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American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation [Format Kindle]

Eric Rutkow

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Descriptions du produit


American Canopy

The Death of Prometheus


ON THE MORNING of August 6, 1964, thirty-year-old Donald Currey was leading several men up a trail along Wheeler Peak, the highest mountain in Nevada. One of Currey’s companions wore a U.S. Forest Service uniform, a second lugged a chainsaw, and a third carried a camera to document the event that would follow. They hiked through the thinning air for several hours, past clusters of piñon pines and Utah junipers. Eventually, the men reached the timberline, a point 10,750 feet high on the mountain, where tall plants yielded to the onslaught of nature’s winds and nothing survived beyond scrubby vegetation. There, on the environment’s edge, Currey’s team would encounter one of the world’s more remarkable trees, the bristlecone pine. And there, they would change five thousand years of history.

The bristlecone pine is found only in the mountains of the southwestern United States at altitudes that sustain few other life-forms. The rugged environment sculpts the bristlecones into a dramatic, gnarled form, more horizontal than vertical, the physiognomy of an endless battle against the elements. On the wind-facing side, sand particles sheer away outer bark in a process called die-back. The wood beneath looks almost polished, as though it has been petrified alive. John Muir, the eminent naturalist, wrote that the bristlecone “offers a richer and more varied series of forms to the artist than any conifer I know of.” The trees can grow up to thirty feet high and twenty around, but often maintain living needles in only a small section—an indoor Christmas tree’s worth of green—which produces the distinctive prickle-tipped purple cones that lend the conifer its name.

In 1958 the bristlecone pine had created a giant measure of excitement within a tiny segment of the scientific community when a National Geographic article declared that the species produced the oldest trees on earth. Edmund Schulman, the scientist who wrote the piece, explained that he had used tree-ring dating—literally counting up the annual rings in the trunk—to identify multiple bristlecone specimens in California’s Inyo National Forest that were more than four thousand years old. The most impressive find, a tree containing 4,676 rings, was named Methuselah, a nod to the longest-lived figure in the Bible. The National Geographic article asserted that the oldest bristlecones were located “at the western limit of their range” where Methuselah grew, suggesting that Schulman’s biblically named discovery was quite possibly the world’s oldest tree.

Schulman’s finding held great promise for a variety of reasons. Tree rings recorded climatic activity with remarkable precision—wetter years generated widely spaced rings, drier periods kept them close, and all trees in a given area corresponded. Consequently, these bristlecones were silent but scrupulous witnesses to several millennia of droughts, floods, shifting rivers, and retreating glaciers. Their rings offered scientists, specifically dendrochronologists (those who study tree rings), a chance to reconstruct the local climate to dates contemporaneous with the building of the Egyptian pyramids.

Currey, a graduate student in geography, was hoping to exploit this relationship between trees and history. He wanted to develop a climatic timeline connected to glacier growth and rock settlements in the Southwest as far back as 2000 BCE. His research centered on geological features in eastern Nevada’s Snake Range, a mountain chain capped by the imposing 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak. Bristlecones near the range’s timberline held valuable data within the rings of their trunks.

Currey’s research site was several hundred miles east of the Methuselah find. Thus, he anticipated finding only specimens much younger than those featured in National Geographic. During the summer of 1964, however, he stumbled upon something unexpected. A bristlecone stand in the national forest tract known as the Wheeler Peak Scenic Area appeared to contain trees as old as anything that Schulman had described. An eager Currey began to take samples of the trees using his twenty-eight-inch-long Swedish increment borer, a sophisticated hand tool with an aperture approximately the size of a drinking straw that removed a fragment of the trunk without causing permanent damage. Day after day, he scrambled over the limestone soil and the deposited rock that surrounded the bristlecones, carrying his notebook and Swedish borer alongside, collecting samples that he could later analyze under a microscope.

Currey’s 114th specimen was the most spectacular that he encountered. He measured it as having “a dead crown 17 feet high, a living shoot 11 feet high, and a 252-inch circumference 18 inches above the ground.” Such a wide base would have required four men with arms outstretched to encircle it. Currey also noted that the tree’s bark, which was necessary for its survival, was only “present along a single 19-inch-wide, north-facing strip.” The winds and sand had worn away everything else. But the tree was alive and still producing its compact bunches of needles on a three-inch-wide shoot.

