Americans have a complicated relationship with trees — always have and, sadly, probably always will. Though colonists from largely denuded Europe were enamored with the New World’s untouched forests — pure, pristine landscapes were often compared to the proverbial Eden (John Speede described it as "the Garden of God" in 1611) — they were equally thrilled to cut it all down, to lay waste to the very thing that made the burgeoning nation special.
Wastefulness and environmental improvidence are as American as apple pie. We see ambivalence to the organic from the colonies' very first days. While people like John Locke were awe-struck by the Eden-like landscape — "In the beginning, all the world was America," Locke wrote — he and his ilk also encouraged colonists to clear it all away. And they did, with remarkable gusto.
French traveler Marquis de Chastellux was astonished by the colonists’ violent approach to trees in the early 1770s: "[The settler] boldly attacks those immense oaks, or pines ... he strips them of their bark, or lays them open all around with his axe." British traveler Isaac Weld expressed similar shock and awe at Americans’ "unconquerable aversion" to trees in 1799, as well as at their apparent indifference to natural beauty: "They stare with astonishment at a person who can feel any delight in passing through such a country."
Yes, a few enlightened folks spoke up as the years went on. President James Madison warned against the "injudicious and excessive destruction of timber" in 1818. Writer Zachariah Allen noted in 1832, "The pioneer of the western forests seems to have taken a pleasure in devoting to destruction every noble tree within a furlong of his dwelling," even at the pioneers’ own detriment. "These, if spared," he wrote, "might have furnished him refreshing shade."
But Allen and Madison and other prototypical environmentalists were in the vast minority, outnumbered by Americans who never gave a thought to arbor annihilation, people like Andrew Jackson, who wondered, "What good man would prefer a country covered with forest ... to our extensive republican?" Between 1600 and 1850 an estimated 130 million acres of American forest were cleared. That was just the beginning. Industrialized labor would soon amplify the speed and force of deforestation.
More than a century later, Ronald Reagan famously remarked, "If you’ve looked at a hundred thousand acres or so of trees — you know, a tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at?"
Being at one with nature just isn’t in Americans’ nature. It's been bred out of us.
Two reasons we attacked our forests
What fueled such an approach to America’s biologic bounties? What could possess a people who took great pride in their forests to knock them down with unparalleled glee? The answer’s two-fold.
The initial impetus for this widespread clearcutting in the New World sprang from some good old-fashioned Old World superstition: the notion that witches and ghouls and goblins hid in the forest’s shadows. Don’t forget the "savage natives," too, corrupted as they were by evil forces lurking in the sylvan expanse. The land, John Smith wrote, 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 ... inhabited by the witches and ogres ... [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 save oneself from such a fate was to take away the shadows, to let God’s light shine in. Denuded clearings were "openings where God could look down and redeem the struggling inhabitants," forest historian Michael Williams wrote in 1989, summing up that earlier era’s thicket of emotions. Founding Father John Adams made similar remarks in 1756: "The whole continent was one dismal wilderness, the haunt of wolves and bears and more savage men. Now the forests are removed, the land covered with fields of corn, orchards bending with fruit, and the magnificent habitations of rational and civilized people." It’s also worth noting that Benjamin Franklin, in his very racist 1751 essay, "Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc.," described denuding the land as "scouring" earth, as if trees were dirty and needed to be removed. These classical fears of demons and savages faded in time, of course, as land was cleared and rationality took flight. But the second factor in America’s thirst for forest destruction was — or, rather, is — far more permanent: money.
While the exorcizing of demons and ghouls was all well and good, cleared land was, quite simply, more valuable than au natural parcels. "Every stroke of the axe the pioneer of the forest adds thrice the value ... it uncovers to the sun a virgin soil, which, although nominally worth only a few centers per acre, may surpass in fertility the fields of the finest landed estates in England, values at many pounds sterling per acre," Allen wrote in 1832.
The land was thus "improved," an idea derived from the anthropocentric idea that humans are here to upgrade nature, to create a new heaven on earth. It was, to borrow David E. Nye’s term, "second creation." And though the term "improved" was used casually at first, as in John Locke’s 1689 remark about Indians’ "inability to improve" the land, and in Benjamin Rush’s 1796 comments about "improving a farm," it became official government credo with the 1860 census, after which American land was forevermore referred to as "improved" or "unimproved."
A recent move to make amends
The U.S. has more trees than it did 100 years ago, thanks to planting and reforestation efforts, but the average age of forests is much younger than 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 writers who championed nature were keen to cut trees down. James Fenimore Cooper fretted about mangled, "disfigured" vistas in his 1823 novel "The Pioneers," yet 19 years later, in 1842, he celebrated the mining of Mother Earth: "There is a pleasure in diving into a virgin forest and commencing the labors of civilization ... [It] approaches nearer to the feeling of creating." Even the evolution of the early environmental movement in the Industrial Era, a movement that helped establish national parks, didn’t eradicate America’s appetite for profitable destruction. We were creating national parks, sure, but other undeveloped "national" spaces were and would continue to be leased out to companies profiting from what should be public land.
It’s the American way. But that doesn’t mean it has to be forever.
Eco-consciousness has come a long way over the past five decades. Americans recycle more now than ever. Denuded forests are being replanted (though not nearly fast enough) and the majority of Americans believe humans cause climate change, according to Gallup. But more needs to be done.
In addition to on-the-ground actions, we have to normalize our relationship with nature. We must recalibrate our entire national mind frame, seeing and celebrating our forests anew, presenting all of our resources as essential to our identity, as integral to what makes America so unique, exceptional and — dare it be said — great.