As part of Diane's remote author interview series, she had the chance to speak with Ann Patchett in January over video Zoom as a live audience watched. Here's that conversation.
When Europeans first came to the U.S. as settlers, there were roughly a billion acres of ancient forests. America’s trees have been under assault ever since. Westward expansion, industrialization, rapid population growth, the rise of the suburbs and various diseases have all exacted a toll. Today woodland acreage is down by about 25 percent – and much of it is populated with young trees. A new book tells the history of America through its trees. Like Dr. Seuss’s environmental classic “The Lorax,” it’s a sad story, but one that’s not without hope. In the next segment of our Environmental Outlook series – trees, forests and the making of a nation.
- Eric Rutkow Attorney and historian.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Trees hold a special place in American lore. We have the George Washington I-cannot-tell-a-lie cherry tree myth. We have "Johnny Appleseed," "Paul Bunyan" and a tragically true story about one of the oldest trees in the world.
MS. DIANE REHMIn a new book, we learn how the story of America is inseparable from the story of trees. The main characters are destroyers or saviors and in some cases, both. The book is titled "American Canopy: Trees, Forests and the Making of a Nation." Author Eric Rutkow joins me in the studio for this month's segment in our ongoing Environmental Outlook Series.
MS. DIANE REHMI hope you'll join us as well on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, sir, it's good to have you here.
MR. ERIC RUTKOWGood morning, it's great to be here.
REHMEric, you begin the book with really a heartbreaking story about a tree named Prometheus. Tell us about Prometheus.
RUTKOWWell, Prometheus is a pretty remarkable tree, one of the most remarkable specimens that have ever existed in the world. It was and still remains the oldest tree that we have ever found, nearly 5,000 years old. It's part of a species known as the bristlecone pine and they tend to grow in some of the higher elevations and mountains in the southwest of the United States, places like California and Nevada.
RUTKOWAnd first, they generated a lot of attention in the middle of the 20th century with the field of dendrochronology, which was sort of a more scientific, advanced form of counting tree rings to study the past and because these trees are so old they can reach, as we've discovered, up to roughly 5,000 years, as far as we've found.
RUTKOWThey can provide a remarkable record of our past and in 1964, a graduate student who was pursuing a project to reconstruct the past through the study of tree rings sought to study this particular tree, Prometheus, that he had found. And when he attempted to sample it, his sampling tools, which don't harm the trees in any serious way, they broke and he found that he couldn't actually get access to it and so he appealed to the local forest ranger and they signed off on the cutting...
RUTKOW...not knowing at the time that it would be the oldest tree in the world. And even once it had happened and this was in 1964, it was assumed that there would be older trees that would soon be discovered, but that has still not happened.
REHMHow could we assume that that's the oldest tree in the world? It could be perhaps the oldest tree in this country, but trees around the world, how do we know?
RUTKOWRight. So there's two things, one is that it's actually quite difficult to say what is truly the oldest tree, because some trees don't leave rings, they're not constantly added in the way that we think of with this species. And some trees can clone and exist in a colony so there's actually an enormous stand of aspens called Pando in the United States and we are unsure of exactly how old that cluster of trees is, but sort of the root stock of it may be 10,000 years old or more.
RUTKOWIn terms of individual specimens where we can really sort of look in the rings and count them, it's certainly possible that we could discover new, unknown trees that maybe are older, but thus far, we haven't.
REHMBut you'd have to cut them down first?
RUTKOWWell, there are ways to get access. There are borers that you can use that sort of cut out a small section and there have been great advances in that field. And I'm certainly not up on the state of the art of where dendrochronology is today, but you don't necessarily have to harm the tree to pursue this. It just happened at the time that they really wanted access to this tree and they weren't fully aware of what they had and what was potentially lost.
REHMHow and why did you get interested in this story of trees as it relates to the founding, the building of this country?
RUTKOWSo my interest in trees goes back most of my life, I would imagine. I started doing a lot of backpacking when I was a teenager and I grew up in the East so for me, backpacking was places like the Delaware Water Gap, the Catskills, the Adirondacks, the White Mountains. And I found that I was spending all this time in the woods, but I didn't know what I was really looking at because I didn't know trees.
RUTKOWAnd so when I was a teenager, I started just sort of studying trees, going on tree walks, identification. I found that it really added a lot to my understanding of place. It still sort of changes the way that I look at any place. I was just walking around the streets outside seeing what is planted around here and you can really get to know a local culture.