Currey attempted to sample this tree, which he labeled WPN-114, but his borer broke. He tried again and damaged his reserve borer. Without equipment, he was suddenly stymied. This ancient specimen stood before him, its rings holding the secrets to several thousand years of climate change, and he had no way to study it, not with his borers, anyway.

Currey appealed to the district Forest Service ranger, explaining that he wanted to cut down WPN-114 and study the cross-section directly. At the time, sawing down trees for dendrochronological research was not uncommon—even Schulman admitted in National Geographic to felling three samples, though not Methuselah itself. The Forest Service ranger consulted with his supervisor and determined that the tree “was like many others and was not the type that the public would visit” and that it would better serve science and education. The supervisor concluded, “Cut ’er down.”

Shortly thereafter, on that August 6 morning, Currey led the cutting team up Wheeler Peak. When they reached WPN-114, the men took turns sawing away at the tree. Several hours later there was nothing left but an enormous stump.

Currey brought the prepared samples to his microscope and began counting tree rings. Then he made a startling discovery. There were 4,844 rings, nearly two hundred more than in Methuselah. And WPN-114 had been cut down several feet above its true base, losing access to some of the earliest rings. The tree could have easily been five thousand years old. Schulman had been wrong about where the oldest bristlecones lived.

Thirty-year-old Donald Currey had unintentionally felled the most ancient tree ever discovered—an organism already wizened when Columbus reached Hispaniola, middle-aged when Caesar ruled Rome, and starting life when the Sumerians created mankind’s first written language.

The next year, Currey quietly published his discovery in the journal Ecology. The three-page article, written in the scientific passive voice, acknowledged that WPN-114 was the oldest tree on record but postulated that future research would yield many older specimens.

However, the only thing that the future actually yielded was a growing controversy over why WPN-114 was allowed to be cut down in the first place. The forest ranger who had claimed that the tree held no interest for the public had been wrong. Conservationists knew about the bristlecones and had earlier named WPN-114 “Prometheus” after the Titan who stole fire from Zeus, gave it to man, and then suffered eternally for his action. These conservationists claimed that the Forest Service had acted recklessly in permitting the cutting. Stories that a member of Currey’s team had died carrying a slab of Prometheus down Wheeler Peak left some observers suggesting that the tree had taken a life to remedy the injustice. Several dendrochronologists attacked Currey as an ignorant graduate student who didn’t know how to handle a borer and had little or no scientific reason to fell this particular sample.

Evidence supported both sides of the controversy, depending on which accounts were used, and new perspectives leaked out over the decades. As late as 1996, the Forest Service ranger who authorized the cutting wrote a memo to correct “the many rumors,” and Currey himself gave the occasional interview up until his death in 2004. The only facts that anyone seemed to agree upon were that WPN-114 was the oldest tree ever discovered and that Americans had intentionally killed it.

THE DEATH OF Prometheus was a tragedy, something to reflect upon with disbelief. Some of us, the more environmentally inclined, may react with anger, even outrage, knowing that scientists discovered such a marvelous tree only to steal it with a hasty and arrogant hand. After all, nothing can bring the elder statesman of the plant kingdom back. Others among us, perhaps more than would admit it in public, may simply shrug. It was one tree hidden on a...

Revue de presse

“A beautifully written, devilishly original piece of work.” (David Oshinsky, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Polio: An American Story)

"An even-handed and comprehensive history that could not be more relevant...The woods, Rutkow’s history reminds us again and again, are essential to our humanity." (Business Week)

“Rutkow has cut through America’s use and love of trees to reveal the rings of our nation’s history and the people who have helped shape it.” (San Diego Union Tribune)

