Here in the United States we have the world’s biggest (sequoia), tallest (redwood), and oldest (bristlecone pine) trees. We have somewhere around 750 million acres of continental forests, a collective area roughly 140 times the size of Massachusetts.
But in ways both measurable and immeasurable, the young, massively-altered forests we have left are mere ghosts of the original American treescapes, unimaginable swaths of growth that mantled the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Giovanni da Verrazzano, a European explorer writing in 1524, marveled that the North American woods were “so greate and thicke that an armye (were it never so greate) mighte have hydd it selfe therein.” Ours was a wooden country, in the words of a 19th century minister, a place “of good living for those that love good fires.”
Where did the old forests go? Sailing masts for the British navy. Staves for wine barrels. They went into railroad cars, “snake fences,” and orange crates; they went up the hugely inefficient chimneys of settlers. As the historian Eric Rutkow puts it in his big, engrossing, and sedate first book, “American Canopy: Trees, Forests and the Making of a Nation,’’ “The creation of every horseshoe, wagon, carriage, gun, bottle, ship, train and early airplane required trees. Every mine, corral, stockyard, tannery, mill, refinery, dock, barge, telegraph and telephone line, and early oil derrick required trees.”
Trees, Rutkow believes, “are the loudest silent figures in America’s complicated history.” While Europe, obliged by timber shortages, shifted toward economies based on coal, steam, and iron, North Americans had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of wood.
During the first decades of the 19th century, for example, the average American consumed nearly six times the amount of lumber as his or her British counterpart. Trains needed trees for fuel, bridges, tracks, and cars; leather-makers needed bark for tannins; by the 1870s, newspapers needed pulp for paper. And huge percentages of cut trees were lost to rot, slabs and trimmings, and sawdust; waste in the logging industry would not be seriously addressed for decades.
“It may well be that the reason Americans today consume more than any other nation,” writes Rutkow, “traces back to the once limitless bounty of their forests.”
“American Canopy’’ is a work of history first and foremost. It does not walk its reader out into the last old-growth groves and yank on her heartstrings; it may not fundamentally alter how we manage and connect with our forests. At bottom it’s a synthesis, not a screed or panegyric.
But Rutkow is a gifted writer with a prodigious curiosity, offering up narratives in short bursts: 8 pages on Dutch elm disease; 10 on the fight to import and plant D.C.’s famous cherry trees. He gets to all the tree-related folk heroes one might expect: Johnny Appleseed, Daniel Boone, Paul Bunyan, as well as influential voices of early conservation like Emerson, Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold. There’s an excellent section on the founding father of forestry, Gifford Pinchot, and a fascinating series of anecdotes about the greatest of all lumber barons, Frederick Weyerhauser, who died in 1914 with somewhere around 50 million acres of Pacific Northwest forest under his control, an area larger than the size of Wisconsin.
Along the way, the fascinating contradictions of history arise. J. Sterling Morton, for example, a 19th century Nebraskan who argued in favor of expanding slavery to western states and described native Americans as people “who must die, and a few years hence only be known through their history as it was recorded by the Anglo-Saxon,” also, paradoxically, believed in the salubrious effects of orchards, and worked so hard promoting the cause of tree-planting that he managed to establish April 10, 1872 as the first Arbor Day.
Plenty of moments of wonder hide within these pages too: You learn that the original groves of New England white pines could set off storms of pollen so large that sailors far out at sea believed brimstone was raining on the decks; that the first million or so navel orange trees in California all came from grafts from two trees; and that, just maybe, Allied forces owed their victory in World War I partly to the immense groves of Sitka spruce in the Pacific Northwest, a tree particularly well-suited to making airplanes.
In the best passages, one can almost hear the ancient woodlands of Massachusetts, of Pennsylvania, of Louisiana, and of California, sighing beneath Rutkow’s pages. One thinks of the famous lines at the end of “The Great Gastby’’: “Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gastby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams.”
As Rutkow’s source material swells around the beginning of the 20th century, his narrative tends to bloat, and he jogs back and forth in chronology in ways that can frustrate. But these are small foibles in what turns out to be a deeply fascinating survey of American history through a particularly interesting angle: down through the boughs of our vanished trees.
Anthony Doerr, author of the story collection “Memory Wall,’’ can be reached at adoerr@ cableone.net.