civilization, trees are perhaps the loudest silent figures in our country’s history. America started as a nation of people frightened of the deep, seemingly infinite woods; we then grew to rely on our forests for progress and profit; by the end of the twentieth century we came to understand that the globe’s climate is dependent on the preservation of trees. Today, few people think about where timber comes from, but most of us share a sense that to destroy trees is to destroy part of ourselves and endanger the future.

Never before has anyone treated our country’s trees and forests as the subject of a broad historical study, and the result is an accessible, informative, and thoroughly entertaining read. Audacious in its four-hundred-year scope, authoritative in its detail, and elegant in its execution, American Canopy is perfect for history buffs and nature lovers alike and announces Eric Rutkow as a major new author of popular history.

416 pages, Hardcover

First published April 17, 2012

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About the author

Eric Rutkow

2 books9 followers
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 PhD from Yale and his JD from Harvard.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 146 reviews
Profile Image for Paula Koneazny.
306 reviews32 followers
January 20, 2013
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 names that will be familiar to most readers: Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, George Washington,Thomas Jefferson, the Presidents Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, Frederick Law Olmstead, Al Gore, Henry Ford, William Levitt, etc. I do have to give the author credit for, particularly where the earlier figures are concerned, telling stories that we probably haven't heard before. This is the advantage of choosing a fresh point of view. One glaring omission in Rutkow's survey of the impact of the trees upon & their relationship to American history is any mention of the lynching tree, powerful both as symbol & site; another is any serious consideration of the relationship of indigenous peoples to the forests (granted, that might be the subject of another book entirely; nevertheless, even if the author's focus is strictly upon post-Columbian North America, he is delinquent in not mentioning, for example, how the colonists' encounter with American Indian modes of battle impacted how their own Revolution was fought and won). The author has also by and large omitted women from his narrative except for a few nods to women here and there, of foot-note quality in their brevity. How, for example, in a tome already diminished by its lack of inclusion of women, blacks, Mexicans, Indians, etc. could he not have told the story of at least one female activist. Julia Butterfly Hill, for example, whose name became synonymous with preservation of Old Growth Coastal Redwoods in the 1990s. This is, in sum, mostly a top-down telling of the story of Americans & the trees. I would have liked some alternative telling as well.
Profile Image for Erin Bartels.
Author 20 books758 followers
September 24, 2013
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 individuals. He sees the forest for the trees, the big picture of history and the context in which it is carried out, and then offers fascinating details of individuals who shaped our relationship with our greatest natural resource and national treasure. An incredible debut for this author.
Profile Image for Gary Brecht.
238 reviews9 followers
November 26, 2012
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. Eventually Americans, through political action, set aside areas for the preservation of trees and its wildlife denizens. Thoroughly researched, Rutkow not only reintroduces us to such revered names as Thoreau, Emerson, Muir, and Leopold, but he also familiarizes us with much lesser known conservationists. The important role that trees played and continue to play in the development of our nation’s economy and the health of our environment is on full display in this exceptional view of history.
4 reviews
February 20, 2019
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.
Profile Image for Joe Zagrodnik.
8 reviews3 followers
May 30, 2012
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 easily ignored plant: a tree! As Rutkow notes, “trees are the loudest silent figures in America’s complicated history.”

American Canopy begins with a highly engaging prologue about Prometheus, a tree that stood seemingly unchanged for over Nevada for over 5,000 years. The tragic yet redeeming story introduces Rutkow’s premise but differs in one important aspect. Most other trees in America were not frozen, passive observers as civilization expanded around them. As America evolved, its forests changed in tandem. In colonial times, trees were an obstacle to overcome, concealing Indians in the forest and blocking the plow as stumps. As industrialism proliferated in the 19th Century, wood became the “stalwart of American development”—and the conservation movement subsequently responded by curtailing the carelessness and waste that caused forest fires and ecosystem destruction. The automobile and highway building by the CCC made camping and outdoor recreation in national forests accessible to almost all Americans—and Aldo Leopold responded by spearheading a movement to preserve the remaining pristine wilderness.

Individual forests experienced dynamic changes, as uses were discovered for different species, imported diseases wiped out the American Chestnut and Elm, and deciduous trees filled in the white pine forests. Old growth forests were clear cut, converted to farmland, and then later restored into commercial tree plantations. Americans’ attitude toward trees changed as well. Within a short period of time, Americans went from cutting trees for firewood to planting trees for fruit and later for shade, drought prevention, and finally to counteract global warming. Rutkow shows that trees are as American as apple pie—or maybe as American as the hard apple cider that sustained countless homesteads in the colonial period.

