They provide shade on a hot summer day. They grow fruits and nuts for eating. They supply material for building, paper, fuel, and many other items. Trees play an important role and have helped influence the course of United States history.
Eric Rutkow in American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of America examines trees and their impact on America. The author states that England became interested in the New World for their vast reserves of forests. Over the centuries, England used up their supply of trees for fuel, housing, and shipbuilding. To keep up, the Royal Navy needed timber. Colonies were established in Virginia and Massachusetts in part to send raw goods back to the mother country. This abundance of timber helped the colonists build shelters and furniture as they began to settle the new land. Some trees were designated Liberty Trees and became symbols in the fight for independence.
After the end of the Revolution, trees became even more important. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are among early leaders who sought out the best species for their plantations. Others such as Lewis and Clark explored the vast botanical flora of the new country. Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman) became an early legend for the United States as he went out planting apple trees. The giant redwoods in California inspired awe and wonder for their size.
As the nation grew westward, the use and exploitation of the forests moved with it. The trees of New England were replaced by those around the Great Lakes, the South, and the Pacific Northwest. Railroads, housing, and fuel used up the vast stands of trees that dotted the landscape. However, after the Civil War, individuals began to speak up for the conservation and preservation of trees. J. Sterling Morton began the annual observance of Arbor Day to promote tree planting and the idea spread throughout the country. John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, and Gifford Pinchot advocated for the designation of National Forests. A gradual awareness came as many realized the value of the natural resources.
Trees proved to be invaluable as they were necessary resources to win both World Wars. The military helped ensure the availability of timber to supply the war effort. Between the two conflicts, the New Deal along with the Civilian Conservation Corps, built roads and planted trees in the National Forests. Another idea for the Midwest included the planting of forest strips throughout the Great Plains to act as windbreaks for farmers. These forest strips had limited success but many doubted their value.
The end of World War II meant the rise of suburbs throughout the United States and wood became the primary building material. Other consumer products such as paper towels gained in popularity as well. Tree farms also sprang up to keep a steady supply of trees and timber to meet the demand. Leisure and recreation activities also arose in the National Forests as individuals explored them. The environmental movement started in the late twentieth century as Earth Day spread around the world. Other effects sought to preserve rain forests and combat climate change.
In the future, trees will continue to shape the American story. Their resources may yet yield new discoveries. The United States will remain dependent on them for houses, paper products, and much more. Trees may provide shade during the summer, but their value cannot be calculated.
I never thought about trees in reference to American history, but I can see the author’s point of their value to the nation. I learned of federal programs like Shelterbelt in the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl that had escaped my history classes. Though filled with material, this book proved to be an interesting read for either a nature or history buff.
About the Author
Judy Klamm is a reference librarian in Central Reference. She has written book reviews for Library Journal and various Presbyterian publications.