RUTKOWAnd I had sort of used that technique when I would be traveling. And I was out of the country for about a year in the middle of the last decade doing some work in South America and I was always using these local trees, this local tree culture to learn about a place. And there was a lot I would find about history. You know, the oldest trees would be in the colonial plaza and sometimes they would be 400 years old and you could learn not only about geography, but culture and how a society related.
RUTKOWAnd toward the end of the trip, as I was thinking about going home, I sort of turned the question inward, starting thinking about this in terms of the United States and in terms of sort of my own understanding of the country. And I began to just think about all these ideas, some of which you mentioned in the intro, "Johnny Appleseed," "Paul Bunyan," the National Forests, Arbor Day, these sort of disparate events that seem unconnected. And it occurred to me that there might be a narrative here. And as I began to dig deeper into that story, it would only grow more and more rich.
REHMIt's interesting because as you look at the George Washington story, you find that he adored trees and planted lots of them.
RUTKOWOne of the things that I was surprised with is that there's a strong correlation between the presidents that are ranked highest and the presidents who have the most profound love of trees, whether this is a coincidence or not, I can't really tell you.
REHMGive me examples.
RUTKOWSo I'll give you two. So George Washington, the first president, a lot of us, we think of him as a general and we think of him as a statesman and that's certainly true. But he was also fascinated with horticulture, sort of the cultivation of plants and within that, tree planting held a very special place in his heart. He spent much of his free time, when he wasn't involved in war and he wasn't involved in politics, on his estate planting or overseeing the planting of trees and he knew the landscape very well.
RUTKOWHe had been a surveyor early in his career so he really understood the land. He really knew which tree species were which and for him and for many of the founding fathers, there wasn't as sort of clean a line between what we think of as politics and horticulture so when foreign statesmen and other politicians would visit him they would often bring trees as a gift.
RUTKOWAnd you know Light Horse Henry Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee who was another of the founding fathers, he would. You know, they were trading plants and talking about it. Thomas Jefferson was another one. During the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, many of the founding fathers would sneak off, including George Washington, to John Bartram's arboretum, which was the oldest arboretum in the United States, continuous arboretum and that still exists actually.
RUTKOWAnd this was true when Washington became president. He also made a special trip to Long Island to go and visit the famous Prince Nurseries, which was the most famous fruit nursery in the United States at the time. And one of the things that's fascinating is there's a lot of speculation on why did Washington turn down the opportunity to become a president for life.
RUTKOWAnd there certainly seems to be a lot of evidence in his own letters that it was because he really wanted to spend time enjoying effectively the fruits of his labor which, in many instances, were the trees that he had been planting around Mount Vernon for his entire adult life. So that's George Washington and you can imagine without trees it would look very different.
REHMVery, very, and the other?
RUTKOWSo the other that I would mention -- because there's several presidents that have been profoundly influenced, but the one that I think people would be most surprised about is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So there's been a lot of talk in the last few years about Teddy Roosevelt and the...
RUTKOW...and the actions he's done to protect our national forests. And he has a very prominent role in the book and certainly he was instrumental in conservation as a movement and in protecting national forests as well as wild lands. He was definitely a conservationist. That being said, FDR who doesn’t get a lot of credit for this was personally obsessed with tree planting.
RUTKOWSo the best example I can give of this, just to really contextualize it, is in 1944 when he goes to vote. So this is towards the end of the Second World War. He's been president for about a decade at this, more than a decade at this point, and he lists his occupation. They asked when he registered to list his occupation. He doesn't put president. He doesn't put lawyer and he was trained as a lawyer. He puts tree grower.
RUTKOWAnd this is certainly understandable because over the course of his lifetime, he would plant or oversee the planting because once he contracted polio, he couldn't really plant trees actively himself, of about half a million trees on his family's estate. The initial reason he did this he said was because he wanted to restore the land for his great grandchildren. The soil had been worn out and he was convinced that planting trees would help rehabilitate it over time.
RUTKOWAnd so this was in his personal life he was doing this and then when he became a politician, it also showed up in his professional life. He was brought in when he was a junior senator in New York on to one of the committees that oversaw forestry, got involved at a young age, in his late 20s, first thinking about these issues. And when he was governor -- this was shortly before he would become president, when he was governor of New York, he championed what is known as the Hewitt Amendment, which involved, among other things, the state taking over degraded lands and the use of tree planting to restore them.
RUTKOWThis would then become a lot of the basis for the Civilian Conservation Corps, which is really the beginning of the New Deal. It's the first piece of legislation that he goes to Congress and says, let's make this happen. And within six months, you have 250,000 young men in the woods, across the United States to restore the land, improve the forests, plant trees, and create recreation sites.