The best aspect of this work is the way Rutkow brings in anecdotes from all sorts of American history themes and relates them to trees. It turns out that quite often trees are not just a side story, but a prominent contributor to more widely known events. For example, Englishman Richard Hakylut advocated colonial exploration in the late 1500s primarily as a means to acquire ship masts from New England pine trees to counteract supply shortages and keep pace with the Spanish Navy. It was also interesting to learn that a major reason why George Washington ceded power so easily after the Revolutionary War was that he longed to cultivate his tree collection at Mount Vernon. Virtually all aspects of American politics, society, and culture are somehow influenced by trees. Central Park was even envisioned partially as a way to refine the lower rungs of society in New York.

For those familiar with American history, especially environmental history, some of the book’s material (especially from the progressive era onward) will be a review. American Canopy is in the same vein as environmental history works such as Nature’s Metropolis, which first brought to light the intricate connections between Chicago and its hinterlands, including the Great Lakes logging industry. American Canopy is unique for bringing together themes from the entirety of American history and for using trees as the common denominator to connect different eras. As an overview of hundreds of years, some of the stories lack depth, and Rutkow spends very little space connecting the themes between the sometimes disparate sections. Prominent figures like Gifford Pinchot are described in detail, but other important minds get glossed over to an extent. Women were also noticeably absent, perhaps that is the case in the primary source material also (I can only remember Lady Bird Johnson being mentioned).

The most amazing facts are the sheer magnitude of uses for forest products and the statistics for the tremendous volume of wood that was extracted. A single English ship required an astonishing two thousand oak trees. Railroads were known as the “iron horse” but they were initially comprised almost entirely of wood—including the bridges, cars, fuel, ties, and even the rails themselves. Each species of tree had specific uses and Rutkow explains in detail why White Pine was preferred for ship masts, longleaf pines for turpentine, and Sitka spruce for WWI airplanes. The various descriptions (by Rutkow and his sources) make it especially sad to read about the American Elm, “the most magnificent vegetable in the temperate zone,” succumbing to disease. After finishing this book, one will almost certainly advocate for increased concern and protection for trees. American Canopy will definitely go down as one of the better history books of the year, but it falls short of the top tier of American history works.
Profile Image for Paul.
99 reviews2 followers
August 3, 2015
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 during his administration. The absence of this discussion makes one wonder if he was worried about putting Nixon in a positive light with this analysis. Perhaps Nixon had no role in moving this legislation forward, but I'll have to look at another source to find out.
Profile Image for Miri Gifford .
1,567 reviews64 followers
October 16, 2018
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 for trees, and though I have a particular not love for American history, this was a lovely and much preferable angle from which to travel through it.
Profile Image for Art.
551 reviews17 followers
July 5, 2019
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.

Railroads depended on steel rails, of course. But the trains relied on wood in vast quantities for the fuel, cars and crossties. As hardwoods, chestnut and white oak worked best. Most Americans ignored depletion of the forests because of the new prosperity that trains brought.

Before wood pulp developed, newspapers printed on fiber made from old rags. The shift from rag paper to cheaper wood pulp helped to democratize information in the late nineteenth century. Cheap paper allowed information to flow, leading to a better informed public while cheap books encouraged literacy. Newspapers and books fed the hunger for new and information in the years before radio and television.

But a day of reckoning approached as forests revealed their limits. Few people knew how to propagate trees.

The vision of one guy, J Sterling Morton, changed that when he began Arbor Day on an April Nebraska day. And that began a movement, triggering interest in trees. One of his sons founded the Morton Salt Company in Chicago then spent part of his fortune building a big arboretum west of the city, testament to a love of tree planting instilled by his father.

Progressive reformers began agitating for metropolitan tree planting in the late nineteenth century. A growing canopy shaded urban America.

Chestnuts, mostly in the east, worked well for fences, log cabins and tall telegraph and telephone poles. Elms grew as hardy trees everywhere and endured air pollution including particulate from coal-burning factories.

Spending leisure time among trees informed the writings of Emerson, Thoreau and Muir while inspiring Olmstead’s urban park movement.

