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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » American Canopy: Trees, Forests and the Making of a Nation » User review

A panoramic view of how trees have impacted our great nation.

  • Jun 5, 2012

When you really stop and think about it, attempting to write a history of trees in a country as massive and geographically diverse as the United States is necessarily a gargantuan undertaking.  Evidently, the idea of America's trees and forests as the subject of a broad historical study had simply never been attempted before.  But I am here to tell you that first-time author Eric Rutkow pulls it off with great aplomb in his compelling and comprehensive new book "American Canopy:  Trees, Forests, and The Making of a Nation."  This one is just chock-a-block full of important people, places, events and issues and lays out for the reader a chronological history of the essential role that America's trees and forests have played in the history of our nation.  I simply could not put this book down.

In "American Canopy" you will discover that the British had designs on the land that would become America as early as 1584.  Richard Hakluyt, a prominent British citizen and preeminent geographer proposed establishing permanent settlements whereby transplanted Englishmen would work the land.  Hakluyt well understood the treasure trove of natural resources that seemed to be there for the taking.  Timber was badly needed to maintain and expand the British naval fleet.  Eventually colonies were established and by 1629 a shipbuilding industry was beginning to emerge in New England.  But this was just the beginning of the story....

As I indicated earlier "American Canopy" chronicles the important people, places, events and issues in the history of America's forests.  Eric Rutkow offers up engaging stories involving several American presidents including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and his distant cousin Franklin Roosevelt.  You will learn about the explorers Lewis and Clark and discover the roles played by a distinguished group of other prominent Americans including Thomas Edison, Frederick Law Olmstead, Daniel Boone, Frederick Weyerhauser, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Ford, John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed), Henry David Thoreau, Gifford Pinchot and William Levitt to name but a few. Furthermore, you will discover that when our nation was first settled the forest cover was estimated to be some one billion acres and how over a period of just 300 years that figure would dwindle to just 600 million acres.  Rutkow talks extensively about the negative effects clear-cutting, insects, fire and disease have had on our forests over the centuries.  This is not a pretty picture but you may actually be encouraged by the way America has chosen to fight back in recent decades.  You will also discover the role the federal government has played in the development and protection of our forests and wilderness areas over the years.  Rutkow cites the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 and  John Muir's remarkable effort to establish Yosemite National Park as particularly significant milestones.  I was also pleased to read about the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that was established by President Franklin Roosevelt back in 1933.  As a result of that program a young man from Providence, Rhode Island, who would eventually become my dad, was able to spend a couple of years working in the wilds of Wyoming planting trees, carving out trails, erecting firetowers and building fire protection roads among other things.  This proved to be a very rewarding experience for so many young men during that difficult economic time. Meanwhile, Rutkow also documents the origins and evolution of both the "conservation" and "environmentalist" movements in this nation.  Merely "protecting the nation's forests" would morph into "conservation" a philosophy that proclaimed that "all natural resources ought to be managed with an eye toward sustainability and efficient use."  Then in 1960 with the passage of MUSYA (Multiple-Use Sustained Yield Act) the federal government would declare that "It is the policy of the Congress that the national forests are established and shall be administered for outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed, wildlife and fish purposes".  Note the amazing change in emphasis here.  Our nation's forests were no longer merely a resource to be exploited for profit.  Very interesting indeed!

So whether you are a history buff or just someone who is endlessly curious about the world around you "American Canopy:  Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation" should be right up your alley.  This is a thoughtful, meticulously researched and well-written book. I must tell you that this is easily the best book I have read thus far in 2012. It is such a fascinating topic. In my view "American Canopy" is an extremely important work and I suspect that Eric Rutkow is someone we will be hearing a lot more from in the future. This is a book that is definitely worth your time and attention.  Very highly recommended!

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June 09, 2012
This sounds terrific. Thank you for the interesting recommendation. Well done.
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Paul Tognetti ()
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I guess I would qualify as a frustrated writer. My work requires very little writing and so since 1999 I have been writing reviews on non-fiction books and anthology CD's on amazon.com. I never could … more
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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 stories: the Liberty Trees, where colonists gathered to plot rebellion against the British; Henry David Thoreau’s famous retreat...

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