Détails sur le produit

  • Format : Format Kindle
  • Taille du fichier : 17260 KB
  • Nombre de pages de l'édition imprimée : 418 pages
  • Pagination - ISBN de l'édition imprimée de référence : B00G7TEYW8
  • Editeur : Scribner (24 avril 2012)
  • Vendu par : Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Langue : Anglais
  • ASIN: B005GG0MAG
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  • Classement des meilleures ventes d'Amazon: n°445.361 dans la Boutique Kindle (Voir le Top 100 dans la Boutique Kindle)
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Amazon.com: 4.4 étoiles sur 5  61 commentaires
29 internautes sur 30 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Educational and entertaining from start to finish 2 mai 2012
Par Neurosci Guy - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Format Kindle
Trees have played such a fundamental role in American history, from the colonial era to the modern day, that this was a story just waiting to be told. Rutlow is a gifted young historian, and his artful storytelling and compelling narrative made this a delightful read that I couldn't lay down. I gained a deeper understanding of how our nation became what it is today, and how we can utilize its tremendous natural assets to sustainably ensure our enduring prosperity. I would recommend this broad-reaching, ambitious work to the novice, the American history buff and anyone interested in conservation and how natural resources shape our lives in profound and unexpected ways.
28 internautes sur 30 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Reading this book probably will change the way you view trees 10 mai 2012
Par R. M. Peterson - Publié sur Amazon.com
What single factor most defined the United States, made the country what it is today? Its political philosophy and governmental structure? Its melting pot? The frontier? Slavery? In AMERICAN CANOPY Eric Rutkow proposes a factor that no one else has: trees.

The thesis of AMERICAN CANOPY is that the relationship with trees "has been one of the great drivers of national development. It belongs in a conversation with other forces that helped to forge American identity: the endless frontier, immigration, democracy, religion, slavery and its legacy, the struggle for labor rights, the expansion of civil rights, and free market and state capitalism." It is a novel concept, to say the least. But in AMERICAN CANOPY Rutkow does a good job of marshaling arguments and evidence for his thesis. The result is an educational and enjoyable book.

Rutkow begins in 1605 with Richard Hakluyt, then the preeminent geographer in Europe, who was asked by King James I for his views on settlement of America. Of all the resources (fish, fur, rumored gold and silver, etc.) that the New World had to offer, for Hakluyt one stood paramount: timber. In 1605, forests covered about half of what are now the contiguous 48 states. Throughout the book, Rutkow covers various ways in which the country's wood resources were utilized and exploited to fuel its rapid expansion and growth: housing (from log cabins to wood-frame houses); wood-pulp manufacturing; timber for railroad bridges and crossties; the Sitka spruce of the Pacific Northwest for airplane production in WWI; and on and on. He discusses some of the celebrated naturalists and advocates of trees: John Bartram, André Michaux, John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed), and - a mild surprise - George Washington (whom he dubs "the Founding Gardener"). The evolving conservation movement receives extended consideration. And a variety of miscellaneous matters are also discussed, such as the demise of the American chestnut tree and trees as memorials to honor fallen soldiers (a cause promoted by the American Forestry Association, leading to popularization of the poem "Trees" by Joyce Kilmer, who had been killed on the battlefield in France).

Within its rather circumscribed topic, the book is wide-ranging. It tends to be a little diffuse and scattershot, but for a book intended for the general public on a rather esoteric subject, that's okay. It is well-written and proceeds at a good clip. I enjoyed it.
23 internautes sur 24 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Ground breaking 2 mai 2012
Par Chesa Boudin - Publié sur Amazon.com
This is a real masterpiece, and a must-read for anyone interested in American history, trees, the environment, or simply looking for a page-turner. Rutkow manages to make the fascinating and unknown history come alive, to turn dense, rigorous research into enjoyable prose. Using trees as a lens to view American history was a groundbreaking and ambitious goal that was brilliantly executed. I'm ready for volume II!
8 internautes sur 8 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Trees: the "loudest silent figures" in American history 30 mai 2012
Par wxnotes - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié|Achat vérifié
The best history books bring long deceased historical figures back to life, instilling the same hopes, fears, and passions in the reader that the characters experienced themselves. Usually, these figures are known for their role in major events or for having a positive influence that radiates far beyond their physical lives. Historian Eric Rutkow illuminates one of these under-appreciated participants in the American history narrative, but Rutkow's main character is not a person but rather an easily ignored plant: a tree! As Rutkow notes, "trees are the loudest silent figures in America's complicated history."

American Canopy begins with a highly engaging prologue about Prometheus, a tree that stood seemingly unchanged for over Nevada for over 5,000 years. The tragic yet redeeming story introduces Rutkow's premise but differs in one important aspect. Most other trees in America were not frozen, passive observers as civilization expanded around them. As America evolved, its forests changed in tandem. In colonial times, trees were an obstacle to overcome, concealing Indians in the forest and blocking the plow as stumps. As industrialism proliferated in the 19th Century, wood became the "stalwart of American development"--and the conservation movement subsequently responded by curtailing the carelessness and waste that caused forest fires and ecosystem destruction. The automobile and highway building by the CCC made camping and outdoor recreation in national forests accessible to almost all Americans--and Aldo Leopold responded by spearheading a movement to preserve the remaining pristine wilderness.