But a hundred years ago a fungus began taking the elms. In the forties, scientists discovered that DDT might kill the fungus. Rachel Carson wrote about DDT for The New Yorker in the early sixties, arguing that it killed birds and poisoned the environment. Carson turned her articles into Silent Spring, the book that changed the way we thought about pesticides. The street of my childhood home in Chicago lost its graceful and beloved canopy of Dutch elms.

Nonetheless, Dutch elm disease led to strong urban forestry while promoting the planting of tree varieties.

John Muir, a Scotland-born Presbyterian, emigrated with his family to an area northwest of Milwaukee at age eleven. After his victory to preserve Yellowstone, Muir founded the Sierra Club, devoted to preservation. He served as president for twenty years and became a leading light of early environmental movement.

Aviation pioneers determined that spruce made the best airplanes because of the lumber’s lightness, strength and durability. By World War I the army began housing its soldiers in wood housing, replacing tents. During the ten years between the world wars, the Civilian Conservation Corps planted three billion trees.

By the mid-fifties, new consumer goods made of metal and plastic replaced ones made of wood, such as the ice box and washboard. Meanwhile, disposable paper products became common, beginning with tissues, paper cups and plates from Kimberly-Clark.

The first wakeup call came in sixty-two when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a book about toxins in the postwar years. As the years wore on, a toxic stew turned lakes and rivers into industrial sinks, including the Cuyahoga in Cleveland, which caught fire several times. But most of the political energy of the day went to opposing the Vietnam War and fighting for civil rights.

Senator Gaylord Nelson, of Wisconsin, wanted to do something about the environment. He read about the effectiveness of college teach-ins raising awareness of the war in Vietnam. Nelson developed a national teach-in about the environment. The term “environment” broadened at this time. Excessive consumption by then revealed a selfish and irresponsible use of resources.

Earth Day celebrates ifs fiftieth anniversary in April. For many states, it falls on their Arbor Day. And that’s when I enter the story. I worked as a news writer and reporter in Colorado when this avalanche of mail came in about the event, planned as a one-off. I covered that first Earth Day, which converted me to a lifelong tree-hugger now fully aware of the human impact on food, fuel and resources, leading me to rethink my role.

To everyone’s surprise, Earth Day put the environment on the national political agenda and became an annual event. The Environmental Protection Agency formed a few months later.

The story ends in the modern era. For years, the link between deforestation and climate change received little attention while our friends, the trees, absorbed a third of the manmade carbon dioxide. In the future, the author writes, fast-growing super trees will absorb carbon.

I like this ten-year-old book, full of tree stories. Old wooden family artifacts survive around my place while I look out the front window overlooking a river lined with old trees.

AP. Best way to fight climate change? Plant a trillion trees. https://www.apnews.com/8ac33686b64a4f...
Profile Image for Apollo.
Author 1 book5 followers
August 30, 2018
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?
Profile Image for Quinn Rollins.
Author 3 books46 followers
January 17, 2019
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.
Profile Image for Becky Loader.
1,725 reviews14 followers
September 10, 2019
Interesting read about the role of trees in the development of the United States. Unfortunately, the author gets a little preachy.
Profile Image for leslie collins.
109 reviews8 followers
April 29, 2023
I picked up this book for Earth Day. I found the book to be an absorbing history of the US. So many things to learn from this book. I am not a big non fiction reader but this book kept my attention. I would recommend to anyone that likes ecology, National Parks, trees and US history.
48 reviews
February 28, 2014
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 books, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World; Salt: A World History; Tom Standage’s A History of the World in Six Glasses and Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World. As in these books Rutkow reveals how history has been influenced by the American Forests and surprises us with so much we never really knew. For example, White Pines! Who can imagine White Pines 250 feet tall, with the first 100 feet having no branches, and a 4 foot diameter at the base! And then all the wood needed just to heat, power transportation and machines, and build homes, railways, bridges and then airplanes for the war effort!