REHMEric Rutkow, he is an attorney as well as historian. His new book is titled "American Canopy: Trees, Forests and the Making of a Nation." I do invite your calls, your email. Join us on Facebook. Send us a tweet. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us Eric Rutkow has written a new book all about the trees of the United States. His new book is titled "American Canopy: Trees, Forests and the Making of a Nation." Just before the break, Eric, we were talking about FDR and the extent to which he became such an important part of the history of the growth of trees -- planting trees in this country, the founding of the Civilian Conservation Corp. It strikes me how much politics is tied up with the whole issue of trees because his thinking about trees -- planting trees to mitigate what was happening with the dust bowl doesn't go well.
RUTKOWSo one of the remarkable things about this book is how bound up the control of our trees has been with politics. And it's something we tend not to think about as much these days, partly because a lot of the institutions have been in place for a long time. We've had a forest service for over 100 years at this point and a lot of the institutions have sort of grown and matured. But throughout the course of history trees have often been intermixed with high politics. So it's not just on the personal level with these presidents.
RUTKOWBut starting in the mid 1870s, there was a fear that began to emerge that there could actually be a timber famine in the United States, that we were cutting our trees so aggressively that if something wasn't done, we would actually run out of commercial forests. And this specter of a tree famine haunted the United States.
REHMIt was really the commercial end of it as opposed to the beautification that trees bring with them as well as how they hold the soil in place?
RUTKOWWell, so this is what makes it so interesting when you talk about trees is it's not that the trees just do one thing and do it well.
RUTKOWTrees do many things and it depends on the context and that can really change. So if you look at the early movements to protect -- so for instance the Adirondacks which is really the first state park of that sort of scale is -- one of the main currents going on there is that there's a fear that if you let the trees get cut you're going to have flooding and water regulation is going to be severely affected. And this concerns not only sort of conservationists but also business men in New York who are afraid of the Hudson River getting silted up because of these changes
RUTKOWAnd so this role that trees can play in protecting water stream and stream flows was instrumental. But then there's also this concern over a timber famine which is a different issue because trees can obviously provide wood, which is instrumental to the building of the country. I mean, look around anywhere and you'll see -- and if you can't see it directly, if it's not, you know, physically visible and we can see it in the room we're in right now, it's probably behind the walls as well, at least for most smaller single-family homes. Most of them will have a balloon frame made out of two by fours. That's the structure.
RUTKOWAnd this was actually true of suburbia when we think about it, Levittown. The change that happens after World War II, which is one of the most radical landscape changes and population, migration changes in America. Most of those houses are going to be built with wood as the framing. And that was a conscious choice made at the time. There were other options but for reasons that had mostly to do with economics and speed the biggest builders, men like William Levitt decided to go with wood.
REHMHere's an email from John. He says, "I'm from the rural upper peninsula of Michigan. It's my understanding Michigan as a state was effectively logged out over the latter part of the 19th century. How could men with such limited technology accomplish such an undertaking? And why wasn't there more foresight in regard to the idea of resource management for future generations?"
RUTKOWThat's a great question and he's certainly right in terms of what happened to much of Michigan. This was true for the area known as the Lake States broadly, including Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota. The reason that that region in particular got logged so heavily is because it had a treasure trove of white pine. And white pine, which also exists in New England, was considered the premier construction lumber that we had in America. Attitudes have changed over time, but really from the arrival of Europeans in the 1600s through the late 19th century, white pine was considered the premier wood.
RUTKOWAnd so Michigan, like Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota, have enormous piney woods. They also have large rivers that are excellent conduits for this wood once you fell it. So in terms of how did this happen. Part of the answer is a technical one which is that in the late 19th century a lot of the moves of large scale industrial capitalism -- we think of things like vertical integration where you'll control every aspect of a production process. These are what Carnegie did and what Rockefeller did in oil. This was also happening in the woods.
RUTKOWAnd here Frederick Weyerhaeuser is probably a name that most of us might be able to associate with this. And he's a man who showed up as effectively a penniless immigrant from Germany. He came to America when he was about 18 and he moved in his 20's out towards a town on the Mississippi River just south of this enormous pine forest that spreads out across the lake states. And he started instituting all of these reforms -- I mean, reform's probably not quite the right word, but developments that would consolidate the industry.
RUTKOWAnd because of competition between various mill owners they would try to dump as many logs into the river as they could to sort of overflow the river so that you couldn't stop their haul from reaching. And because of certain tax understandings it -- and because of the financial arrangements it was more cost effective to log this as quickly as possible, cut out and get out.