Individual forests experienced dynamic changes, as uses were discovered for different species, imported diseases wiped out the American Chestnut and Elm, and deciduous trees filled in the white pine forests. Old growth forests were clear cut, converted to farmland, and then later restored into commercial tree plantations. Americans' attitude toward trees changed as well. Within a short period of time, Americans went from cutting trees for firewood to planting trees for fruit and later for shade, drought prevention, and finally to counteract global warming. Rutkow shows that trees are as American as apple pie--or maybe as American as the hard apple cider that sustained countless homesteads in the colonial period.

The best aspect of this work is the way Rutkow brings in anecdotes from all sorts of American history themes and relates them to trees. It turns out that quite often trees are not just a side story, but a prominent contributor to more widely known events. For example, Englishman Richard Hakylut advocated colonial exploration in the late 1500s primarily as a means to acquire ship masts from New England pine trees to counteract supply shortages and keep pace with the Spanish Navy. It was also interesting to learn that a major reason why George Washington ceded power so easily after the Revolutionary War was that he longed to cultivate his tree collection at Mount Vernon. Virtually all aspects of American politics, society, and culture are somehow influenced by trees. Central Park was even envisioned partially as a way to refine the lower rungs of society in New York.

For those familiar with American history, especially environmental history, some of the book's material (especially from the progressive era onward) will be a review. American Canopy is in the same vein as environmental history works such as Nature's Metropolis, which first brought to light the intricate connections between Chicago and its hinterlands, including the Great Lakes logging industry. American Canopy is unique for bringing together themes from the entirety of American history and for using trees as the common denominator to connect different eras. As an overview of hundreds of years, some of the stories lack depth, and Rutkow spends very little space connecting the themes between the sometimes disparate sections. Prominent figures like Gifford Pinchot are described in detail, but other important minds get glossed over to an extent. Women were also noticeably absent, perhaps that is the case in the primary source material also (I can only remember Lady Bird Johnson being mentioned).

The most amazing facts are the sheer magnitude of uses for forest products and the statistics for the tremendous volume of wood that was extracted. A single English ship required an astonishing two thousand oak trees. Railroads were known as the "iron horse" but they were initially comprised almost entirely of wood--including the bridges, cars, fuel, ties, and even the rails themselves. Each species of tree had specific uses and Rutkow explains in detail why White Pine was preferred for ship masts, longleaf pines for turpentine, and Sitka spruce for WWI airplanes. The various descriptions (by Rutkow and his sources) make it especially sad to read about the American Elm, "the most magnificent vegetable in the temperate zone," succumbing to disease. After finishing this book, one will almost certainly advocate for increased concern and protection for trees. American Canopy will definitely go down as one of the better history books of the year, but it falls short of the top tier of American history works.
8 internautes sur 8 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Fun and fascinating read! 12 mai 2012
Par Vega - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié|Achat vérifié
Even if you don't read a lot of history, American Canopy has something to offer for the casual, educated reader while still packing in a lot of detail and some potentially new arguments for the more well-versed. It moves through a series of stories on the impact of trees on the history and development of America. In fact, this reader comes away with impression that America as it exists could never have happened with our incredible trees. In sometimes hearbreaking fashion, the book shows how trees have been exploited or decimated in the past and and highlights some of the cosequences of not protecting or managing these valuable resources. See for example, the Peshtigo fire that killed thousands and laid waste to miles of forest.

The characters are vibrant and the storytelling really makes this a joy to read. Rutkow sheds light on the close relationship many well known Americans have had with trees such as Washington, FDR and Thoreau. In addition, he tells the story of several fascinating figures such as Johnny Appleseed and the lumber barron Frederick Weyerhaeuser (who I had never heard of before reading this book). Along the way, you learn a lot about the role of trees in shaping the state of our country today. Once you start reading this book, you begin to see trees in a whole new light. How must the first colonists have felt landing among giant forests that have no parallel on the east coast today? If you ever go for a walk in the wood or a stroll in a park, you must appreciate the foresight of those who saw the value of preserving and planting trees. We learn from American Canopy that most of these places, even the wild seeming ones, are not there by accident. Overall, this book really kept me turning pages and I learned a lot.
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