Gone are the groves Elysian – 500 Years of American Forests
Charles E. Little
The forest met by the first colonists stretched from the barrier islands on which they landed 400 years ago–a hundred years after Columbus’ triumph of persistence over sense– to the prairies of the middle West. In the northern latitudes of what would become the coterminous United States, between Maine and Minnesota, an unbroken coniferous woodland prevailed, giving way to hardwoods as it moved to lower latitudes–beech, maple, oak, chestnut, elm, hickory, basswood, locust, magnolia, live oak, tupelo–in a largely unblemished blanket of green from the Lakes to Louisiana. Significantly, the effect of the indigenous peoples on the forest was observable but ecologically minimal.
The great eastern forest, where many of the aborigines lived, comprised four-fifths of the forested land in what we now call the lower 48, with the remaining one-fifth in the Rockies, the Sierra-Cascades, the Coast ranges, and other western mountains.
For the colonists, clearing the vast eastern forest was a form of redemption, according to British geographer Michael Williams in his definitive study, The Forest in American Life. The very size of it, he writes, “astonished and frustrated the New World pioneers.” Because that forest was “impersonal and lonely in its endlessness,” clearing it, in Williams’ view, “was likened to a struggle between the individual and the immense obstacle that had to be overcome to create a new life and a new society.”
Indeed, in 1646 or thereabouts, William Bradford, the Puritan leader, wrote in his History of Plymouth Plantation of the first landing at Cape Cod, wherein even the glorious colors of a New England autumn were viewed as fearsome and hateful: What could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men–and what multitudes there might be of them they knew not. Neither could they, as it were, go up to the top of Pisgah to view from this wilderness a more godly country to feed their hopes; for which way so ever they turned their eyes (save upward to the heavens) they could have little solace or content in respect of any outward objects. For summer being done, all things stand upon them with a weatherbeaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue.
There was, however, a contrary strain in the early settlers’ apprehension of America’s forested wilderness. By 1791 William Bartram, son of the Quaker botanist John Bartram, wrote as follows in his exhaustively titled Travels through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Counttr, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Choctaws; Containing an Account of the Soil and Natural Productions of those Regions, together with Observations on the Manners of the Indians:
Proceeding on our return to town [Bartram writes], continued through part of this high forest skirting on the meadows; began to ascend the hills of a ridge which we were under the necessity of crossing). and having gained its summit, enjoyed a most enchanting view; a vast expanse of green meadows and strawberry fields; a meandering river gliding through, saluting in its various turnings the swelling, green, turfy knolls, embellished with parterres of flowers and fruitful strawberry beds; flocks of turkeys strolling about them; herds of deer prancing in the meads or bounding over the hills; companies of young, innocent Cherokee virgins, some busy gathering the rich fragrant fruit, others having already filled their baskets, lay reclined under the shade of floriferous and fragrant native bowers of Magnolia, Azalea Philadelphus, perfumed Calycanthus, sweet Yellow Jassamine and cerulean Glycenefrutescens..,
So entranced were the English Romantic poets with Bartram’s descriptions that the New World forest images worked their way into what is now some of the most familiar poetry of the period, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan” and William Wordsworth’s “She was a Phantom of Delight” and “Ruth.” Coleridge and Robert Southey, who was later to become Poet Laureate, proposed to create a pantisocracy, or utopian community in which all would rule equally, in these woodlands on the banks of the Susquehanna. According to literary critic Alfred Kazin, the community was to “consist of educated men and women who should withdraw from the world to some suitable spot… for high intellectual converse.”
Wrote Wordsworth: … Paradise, and groves Elysian, Fortunate Fields– like those of old Sought in the Atlantic Morn–why should they be A history only of departed things,
Or a mere fiction of what never was?
But this mythic image of the New World was not widely shared by the colonists, and so the groves elysian departed from the New World as decisively as they had from the old. As historian T.H. Watkins points out, “The European community suddenly was confronted by that common mythic past it had rejected …. The tragedy, of course, is that … the choices they made were almost invariably those which continued the [Europeans’] long alienation from the wilderness that had nurtured their beginnings.”
European population was thin during the Colonial period, and the settlers clung to the Atlantic shore–for two centuries, in fact. Westward expansion did not begin in earnest until the beginning of the 19th century, when the Allegheny frontier was crossed. But once begun, the speed and power of westering was extraordinary. Indeed, the period ended scarcely more than three generations later, when, in 1893, the great historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the frontier closed. There was no place left where people (meaning Europeans) weren’t. They lived everywhere. And everywhere they lived, they cleared the forest. Hardly a scrap of land from Cape Cod to Ohio, from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the mouth of the Mississippi had not been cutover or high-graded at least once.