REHMWho came up with the idea of clear cutting?
RUTKOWWell, I mean, clear cutting is a fairly old concept. I don't know that that's -- I mean, that really sort of predates industrial logging. What would tend to happen is you would cut all the -- so when we talk about logging as an industry it went through several phases that are both geographical and technological. So the -- it begins in New England and then, you know, we think about Maine and New Hampshire and then it moves to the Lake states. This is in the latter part of the 19th century sort of -- it really takes off after the Civil War.
RUTKOWThen it'll swing down to the Deep South. There's a long leaf pine belt that coats the entire -- I mean, from Southern Virginia all the way out to the Mississippi hugging the coastline. There's a long leaf pine belt which will then get logged. And the south will actually become the biggest producer of lumber from the end of the 19th century 'til about 1920. And then it will eventually move out to the Pacific Northwest, home of the great Douglas Firs and the Ponderosa Pines.
RUTKOWAnd that will sort of remain the center of the lumber industry in America really, even now, although obviously it's still spread out in many different places.
REHMAlso the question of regulation and when that begins to move in to recognize, as our emailer said, the need for keeping trees, preserving trees for not only their beauty but their usefulness.
RUTKOWAnd the development of regulation when it comes to trees is a rather complicated story and there's sort of pushes and pulls involved. So one issue is that industrial logging tends to produce -- or in the 19th century especially, tended to produce catastrophic fires. The reason for this was when you cut all the trees and you leave all the slash on the floor it'll tend to dry out, especially in the summer and in drier years, which is creating a kindling situation across an entire forest.
RUTKOWAnd then if you had an unattended fire and people weren't near -- you know, Smoky the Bear only sort of shows up in the end of World War II. And he's in the book too. He's an interesting character. And that notion of only you can prevent forest fires is a really second-half-of-the-20th-century notion. So people aren't nearly as considerate about putting out fires at that time. Plus the railroads, which are expanding across the United States, their exhaust is basically a shower of cinders. And you have these conditions that can create wildfires. Now this is very problematic for the industry because they don't want the trees to go up in smoke either.
RUTKOWAnd so one of the early forms of regulation will be when these lumber companies get onboard and realize that there's advantages for them as well to protect trees. And then there's a very complicated discourse that'll take place over really, you know, 70 years, and to a certain extent it's still ongoing as we invent new regulations, new ideas.
RUTKOWI mean, in the present moment there's a lot of talk about ecological forestry, which is the idea of trying to manage a forest, not just the way you might manage a cornfield where you can just plant the same tree row on row for miles on end, but managing a forest understanding that there's other biota within that there. There's animals that depend on the trees. There's an entire ecosystem and that we need to be sensitive to this. So the problems of regulation is a very long and complicated one.
REHMTake us back to Johnny Appleseed.
RUTKOWJohnny Appleseed known as John Chapman when he was first born. Yeah, Johnny Appleseed is a fascinating character. So he's a real person. Unlike Paul Bunyan who more or less exists in legend may have been based off of somebody but was a legend. And he was actually born in Massachusetts. It's thought that his father was one of the original Minutemen but he was effectively orphaned because his father was away and his mother had died. And he -- his sort of formative years there's not that much known about it.
RUTKOWBut then in 1797, he appears on the sort of Pennsylvanian frontier with a cache of apple seeds. And he will spend the next 30 years of his life walking around through sort of Ohio and parts of Illinois and Indiana planting out apple orchards in advance of the settlers. Now there's a reason why this is happening.
RUTKOWAnd this is what's so interesting. So the apples are not what we have today. Nowadays we think of apples as a thing that you eat to keep the doctor away effectively. They're healthy. We mostly think of eating -- we drink them in cider around the Holidays. But back then hard cider was America's drink and in every farmstead you would have apple trees. Rows of apple trees because they were using the apples -- I mean -- and these apples did not taste quite like they do today. There's a much bigger variety and the majority of these they'd be growing from seeds and you could get really anything. They could be very tart but most of them made good cider, especially good hard cider.
RUTKOWAnd that was really why America was so obsessed with apples, why there was value. More than that even though there was a connection between having planted apple trees and having claims to your land. So if you had a mature apple tree there it gave you a much stronger claim to that land. And what Johnny Appleseed would be offering you was a seedling that was three years old that you could then transfer and put in your land, which is going to sort of speed up that process several years.
RUTKOWSo he was really bound up very closely in notions of American culture and ideas about property rights. And that's what sort of made the whole system work.
REHMAnd Johnny Appleseed's legend continues even unto today.
