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American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nationby Eric Rutkow
Synopses & Reviews
This fascinating and groundbreaking work tells the remarkable story of the relationship between Americans and their trees across the entire span of our nations 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 stories: 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 globes 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.
"The unintentional destruction of the oldest tree in recorded history, a 5,000-year-old bristlecone pine, opens environmental lawyer and historian Rutkow's first book — an ambitious, panoramic view of American history from the perspective of our trees and forests, with a large supporting cast of humans. Some are familiar faces, like John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed) and Henry David Thoreau, while others are less well-known, such as Frederick Weyerhaeuser, the father of industrial logging. America's rapid industrial expansion after the Civil War wouldn't have been possible without an abundant supply of cheap lumber. Industrialization denuded the forests and heralded an era of more frequent and larger forest fires, most notably the little remembered Peshtigo Fire of 1871 in Michigan and Wisconsin, perhaps the deadliest forest fire in history. Rutkow writes of the growing appreciation of nature as a source of spiritual renewal, a change in consciousness that led to the conservation movement and the environmental movement. Better stewardship of America's natural resources has been the broad trend of the past century, Rutkow concludes, though there is 'a long lineage of Americans realizing that they had abused their greatest renewable resource when it was too late.' Though a great potential resource for students, the book may prove too dry for general readers, and not original enough for specialists. Agent: Eric Simonoff, William Morris Endeavor." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"For those who see our history through the traditional categories of politics, economics, and culture, a delightful feast awaits. In this remarkably inventive book, Eric Rutkow looks at our national experience through the lens of our magnificent trees, showing their extraordinary importance in shaping how we lived, thrived, and expanded as a people. A beautifully written, devilishly original piece of work." David Oshinsky, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Polio: An American Story
"Right from its quietly shocking prelude — the cavalier and surprisingly recent murder of the oldest living thing in North America — Eric Rutkow's splendid saga shows, through a chain of stories and biographical sketches that are intimate, fresh, and often startling, how trees have shaped every aspect of our national life. Here is the tree as symbol and as tool, as companion and enemy, as a tonic for our spirits and the indispensable ingredient of our every enterprise from the colonization voyages to the transcontinental railroad to Levittown. The result, both fascinating and valuable, is a sort of shadow history of America. Toward the end of his finest novel, F. Scott Fitzgerald writes that the 'vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of human dreams.' American Canopy retrieves those trees and does full-rigged (on tall, white pine masts) justice to the dream." Richard Snow, author of A Measureless Peril and former Editor-in-Chief of American Heritage
"American Canopy marks the debut of an uncommonly gifted young historian and writer. Ranging across four centuries of history, Eric Rutkow shows the manifold ways in which trees — and woodland — and wood — have shaped the contours of American life and culture. And because he has managed to build the story around gripping events and lively characters, the book entertains as much as it as informs. All in all, a remarkable performance!" John Demos, Samuel Knight Professor of History at Yale University, and author of Entertaining Satan, winner of the Bancroft Prize in American History, and TheUnredeemed Captive, which was a finalist for the National Book Award
"An original and often surprising take on American history." Wall Street Journal
"There is much in this book on the prevalence of wood products in our life, but more on their deeper significance. This book is not merely a history, but an eloquent advocate of, as Rutkow writes, 'how trees change from enemy, to friend, to potential savior.'" St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"A lively story of driven personalities, resources that were once thought to be endless, brilliant ideas, tragic mistakes and the evolution of the United States. Rutkow has cut through America's use and love of trees to reveal the rings of our nation's history and the people who have helped shape it." San Diego Union Tribune
"An even-handed and comprehensive history that could not be more relevant....The woods, Rutkow's history reminds us again and again, are essential to our humanity." Business Week
"An excellent book for both academics and general readers, this is highly recommended." Library Journal
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.
Like so many of us, historians are guilty of taking trees for granted. The history of trees in America is no less than the history of the United States itself — from the majestic pines of the East coveted by the King of England for British warships to the orange groves of California, which lured settlers west. Without trees, there would have been no ships, railroads, stockyards, furniture, wagons, barrels, or firewood. Never before has anyone ever treated our country's trees as the subject of a broad historical and cultural study, and the result is an accessible, informative, and thoroughly entertaining read.
As symbols of liberty, community, and civilization, trees are perhaps the loudest silent figures in America's complicated history. The journey of how forests morphed from dark, unmapped infinities, to vast timber reserves essential to the creation of the American empire, and finally to sanctuaries of nature is a complex tale. Americans started as people frightened of the woods, became a nation that depended upon its forests for progress and profit, and finally arrived at the present point. Today, few people know where timber comes from or can name many tree species, but most of us share a sense that to destroy trees is to destroy part of ourselves.
Audacious in its 400-year scope, authoritative in its detail, and elegant in its execution, this one-of-a-kind read is perfect for history buffs and nature lovers alike.
Out of the Woods tells the remarkable story of the relationship between Americans and trees across the entire span of the nation's history. How forests morphed from dark, unmapped infinities, to timber reserves essential to the creation of the American empire, to sanctuaries of nature. How wood built the country, and apple trees united it, and shade trees imbued its great cities with life. How Americans started as people frightened of the woods, became a nation that destroyed these woods for progress and profit, and finally arrived at the present point. Today, few of us understand where timber comes from or what to call any given tree species, but most of us share a sense that to destroy trees is to destroy part of ourselves. This story is uniquely American. No other country was populated because of its trees quite like the United States. Nowhere else has the culture been so intimately associated with wood. History has lost or buried many of these episodes. To learn about trees is to discover a side of the nation's past that is rarely told. No one has ever treated America's trees as a subject for such broad historical study. Like so many Americans, historians are guilty of taking trees for granted. But trees are perhaps the loudest silent figures in America's complicated history.
About the Author
Eric Rutkow is a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School. He has worked as a lawyer on environmental issues across three continents. He currently splits his time between New York City and New Haven, Connecticut, where, in addition to writing, he is pursuing a doctorate in American History at Yale. This is his first book.
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