And General Washington – what a tree person! His wonderment at tree diversity and his efforts to create more by seeking new trees, planting for diversity in species and space, and corresponding to people about trees and waxing philosophical:
“Those trees which my hands have planted … by their rapid growth, at once indicate knowledge of my declining years, and their disposition to spread their mantle over me before I go hence to return no more. For this, their gratitude, I will nurture them while I stay.” (p. 53)

One reviewer writing about Rutkow’s work summarized “Our country and national character were profoundly shaped by the presence of an immense and seemingly inexhaustible supply of trees, and our changing attitudes toward trees and forest reflect our no-longer-young society’s gradual acceptance of limits.”(Washington Post, Colin Woodard, Published: June 1, 2012)

The stories about Pinchot, Muir, Weyerhauser, Morton, Roosevelt and others, and indeed the whole book, reminds one of the tension and conflict from the very early years of the nation until today between the people who want to use the resources, unfettered, and those who want to preserve them for other reasons, esthetic, spiritual, pleasure or just sustainability! The arguments from the western states against forming national parks and national forests sound similar to today’s, i.e., the government has no business owning and controlling land. Interesting that in the early days of our nation the government didn’t want to keep land and had a desire to get rid of public lands as soon as possible and into the hands of private owners. After all, where in the constitution does it say that the central government should control land?

In the story of development and growth in New York City and the replacement of forests with slums, he provides on of the most provocative quotes, “Cities are places where you cut down trees and then name streets after them!” (p. 85) The whole story of the evolution of Central Park and the birth of the parks movement is fascinating. No less so is the discussion of the huge influence of one book, Man and Nature by George Marsh. This book sowed the first seeds of the conservation movement, was published during the Civil War and had its greatest influence right in the middle of the industrial revolution!

Rutkow has made an enjoyable and important contribution with this book.
Profile Image for Mike.
56 reviews7 followers
August 5, 2013
Tracing the importance of trees in American history, Eric Rutkow is understandably forced to be selective in what he dwells on in American Canopy. Despite glossing over some areas I would not have, he still has put together a very engaging and clearly well researched series of tales showing how Americans have finally come to understand the profundity of trees through centuries of reliance, abuse and increasingly responsible management.

Highlights of American Canopy for me tend to center around the earlier history of the American colonies and the nascent US. From the use of Maine's white pines for shipmasts and early (futile) attempts to restrict the best trees for use by the Royal Navy, to the symbolic importance of liberty trees in town squares throughout states.

Much focus is placed on the absolutely vast stock of timber settlers found waiting for them and the profligacy it engendered. Seemingly unending supplies of wood rendered needless any degree of resource management by America's earliest European colonists, and the author charts the long course of that philosophy, and its consequences, into the modern day.

Though broadly a chronological history of the country and its use of trees, Rutkow takes time out to focus on various themes, including expansion of logging from the northeast to the lake states, the deep south and the pacific northwest. He also details the fall of two iconic American trees - the chestnut and the elm - all but wiped out by disease.

Familiar names include Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park; John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, two of America's founding conservationists; and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose Civilian Conservation Corps brought forest tourism to the American people and whose deep love of trees many who know him mainly in the context of World War 2 will find fascinating.

The final section of American Canopy expands to include the environmental movement of the latter 20th century as a whole. I didn't mind this but it did seem to me to roam somewhat from the core topic. My only real criticism of American Canopy as a whole relates back to one of my first points - in what Rutkow chooses to omit. I was expecting Theodore Roosevelt to feature much more heavily in this book, and the work done to secure so much land for conservation purposes through the National Parks system around the turn of the century. Perhaps the author felt it has been dealt with elsewhere but to me it seemed an oversight. It also seemed to me that the role of trees and timber in the Civil War was given short-thrift. While it's possible there simply weren't many good stories to tell about this period as they would relate to trees, I probably would have tried to include something.
Profile Image for Joyce.
377 reviews52 followers
October 21, 2015
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 school in the nation, there is an undeniable Yankee focus to the narrative. Even the forests of the far west are largely seen through the eyes of white male elites in New York, Washington DC, Boston, and New Haven. You just aren't gonna learn much here about how different Native American groups, the Spanish, or Russians -- or women or Mormons or General Sherman! -- looked at trees. There's still TONS of great material that is probably new to you, but just setting expectations here.

That said, the book is stuffed with intriguing factoids. For instance, apple and peach orchards were taken as a quick-and-dirty evidence of home ownership for many years in America, and even required by landlords -- hence the need for Johnny Appleseed and his wares. Even today you can tell the locations of former homesteads on California public lands by the apple orchards. Did you know that American trees were considered supreme for making early aircraft, and an officer was specifically assigned to ensure the health and productivity of the great spruces of the Pacific Northwest? One of the running themes of the book is that conservation of forests was specifically tied to an age-old but incorrect scientific theory that they guaranteed rainfall and therefore water supplies for the cities!

