Americans have a complex relationship with trees– always have and, sadly, probably always will. Colonists from mainly denuded Europe were enamored with the New World’s untouched forests– pure, beautiful landscapes were frequently compared to the proverbial Eden (John Speede explained it as “the Garden of God” in 1611)– they were similarly thrilled to cut it all down, to lay waste to the very thing that made the burgeoning nation unique.
Wastefulness and ecological improvidence are as American as apple pie. We see ambivalence to the natural from the nests’ really first days. While people like John Locke were awe-struck by the Eden-like landscape– “In the start, all the world was America,” Locke wrote– he and his ilk also encouraged colonists to clear everything away. And they did, with exceptional gusto.
French traveler Marquis de Chastellux was astonished by the colonists’ violent approach to trees in the early 1770s:” [The settler] boldly attacks those enormous oaks, or pines … he strips them of their bark, or lays them open all around with his axe.” British traveler Isaac Weld revealed comparable shock and wonder at Americans’ “unconquerable hostility” to trees in 1799, in addition to at their apparent indifference to natural beauty: “They gaze with awe at a person who can feel any pleasure in going through such a nation.”
Yes, a couple of enlightened folks spoke out as the years went on. President James Madison warned against the “injudicious and excessive destruction of wood” in 1818. Author Zachariah Allen kept in mind in 1832, “The leader of the western forests seems to have taken a pleasure in committing to destruction every noble tree within a furlong of his house,” even at the pioneers’ own hinderance. “These, if spared,” he composed, “may have furnished him revitalizing shade.”
Allen and Madison and other prototypical environmentalists were in the vast minority, surpassed by Americans who never provided a believed to arbor annihilation, individuals like Andrew Jackson, who questioned, “Exactly what great man would prefer a nation covered with forest … to our extensive republican politician?” Between 1600 and 1850 an approximated 130 million acres of American forest were cleared. That was just the start. Industrialized labor would quickly amplify the speed and force of logging.
More than a century later on, Ronald Reagan famously mentioned, “If you’ve looked at a hundred thousand acres approximately of trees– you understand, a tree is a tree, the number of more do you have to look at?”
Being at one with nature simply isn’t in Americans’ nature. It’s been bred from us.
2 reasons we attacked our forests
What sustained such an approach to America’s biologic bounties? Exactly what could have an individuals who took fantastic pride in their forests to knock them down with unparalleled glee? The response’s two-fold.
The preliminary inspiration for this widespread clearcutting in the New World derived from some great old-fashioned Vintage superstition: the notion that witches and evil spirits and goblins hid in the forest’s shadows. Don’t forget the “savage locals,” too, damaged as they were by wicked forces prowling in the sylvan area. The land, John Smith composed, was more fearsome than inviting: “It is a Countrie rather to affright, then delight one.” Historian Oscar Handlin later elaborated: the forest was “the secret home of the unknown beings … The forest had been the forbidden place … occupied by the witches and trolls … [Europeans] were now to be swallowed up in the darkness to become themselves the beings of the woods … That was the horror.”
The only way to conserve oneself from such a fate was to remove the shadows, to let God’s light shine in. Denuded clearings were “openings where God could look down and redeem the struggling residents,” forest historian Michael Williams composed in 1989, summing up that earlier age’s thicket of feelings. Establishing Father John Adams made comparable remarks in 1756: “The entire continent was one miserable wilderness, the haunt of wolves and bears and more savage men. Now the forests are gotten rid of, the land covered with fields of corn, orchards bending with fruit, and the stunning habitations of rational and civilized individuals.” It’s likewise worth keeping in mind that Benjamin Franklin, in his really racist 1751 essay, “Observations Worrying the Boost of Humanity, Peopling of Countries, and so on,” described denuding the land as “scouring” earth, as if trees were unclean and required to be removed. These classical worries of satanic forces and savages faded in time, obviously, as land was cleared and rationality took flight. But the second aspect in America’s thirst for forest damage was– or, rather, is– far more permanent: loan.
While the exorcizing of satanic forces and evil spirits was all well and good, cleared land was, quite merely, better than au natural parcels. “Every stroke of the axe the leader of the forest includes thrice the value … it discovers to the sun a virgin soil, which, although nominally worth just a few centers per acre, may exceed in fertility the fields of the finest landed estates in England, values at numerous pounds sterling per acre,” Allen composed in 1832.
The land was therefore “improved,” an idea originated from the anthropocentric idea that people are here to upgrade nature, to produce a new heaven in the world. It was, to obtain David E. Nye’s term, “2nd creation.” And though the term “improved” was utilized delicately initially, as in John Locke’s 1689 remark about Indians’ “inability to improve” the land, and in Benjamin Rush’s 1796 remarks about “enhancing a farm,” it ended up being official federal government credo with the 1860 census, after which American land was forevermore referred to as “enhanced” or “unimproved.”
A recent transfer to apologize
The United States has more trees than it did 100 years ago, thanks to planting and reforestation efforts, but the average age of forests is much below when Europeans first set foot in the New World. (Photo: MagMac83/Shutterstock)
So deeply embedded in American psyche was this impulse to “improve” the land that even authors who promoted nature were keen to cut trees down. James Fenimore Cooper stressed about mangled, “disfigured” vistas in his 1823 novel “The Pioneers,” yet 19 years later, in 1842, he celebrated the mining of Environment: “There is a pleasure in diving into a virgin forest and starting the labors of civilization … [It] methods nearer to the feeling of producing.” Even the advancement of the early ecological movement in the Industrial Era, a motion that helped establish nationwide parks, didn’t eliminate America’s appetite for rewarding destruction. We were producing national forests, sure, however other undeveloped “national” spaces were and would continue to be rented out to companies benefiting from what should be public land.
It’s the American way. That doesn’t indicate it has to be permanently.
Eco-consciousness has come a long method over the previous 5 years. Americans recycle more now than ever. Denuded forests are being replanted (though not nearly fast enough) and most of Americans believe humans cause environment modification, according to Gallup. However more needs to be done.
In addition to on-the-ground actions, we have to normalize our relationship with nature. We should recalibrate our whole national mind frame, seeing and commemorating our forests anew, presenting all of our resources as necessary to our identity, as integral to what makes America so unique, extraordinary and– dare it be said– great.
Guest blog writer Andrew Belonsky is the author of “ The Log Cabin: An Illustrated History” and the trivia hound behind Incaseyoureinterested.com. Related topics