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American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation Hardcover – April 24, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


“An original and often surprising take on American history.” —Wall Street Journal

“There is much in this book on the prevalence of wood products in our life, but more on their deeper significance. This book is not merely a history, but an eloquent advocate of, as Rutkow writes, ‘how trees change from enemy, to friend, to potential savior.’” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“A lively story of driven personalities, resources that were once thought to be endless, brilliant ideas, tragic mistakes and the evolution of the United States. 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

"An excellent book for both academics and general readers, this is highly recommended." -Library Journal

"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

"A deeply fascinating survey of American history through a particularly interesting angle: down through the boughs of our vanished trees." -Boston Globe

“For those who see our history through the traditional categories of politics, economics, and culture, a delightful feast awaits. In this remarkably inventive book, Eric Rutkow looks at our national experience through the lens of our magnificent trees, showing their extraordinary importance in shaping how we lived, thrived, and expanded as a people. A beautifully written, devilishly original piece of work.”

—David Oshinsky, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Polio: An American Story

"Right from its quietly shocking prelude--the cavalier and surprisingly recent murder of the oldest living thing in North America--Eric Rutkow’s splendid saga shows, through a chain of stories and biographical sketches that are intimate, fresh, and often startling, how trees have shaped every aspect of our national life. Here is the tree as symbol and as tool, as companion and enemy, as a tonic for our spirits and the indispensable ingredient of our every enterprise from the colonization voyages to the transcontinental railroad to Levittown. The result, both fascinating and valuable, is a sort of shadow history of America. Toward the end of his finest novel, F. Scott Fitzgerald writes that the 'vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of human dreams.' AMERICAN CANOPY retrieves those trees and does full-rigged (on tall, white pine masts) justice to the dream."

--Richard Snow, author of A Measureless Peril and former Editor-in-Chief of American Heritage

"AMERICAN CANOPY marks the debut of an uncommonly gifted young historian and writer. Ranging across four centuries of history, Eric Rutkow shows the manifold ways in which trees--and woodland--and wood--have shaped the contours of American life and culture. And because he has managed to build the story around gripping events and lively characters, the book entertains as much as it as informs. All in all, a remarkable performance!"

--John Demos, Samuel Knight Professor of History at Yale University, and author of Entertaining Satan, winner of the Bancroft Prize in American History, and The Unredeemed Captive, which was a finalist for the National Book Award

About the Author

Eric Rutkow is a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School. He has worked as a lawyer on environmental issues across three continents. He currently splits his time between New York City and New Haven, Connecticut, where, in addition to writing, he is pursuing a doctorate in American History at Yale. This is his first book.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; First Edition edition (April 24, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439193541
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439193549
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.3 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (62 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #448,966 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Neurosci Guy on May 2, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition
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.
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28 of 30 people found the following review helpful By R. M. Peterson TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 10, 2012
Format: Hardcover
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.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Chesa Boudin on May 1, 2012
Format: Hardcover
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!
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By wxnotes on May 29, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Vega on May 12, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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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