RUTKOWAbsolutely. He got picked up in the 20th century. He became a Disney character so a lot of us learned him through that way. But he was a very complex man. He was deeply religious. He was an adherent of Swedenborgianism which encouraged you to use -- be useful effectively. And a lot of sort of educated professionals would be interested in this. It was something that some doctors were into in America. This was the period of a lot of heterodox forms of Christianity spreading out.
RUTKOWIt was not a particularly popular form of Christianity in the region where Johnny Appleseed was traveling. But he was a very loyal adherent of Swedenborgianism.
REHMEric Rutkow. His new book is titled "American Canopy" and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You know, you began talking about the construction of houses and how much wood is used and also the laying of the railroads and the lumber needed there. What about the impact of both the newspaper and leather industries?
RUTKOWRight. So both of those industries are hugely important when it comes to trees. Neither one of them really would've existed without trees. The leather industry, the reason it needed trees was because the tannin which is the chemical that's actually going to be used for leather tanning -- it comes from that word -- tannin can be extracted from the bark of trees, several in particular. Hemlocks are very good at this. And what would happen is that the trees being cut for lumber -- so the white pines that I mentioned -- that would be the species that the loggers were going after. But they would often leave other species that they didn't see as valuable behind.
RUTKOWSo Hemlock was not getting wiped out in the initial wave of cutting. But then it turned out that you could -- you needed it effectively. That or -- there are other ways to get tannin but Hemlock was a very popular way -- that you could then strip those trees of their bark -- which would kill them -- and use that bark to produce leather. And in the turn of the century, I mean, leather -- you know, we don't fully appreciate how important it was at the time but the biggest leather company I think was the fifth largest corporation in America at the turn of the century, or certainly right up in that top tier.
RUTKOWAnd leather, you know, nowadays we think of it sort of mostly for maybe shoes and belts and pants and whatnot. And we probably don't wear as much leather as we used to on the whole. But it was also important for industry. Leather was being used for a lot of the belts in factories. It was important for a lot of farm processes. So leather was one of those important goods that really drove America and you didn't have it without trees.
REHMI find myself wondering whether there was ever a thought that we might actually run out of trees.
RUTKOWWell, so this really is this notion of a timber famine which is -- if you think now of the environmental concerns we have -- and we have many of them, things like climate change -- one of the biggest environmental concerns of the late 19th century was this idea that we could actually run out of at least commercial trees, trees that we were using for all sorts of production features. And this was a real threat. We were cutting many more trees than we were planting and the simple math said that we were going to run out.
RUTKOWBefore the 1870s when this idea first begins to take hold there was more of a notion that we had unlimited forests. And it's understandable why we would've believed that. When Europeans first arrived in the 1600s there was roughly half of the country was covered in trees and a lot of that was commercial quality so you're talking about nearly a billion acres. And it's hard to get exact estimates on what the low point is because it's just difficult to map precisely. But estimates of how low -- some people would say we got down to 45 percent. Some people would say it was more around 60 percent. Some people might say it wasn't quite that bad.
RUTKOWBut no matter what number you pick, we removed a shocking number of a total percentage of trees. And the course of the 20th century, you've actually seen that percentage increase. So at least that when you look at the United States as a whole there are more trees today than there were in let's say 1920, significantly more trees in fact. Are they the same quality of the forests now? That's a different question.
RUTKOWWell, if we're still using wood, where did this come from? And the answer is a lot of it came from other parts of the globe. But at least in terms of our own environment, we are actually much more forested today, certainly in the east, than we would've been 100 years ago.
REHMA hundred years ago, but are we now wise enough to plant when we take?
RUTKOWWell, are we wise enough? That's an interesting question. I mean, we're usually -- just as we get wise, we get a little bit over confident and bad things happen.
REHMBad things happen. Eric Rutkow, and the book we're talking about "American Canopy: Trees, Forest and the Making of a Nation." Your calls when we come back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Time to open the phones for your calls. I look forward to hearing from you. First, to Tia Ann in Pensacola, Fla. Good morning to you.
TIA ANNGood morning. How are you?
ANNI was a little girl growing up in Massachusetts and I remember all the elm trees dying from Dutch elm disease. And I wanted to know what it was and what years that happened and if they are all gone. And I'll hang up and take my answer. Thank you.
RUTKOWDutch elm disease is, I mean, a lot of Americans, I think, know that disease and that word sort of strikes a bit of fear because it...
REHMAnd talk about an epidemic when it happened.