Another fascinating theme is how each generation of tree-huggers came inevitably to push against the ideas of the previous one. One of the more recent episodes pitted wilderness advocates (where defined as roadless areas big enough for a 2 week backpacking trip) against those who had won access for car camping. Today our generational conflicts have become international, e.g. global warming and whether resources should be devoted to overseas tree conservation -- but the overarching theme of America's attempts to manage tree resources for the greater good or personal profit seems to be everlasting.
Profile Image for Alexis.
264 reviews6 followers
February 15, 2015
Mostly kind of an expansion on things you already know a bit about in American history. Johnny Appleseed, lumber barons, organized labor, Washington's cherry trees (And Washington's cherry tree; apparently the original (but still fictional) line was, "I can't tell a lie, Pa; you know I can't tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet."), orange trees, Walden, Yosemite, etc., but details of which you probably don't. An interesting study of changing attitudes that ultimately wasn't in-depth enough for me to really get into it, particularly the business and industry parts. I found the writing style not very easy to get into either. The biographies sometimes seemed like they were just there to fill up a page count but sometimes the story of personalities was the easiest part to grasp. I thought the parts about legislation were also interesting.

Also, carrying the historical narrative through the centuries to the present day gives an interesting perspective. Seeing viewpoints and controversies that have faded into distant memory treated in the same way as the rainforests and climate change is a great exercise in understanding the public imagination. It's difficult to do and the author gives it a good try.

An interesting bridge between my reading of 1491 and Eugene Lodson.

Minor political-correctness note: As the subtitle suggests, it really ought to be called United States Canopy. It deals with the political construct, not just the geographic area.
Profile Image for Robin.
91 reviews1 follower
May 4, 2015
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 convincingly shows that America would not be the America we know, and much of the progress that we benefit from in our modern lives would not have been achieved, without the utilization of America's vast natural resources. And yet, at some level, the utilization of those resources cannot go unchecked, whether it be for the sake of future consumption, natural beauty, environmental care, or all of the above. This book does not seek to answer where to draw the line between those two competing notions, but rather to tell an honest history of the conflict, with the merits of both sides on display. Debates about where to draw the line moving forward can only benefit from such a balanced view of the past.
Profile Image for James (JD) Dittes.
743 reviews27 followers
July 19, 2017
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.

There are new insights into heroes like Daniel Boone, Johnny Appleseed, and Henry Ford, but there are also new heroes that many Americans won't recognize: Albo Leopold, Gifford Pinchot, and Gaylord Nelson.

The tragedies of American history, found in this book, include the clear-cut landscapes of Wisconsin, the extinction of the American Chestnut, and the body-blow dealt the American Elm by Dutch Elm's Disease (I was not aware that DDT was initially used to protect elms against this terrible disease.

I kept expecting the book to grow boring--especially as it moved into more recent, more familiar territory, but I was always pleasantly surprised and enlightened.
Profile Image for Curtis Anthony Bozif.
211 reviews6 followers
April 30, 2020
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 oversight, an erasure, that perpetuate the same colonial legacies that resulted in the centuries of deforestation the author spilled so much ink over lamenting.

Nevertheless, this is a unique and enjoyable survey of American history.
171 reviews3 followers
August 17, 2012
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 Bowl. if you liked the national parks documentary you'll probably like this also.
57 reviews
July 24, 2018
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.
Profile Image for Ford Prior.
41 reviews20 followers
July 8, 2018
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.
Profile Image for Dayna.
424 reviews5 followers
August 24, 2012
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.
Profile Image for Frederik Strabo.
5 reviews21 followers
August 1, 2021
This is simply the most well written history book I have ever read. Never once did I feel the book dragged or got bogged down in historical details. Rutkow also has a great ability of identifying themes that are not commonly addressed when studying American history, which I think anyone interested in the subject would greatly benefit from the read. I never realized just how important trees and other natural resources were in the success and development of the U.S.

One of the major themes of the book can be summarized by this quote, "American attitudes towards resource consumption were formed against a backdrop of seemingly unlimited access to wood. The country's industrial expansion differed from that of Europe in a large part because of trees, which allowed a style of development that favored speed and immediacy over permanence."

