How Trees Defined America

Historian Erik Rutkow argues in a new book that forests are key to understanding how our nation developed and who we are today

(Library of Congress)

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I don’t think the book should necessarily be read as a polemic. The real takeaway is that it’s very hard to understand the American experience if you don’t understand our relationship to trees. This book is about understanding who we are and how we got there.

What could be done to boost consciousness about deforestation?

There’s a sensibility among a lot of people that many of the issues concerning our forests and how we use trees have largely been settled. These are things that are now taken care of by the government, by corporations, by the environmental movement. But there are plenty of active and unfolding issues, and it’s always worth being active and lending your voice. Certainly in the last 20 years, we’ve seen an increase in wildfires and the loss of trees to disease, and this trend is something that would really benefit from more civic engagement.

Does history suggest there’s hope for American forests?

There was a time in the United States that we were chopping down trees and planting almost no trees to replace them. We were net-losing trees every year. And that trend transformed over the course of the 19th century such that now there are more trees planted than being cut down. That’s a bright spot we have made progress in.

What might American forests look like in the future?

If the trends linked to global warming continue, we may see trees slowly migrating northward, while some species living at the edges of ecosystems, like the bristlecone pine, might go extinct. New advances in genetics, if applied, will raise ethical questions about the introduction of modified trees that might crossbreed in the wild. Given all of this, Americans in the future may someday wander through forests types that don’t yet exist. And they may struggle to find remnants of certain types of forests that we now think of as common. 

Now that you know so much about trees and the history of forests, has that knowledge changed how you relate to trees and forests in your daily life?

Oh, absolutely. Five or ten years ago, I don’t think I could have identified many trees. I could probably have identified an oak tree and a maple tree by their leaves, and I knew that acorns were associated with oak trees, but I didn’t know much more than that. But once you start looking at trees in the landscape, once you start to see it this way, you really can’t un-see it. I find myself walking through New Haven or New York City and constantly asking questions: if I recognize the tree, how did it get there and why, and what can we say about what was happening in America at the time the tree was planted? So it’s gotten a little bit annoying, I suppose, with some of my friends. I have a hard time walking from A to B without stopping and pondering trees.

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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