American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation (Scribner) is the story of Americans and their trees. Though ubiquitous and largely ignored, trees shaped American history in profound ways. They provided fuel for homes and industry, building material and sustenance in the form of fruit. Their roots stabilized soil and their leaves scrubbed carbon dioxide from the air. There is nothing else in nature quite as helpful to man as a tree, says author Eric Rutkow.
What’s more, writes the author, the nation’s story simply could not have happened without its vast forests. The Massachusetts Bay colonists, for example, saw economic opportunity in their tall white pines. The trees were lopped down and sent to England where they became masts on British naval vessels. Thus began hundreds of years of forest-based commer
When trees weren’t being used for “progress and profit,” they played important roles in cultural history. Rutkow describes how in 1765 the threat of a new tax, the Stamp Act, caused consternation in Boston. A British Stamp officer was hung in effigy from an elm on Boston Common which came to be known as the Liberty Tree.
Rutkow, a Harvard Law school graduate, tells how early American botanists obsessively cataloged the nation’s forests and population centers grew up around trees—including the citrus trees of Florida and timber forests of the Northwest. Rutkow describes how trees powered industries, supported war efforts, became mired in political controversy and served as the centerpieces of presidential initiatives. An arm of government was even created to manage the nation’s timber, the U.S. Forest Service. Ultimately, he notes, trees may also turn out to be a critical part of the strategy to slow global warming.