At the peak of this frenetic time, says forest historian John Perlin, the changes in the landscape were astonishing– even before the chainsaw had been invented. He writes: “The amount of forests lost due to pasturage and felling trees to clear land for cultivation, for lumber, and for fuel [accelerated] from 1,600 square miles per year in 1835 to 7,000 square miles 20 years later. As the pace of deforestation picked up, the area of land covered by dense forest declined considerably. In 1850, 25 percent of the land area of the United States was densely forested; 20 years later, this figure had dropped to 15 percent.”
The forest grew back in most places, of course, but it was not always the same one–either by human design or nature’s intractability. By the early 1800s, Vermont, originally the “bread basket” of the colonies and almost totally covered with forest since the retreat of the glaciers, was so stripped of trees that only 20 percent of its land was left wooded. What has grown back? “A forest of sticks,” says Hubert Vogelmann, a University of Vermont botanist and forest ecologist.
In the great pine woods of the upper Midwest–Paul Bunyan country–the forest was forever changed, now consisting of pine stumps (from which trees do not regenerate) surrounded by beech, maple, and other hardwoods. But the felling of the pine forest was considered a victory. In fact, Paul Bunyan, a comic hero invented by a forest-products-company publicist and popularized for commercial purposes by lumber interests in the early 1900s, was celebrated–rather than reviled–for cutting down the huge trees. When the eastern forests had been leveled, we looked to the West for the timber needed to build the growing cities, then swelling with immigrants come to work in mines and factories. The two-man saws ripped through the huge pines and firs and redwoods of the western ranges, and to make sure the human conquerors could saw them all, natural forest fires were effectively suppressed. The suppression worked too well; the composition of the forest changed. The big, widely spaced trees were replaced by densely growing smaller ones that were, unfortunately, less resistant to pests. Today the great accumulation of dead trees and litter, tinder-dry in many places from a protracted drought, constitutes a fire threat greater than anything the admen who were to invent Smokey Bear could possibly have conceived. (For a detailed look at that situation, see “The Blue Mountains: Forest Out of Control, | beginning on page 32 of this issue.)
Meanwhile, in the South, the hardwoods were cut to plant more lucrative pines that would grow faster than softwoods did in the West. Nowadays pine plantations dominate the rural landscape from North Carolina to Arkansas–though they are not growing as rapidly as the plantation owners had hoped.
The upshot: Today scarcely 5 percent of the forest land in the U.S. is unmodified by ax and plowshare. The question is, are we doomed–through some irreversible cultural overlay or perhaps a deep-seated genetic characteristic–to continue unceasingly to lay waste the forests again and again, with the replacement forest each time a bit less well adapted to its environment, a bit more susceptible to attacks by insects, pathogens, pollution, and environmental changes?
Quite possibly we need not be pessimistic on this point. Slowly and painfully, Americans seem to be coming to their ecological senses about the great forests of their continent. During the last half of this century, new ecologically oriented, forest-protecting laws have been enacted, notably for setting aside wildernesses–including those of Alaska–and preserving endangered plant and animal species. In addition, private organizations have done much to protect natural areas and, more recently, the natural corridors connecting them. And so, in some places, at least for a time, we can go to the woods and see them as they once were everywhere-on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, for example, where a remnant of temperate-zone rainforest is protected, or in tiny Mettler’s Woods in suburban New Jersey, where scientists study a northeastern woodland that has never heard the mortal ring of an ax.
We treasure these remnants, of course, but another question rises. Are we so sure that the replacement forests can really be sustained, as that quintessential 19th century optimist Gilford Pinchot insisted? Yes, it is true that we have more wood in some of our woodlands than we once did, and more woodlands overall as well, with trees replanted in the cleared spaces and even growing in places where they had not grown originally. But there is today mounting evidence that in many areas our modified forests are vulnerable, unable to withstand levels of stress-human-caused or otherwise-that may not have been so decisive in the undisturbed forest ecosystems of pre-Columbian times.
Only in a few isolated areas of the lower 48 states are American forests at all like we found them. In a significant measure, we built a nation with them. It will take strong minds perhaps another 500 years to decide whether we might have done it some other way.
This article is one of a series of pieces author Charles E. Little has been sending American Forests while researching a book, The Dying of the Trees, to be published next year by Viking Press. His latest book, Hope for the Land, was published last spring by Rutgers University Press.
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