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American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the…
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American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation

by Eric Rutkow

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Interesting, but insufficient. Perhaps all histories are notable as much for what they leave out as for what they put in. Retelling American history by looking to the trees is a worthwhile endeavor, however. It skews our perspective just enough to make us look at what we already know in a fresh way. That said, Rutkow doesn't deviate from the traditional approach of viewing history as the consequence of the acts of Great (or at least infamous) White Men. Most of the actors in the drama here have names that will be familiar to most readers: Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, George Washington,Thomas Jefferson, the Presidents Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, Frederick Law Olmstead, Al Gore, Henry Ford, William Levitt, etc. I do have to give the author credit for, particularly where the earlier figures are concerned, telling stories that we probably haven't heard before. This is the advantage of choosing a fresh point of view. One glaring omission in Rutkow's survey of the impact of the trees upon & their relationship to American history is any mention of the lynching tree, powerful both as symbol & site; another is any serious consideration of the relationship of indigenous peoples to the forests (granted, that might be the subject of another book entirely; nevertheless, even if the author's focus is strictly upon post-Columbian North America, he is delinquent in not mentioning, for example, how the colonists' encounter with American Indian modes of battle impacted how their own Revolution was fought and won). The author has also by and large omitted women from his narrative except for a few nods to women here and there, of foot-note quality in their brevity. How, for example, in a tome already diminished by its lack of inclusion of women, blacks, Mexicans, Indians, etc. could he not have told the story of at least one female activist. Julia Butterfly Hill, for example, whose name became synonymous with preservation of Old Growth Coastal Redwoods in the 1990s. This is, in sum, mostly a top-down telling of the story of Americans & the trees. I would have liked some alternative telling as well. ( )
  Paulagraph | May 25, 2014 |
As a forester I have an obvious weakness for trees, so reading American Canopy was a natural choice for me. I enjoyed most of the book, especially when it was about trees. I especially liked the true story of Johnny Appleseed and the role apples played in the colonies; the short-lived citrus industry in southern California; and the loss of elms and chestnuts. However, for some reason Rutkow veered into the history of environmentalism in America and lost his way. There are many better books written about the rise of the environmental movement, and the movement is not always about trees nor is it altruistic. He also reveals his political bias, in that democratic politicians did good, while republican politicians did bad things for the environment.. Its never that simple. I think that Rutkow should have finished his book with the following topics: sudden oak death, urban forestry, why we have too many trees due to lack of fire in the west, and the role that trees can play in our switch to green energy (and why using tree biomass for energy is carbon neutral). ( )
  exfed | Sep 29, 2013 |
I found this book fascinating, but then I've always been partial (very much so) to trees and wood. It starts off with an account of the intentional destruction, in the name of science, of the world's oldest living tree. The history of man's use and misuse of forests makes up the majority of the book starting with colonial times up to the present. Perhaps if I found any fault with the narrative, it would be that this history entails a bit too much of the political side of the conservation story, though, it is of course important to understanding this long and involved tale. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of man's use of forests particularly, but not entirely, as this applies to the western hemisphere. ( )
  mcola | Jul 22, 2013 |
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In the bestselling tradition of Michael Pollan's "Second Nature," this fascinating and unique historical work tells the remarkable story of the relationship between Americans and trees across the entire span of our nation's history.

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