If you are interested in economics and natural resources, like myself, this book will be even more enjoyable as it has endless interesting case studies in these areas. Some of these case studies are:

We see how important railroad systems were at developing economies across the American frontier, as they were the prerequisite for the settlement and trade. For example, many "logger barrons" waited for the introduction of the railroad in the Pacific Northwest, before initiating their operations. We also see how financial and economic incentives led to a common logging mentality "Cut out and get out" which led to the depletion of trees and ecosystems in the Great Lakes and the deep south, which can still be seen to this day.

There are many examples of how the U.S. governments provision of public goods that led to a greater efficiency of private markets. An example of this is, the creation of the Forest Product Laboratory (FPL) , which led to many positive externalities in the lumber industry, where new products and uses of wood were identified which led to increased revenue and decreased costs for firms. We also see this with the New Deal Program, the CCC, where tree planting was a big part of the program. Trees provided many positive externalities to ecosystems and farms across the U.S.

There are also examples of industries and governments use advertising as a way to influence individual preferences in order to achieve their ends. This was seen in the telling of the orange industry's advertising of the health benefits of orange juice in order to increase consumer demand or the U.S. Forest Services' use of the Smokey the Bear to increase awareness of the forest fires.

I believe these case studies are not only interesting in and of themselves but provide us with some interesting ideas of how we can respond to the current environmental degradation and climate change crisis'. Not only is this book incredibly well written and will be of interest to anyone interested in American history but is incredibly relevant to many of the problems we face as a society today.
Profile Image for Carol Douglas.
Author 12 books93 followers
April 7, 2018
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 ravaging the East, the Americans ravaged the forests of the upper Midwest. Then went down to the South to take the pines there for furniture.

Some of the giant sequoias in California were saved, but a "scientist" cut what might have been the oldest tree on earth to count its rings.

Having depleted the rest of the country, lumber barons moved on to the Pacific Northwest. By that time, they had realized they needed to replant, but the replanted trees didn't provide the same kind of habitat as the original forest.

Of course the book includes stories of environmentalists like Thoreau and Muir. It also tells how people moving to the Plains states wanted trees, so they engaged in wholesale tree planting, not always with good results because the soil and climate weren't suitable for the trees they planted.

On balance, the story is sad, but well told.
Profile Image for Zach.
35 reviews
July 24, 2018
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 around us, and the often unseen industry that supports it. It is a story of highest goals and lowest desires, earthly paradises and manmade hells, and the occasional Easter egg for Yalies.

Some reviewers have suggested that Rutkow doesn't pay attention to minorities, to which I will point out that this is a history of Americans who had the luxury and privilege to create business empires, to pursue their love of nature, and/or to reach the highest levels of public office. I imagine that this deficit is less an oversight on Rutkow's part, than it is a reflection of the pervasive inequality of opportunity that has existed since the very first trees were felled by European axes on this continent. I'm not inclined to say that this is the author's responsibility to point out, but a simple acknowledgement of this imbalance would have probably put others' concerns to rest.
6 reviews
September 1, 2019
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 stirred up resentment and backlash long before the more well known events in Boston. The same laziness and greed that had denuded the British Isles of trees drove a plethora of terribly shortsighted policies that ultimately got them booted out.

It’s a short book and it’s entertaining enough to finish in a weekend. Most of it is not about the British, I just found those parts the most fascinating. I highly recommend this book to anyone who can read.
Profile Image for Heather.
40 reviews26 followers
July 6, 2020
“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 sense, offers a reconnection with the physical world, the world of our forefathers. The forests and their trees are a sanctuary for the spirit. To enter them is to seek renewal.”

Fascinating read if you love trees! 💚🌲🌳
Profile Image for Ron.
523 reviews9 followers
September 17, 2021
A history of the American forests, their uses and exploitations and the efforts to protect them with the establishment of national forests, and ideas of forest conservation. The apparent limitlessness of the American forests quickly resulted in thoughtless decimation of environments dating from time immemorial. Forests were essential to the economic development of the country, but the struggles between industrial/commercial use of forests, and forests as irreplaceable natural resources for human solitude and communion started early in American history and has c0ntinued.
Not as polemical a book as I thought it might be, but rather a straightforward history of how
Americans have used and abused trees. A good discussion of the sad fate of elms and chestnuts in the American landscape.
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