RUTKOWSo there have been a lot of diseases that have affected trees in the history of the country and we're still in the midst of this -- it seems like the numbers are on the rise and a lot of people think that's tied to climate change. So there's the, you know, the longhorn beetle in New York is a problem right now. There's the emerald ash borer that's becoming a problem across parts of the Midwest. There's citrus greening which is happening in southern California right now, is a real concern. Sudden oak death. So this is still a present issue.
RUTKOWIn the history of the country, there's really two diseases that have stood out in terms of their impact and how they've changed the landscape. One was chestnut blight, which you'll be very hard pressed to find a mature American Chestnut.
RUTKOWEven though at one point estimates vary it was somewhere between 20 percent and 25 percent...
RUTKOW...of the forest trees, yes, across the entire East.
RUTKOWHugely influential tree. And that was really more of a forest tree, but it was sort of a work horse of the trees. We used it for just about everything, telegraph poles and rail ties and furniture. It was -- and not to mention chestnuts themselves. And few of us have ever eaten an American chestnut, but they say that it was the most delicious of them.
RUTKOWNow, Dutch elm disease is right there with chestnut blight in terms of its impact. I would argue culturally, a lot of people don't even know the chestnut story, but the Dutch elm disease tale really resonates. So the elm tree was one of the earliest trees that American settlers, particularly the English in Massachusetts, were planting. The exact reasons for that some people speculate that there were English elms that are fairly similar that had also been planted in hedgerows back in England.
RUTKOWSo elm trees were getting planted in New England for a very -- I mean, really as long as there have been Europeans there. And in fact during the Revolutionary War the original liberty tree -- and we still hear the phrase, the tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of tyrants -- I forget exactly what it is. There were actual liberty trees. And there was an initial liberty tree that became a center of popular protests starting in 1765 until 1775 when British soldiers chopped it down. And that was an American elm that had been planted early on in the 1640s.
RUTKOWSo over the course of the 19th century, American elms would spread across the urban and village landscapes of not just New England, which was really the epicenter of elm culture, but also cities across America. It was a very hardy tree. It could handle all sorts of different climates. It was pretty tolerant of different soils and industrial pollutants. And so we think of it now sort of as a New England tree and that's understandable, but New York had...
RUTKOW...you know, tens of thousands.
RUTKOWSacramento, Dallas, the list is really kind of remarkable.
REHMWe have Dutch elms...
REHM...here in Washington.
RUTKOWAnd so what happened was Dutch elm disease first appears in Europe. In fact the reason it's called Dutch elm disease is because the researcher who identified it was a Dutch woman scientist who was doing research and identified what was the cause. And it's a fungus that's carried by a beetle. And so first it devastated Europe. And America, so this is starting in 1918, 1919 is when they first noticed. And so World War I ends. They've pushed back the German menace and suddenly there's this new menace that's a much more aggressive, territorially, I mean.
RUTKOWIt will spread across all of Europe over the course of the 1920s. In America we are in the midst of fighting the chestnut blight. And that's basically been a losing battle. And there's a quarantine in place that they hope will stop it, but the first identification of Dutch elm in America is in Cleveland in 1930. And they contain that outbreak, actually. Then they find a new outbreak a few years later in New Jersey. And that will gradually spread out.
RUTKOWSo from the early 1930s, I would say the campaign was going on in earnest up until sort of the '70s, partly because with DDT we thought we had a solution for it. And then once we realized the dangers of pesticides were far outweighing any potential benefit we really didn't have a mechanism. But that being said, unlike chestnut blight, which actually did wipe out virtually every mature specimen, because this Dutch elm disease was transported by a bug and not just by spores that go into the air, it's easier to protect trees.
RUTKOWAnd advances in arboriculture have made it such that in many of the parks you'll still see them. We don't tend to plant -- a few varieties we do, but not the traditional with the beautiful sort of vase-shaped spindly branches. That sort of canopy, there's few to see. You can still see a beautiful one in Central Park, on what's known as Literary Walk. And there are still examples of elms that are out there. So it's not as though they don't exist anymore.
REHMDo you have a favorite tree?
RUTKOWI have many trees that I like for different reasons. I'm sort of partial to the chestnut and the elm just because they have this historical connection. They were native trees of this country. And it's so bound up in our history and what we did and ideas about globalization that changed it, but I don't like to sort of pick and choose favorites. It feels a little unfair sometimes.
REHMI know exactly what you mean. Let's go to Dallas, Texas. Hi there, David.
DAVIDHello. This is a great program today.
DAVIDMy question is I have a friend, in the '90s he worked in Atlanta for a company called Tree. It was a not-for-profit that planted trees all over public and commercial spaces. I wanted to know if you came across them in your research and if they're still in existence and if other cities have organizations like that. And I'll take the answer off the air. Thanks.
RUTKOWI don't know that specific organization or at least it's not ringing a bell right now, but certainly there have been and there still continue to be numerous organizations that pursue tree planting. And they range from private NGOs all the way through a lot of municipal initiatives will do this. So tree planting is an ongoing phenomenon. And in many ways we are probably doing more urban tree planting now. It depends on where you look, to be honest. But we're still doing a fair amount of it. It's something that I think we can stand to do better. The benefits far outweigh the consequences, especially if you pick the right trees.
REHMWell, of course. And no longer do you see developments go up, for example, with absolutely nothing but a few bushes here and there. You do see trees being planted. The recognition that not only are they beautiful, they provide shade, they provide nourishment for the soil. I realize they also take from the soil, but nevertheless, trees are such an important component of our landscape. To Aurora, Ill. Good morning, Steve.
STEVEI'm taken by surprise. Okay. I wonder about the political component involved with forestry. I have rightwing friends who jumped on the -- well they say there are more trees in America now then when Columbus landed. And there's a general feeling that trees are in the way. The Dutch elm happened to coincide with the construction of the interstate highway system. And a lot of protests were quieted by the fact that the trees were taken out because they were diseased. But I remember my town in Illinois had a awful lot of trees cut down that didn't even look sick. And the reason was, well, they're gonna get sick.
RUTKOWSo the political point is it's been, well, let me start with the claim about Columbus. That is not true. If we sort of take the starting point of -- Columbus isn’t very helpful 'cause he wasn't really in North America so much, but if we take the starting point as Jamestown in 1607 or the pilgrims, you know a dozen years or so after that, that's not right. I mean the number of the forest coverage was close to a billion acres. It's now around 750 million, if we're looking at sort of the continental United States.
RUTKOWSo that's just factually inaccurate. The idea that there are sort of rightwing views and sort of leftwing views about this, there's certainly some truth to it. It's also of the moment. So the politics of this have shifted over time in terms of sort of where things stand. Right now it does seem that there is sort of a division that the environmental movement broadly has gotten more associated with the Democratic Party and that notions of sort of …
RUTKOWRight, tree huggers tend to be Democrats in the modern moment. And maybe this will shift as we move forward. If you look sort of when Earth Day was first pursued it was a Democratic senator who launched the idea, but he brought in a Republican congressman to make it fully bipartisan. And it gradually got more politicized. Reagan was not the biggest fan of trees, if we take his rhetoric. He has a few choice quotes out there, like if you've seen one tree you've seen them all, what's the point.
RUTKOWOr trees cause more pollution than automobiles. And he also hired James Watt who was considered a very conservative Secretary of the Interior, who was strongly opposed to regulation. So these tensions have always existed. Some of it is ideological about whether we should have the right to do this or not. Do we have a moral obligation? Some of it is actually more rooted in political ideas of who should control these trees. Should it be at the federal level? Should it be at the state level? Should it be private control?
RUTKOWAnd these are tensions that have been around for, you know, most of the country's history and will continue into the future.
REHMAbsolutely. To Detroit, Mich. Good morning, Sandra.
SANDRAOh, hi, Diane. I notice sort of Paul Bunyan like tree that once grew in the Waterworks Park here in Detroit. And in 1887 it was the last of Detroit's original pear trees. It was a two-century-year-old giant, but with a trunk measuring four feet across. It seems incredible, but I wonder if they know if it had a lot of pears or the flavor of the pears on it, you know, in those days.
RUTKOWWell, I wish I could have tried those pears now. You're making me feel very jealous. I mean, the short answer is usually when a fruit tree gets that old its production is not going to be quite where it would have been earlier in its life cycle. In terms of whether those specific pears were delicious, I don't know. There's actually still a few apple trees that are thought to have been planted by Johnny Appleseed that you can find.
RUTKOWAnd one of the things that I think is fairly interesting, when you do a book like this, is looking at the different ways that these ancient trees sort of dot the landscape. One of the big distinctions between the United States and Europe is that because there wasn't a pre-built infrastructure of castles and palaces and churches and cathedrals our historical landscape was, in many ways, our forests and our trees, which in some cases we've preserved and in some cases we haven't. You never really would see an old American landscape where there's a castle in the background, but we do have 3,000 year old giant sequoias.
RUTKOWSo and this is true in the cities, as well, obviously. There are still, if you go around, a few places where you can see these great trees.
REHMEric Rutkow and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We talked about Johnny Appleseed, Franklin Roosevelt, George Washington. I'll bet there were some women involved, as well.
RUTKOWThere were some women involved. I wish that there could be more women featured in the story because I tend to focus on individuals and a lot of the movers and shakers, both in terms of sort of forestry, has tended, historically, to involve a lot of men. That's also true for lumbering. And the same could be said of politics, obviously. But there are some women who were essential to this story along the way, fascinating characters. One of them is Eliza Skidmore.
RUTKOWNow, Eliza Skidmore was one of the more influential travel writers in the early 20th century. And when she was first starting out in her 20s she took a trip to Japan. And she was blown away by the flower festivals, but the flower that really won her over the most was the Sakura, the flower of the Japanese cherry tree. And anyone that's ever seen a flowering cherry tree can imagine, you know, what that would be like to see it for the first time. And so she sees this. And this is in the 1880s, I believe. And she returns to Washington, D.C. where she had been living after that trip and she starts lobbying some of the local government officials to bring a grove of these wonderful flowering trees to Washington.
RUTKOWThe city was in the midst of a number of big land projects and this could really effectively spruce up the city, bring in tourism, beautify the land. But she didn't get very far. I mean whether this was because they weren't respecting her, I don't really know sort of the details of that early push. But she sticks with it and continues to champion this idea for more than 20 years. And what happens is she gets a partner in David Fairchild who is this famous plant explorer, the government's official plant explorer tasked with traveling around the world to find wonderful new plants and trees to bring back for our youth.
RUTKOWAnd in 1908, there's a presidential election and Taft wins. And with Taft comes a new first lady, Nellie Taft, who was really one of these remarkable figures in history. Some people think of her as the first modern first lady. And there's a lot of truth in that. And she had a, you know, she was an indomitable kind of figure. And she had spent a lot of time in Asia with Taft because Taft had been overseeing the Philippines' governance at one point and had done a delegation trip to Japan and she had fallen in love with something known as the Luneta, which was a park in the Philippines.
RUTKOWSo she had a similar idea. And Eliza Skidmore brings this idea, after 20 years of pushing for it, along with David Fairchild, to Nellie Taft and says, please let's make this happen. And Nellie Taft says we're gonna do this. And they push it together and it goes through, but then what happens -- and this is where it really becomes fascinating -- is the first shipment comes and there's an internal battle going on inside of the Department of Agriculture on whether we should have open borders and be cosmopolitan, like David Fairchild wants, a plant explorer. Let's bring everything to America.
RUTKOWOr whether we need to put in quarantines to protect what we have. And the first shipment is actually burned...
RUTKOW...because they find it's diseased.
RUTKOWAnd there's a lot of politics involved with this decision.
REHMWhoa. And then what happens?
RUTKOWWell, so …
REHMDon't leave me hanging.
RUTKOWSo they burn the shipment. And it's a very tense moment because relations with Japan, at that point, on the West Coast there's a lot of anti-Japanese agitation. There's talk about segregating Japanese or not and allowing any more Japanese in. On the East Coast, at the level of politics, not only had Teddy Roosevelt been sort of a big fan of Japanese culture, but also Japan is a fast-rising power. The Russo-Japanese War ends in 1905. The treaty that ended it actually overseen and signed in the United States. And there's a lot of concern that Japan needs to be taken seriously. So burning these shipments, what was supposed to be a friendly diplomatic act, is not necessarily the most adroit thing to do.
RUTKOWBut the mayor of Tokyo, who was a pretty witty guy, says it's okay. You guys should be proud. You've been chopping down cherry trees since the beginning of your country with George Washington so I'd expect nothing less. And then they propagate new trees and a new shipment comes in 1912.
REHMAnd we hear in Washington experience their glory every year. Thank you so much for your work, for telling this story. I hope that what you've done is to excite people today as they walk the streets and look at trees. Eric Rutkow, his new book is titled "American Canopy: Trees, Forests and the Making of a Nation." Thanks, again.
RUTKOWThank you. It's been a real pleasure.
REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
Most Recent Shows
On the last podcast of April, On My Mind celebrates National Poetry Month by revisiting an interview with Billy Collins from November 2020. When the pandemic began, poet Billy Collins,…
President Biden has promised to slash the country's greenhouse gas emissions. Vox's Umair Irfan explains the details of the administration's plan -- and what it will take to hit these new targets.
Diane talks with Larry Krasner, Philadelphia's district attorney, and author of the new book, "For the People: A Story of Justice and Power." He is also the subject of the new PBS Independent Lens documentary "Philly D.A."