Tea has been synonymous with political protest ever since colonists dumped shiploads of the stuff into Boston Harbor in a 1773 act of rebellion against the Crown. In historian Eric Rutkow’s recent book, American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation, he notes that trees were an equally potent symbol of liberty in the years leading to the Revolutionary War.
Trees were an early point of contention with British rule. The Royal Navy had become dependent on New England’s old-growth white pines as an unparalleled source of masts for its ships. To control the supply, the British laid claim to all white pines over 24 inches in diameter through a policy known as the Broad Arrow. This allowed them to cut such trees off any tract of land, regardless of ownership. If colonists used white pine logs to build their homes or cleared the trees to plant their crops, they risked being sent to prison. A similar law had been repealed in England many years earlier, and the colonists resented having their property rights abrogated. As Rutkow states, “White pine masts became a symbol of English repression.” When the Revolutionary War began, the English were forced to procure inferior wood from Eastern Europe. To add insult to injury, the coveted white pines from New England were then sold to their archrivals, the French.
The colonists were also enraged by a tax to be levied through the Stamp Act. In protest, a group in Boston chose the limb of a mighty American elm from which to hang an effigy of Andrew Oliver on Aug. 14, 1765. As secretary of the province, Oliver had been commissioned to administer the stamp tax. That evening, a crowd of a thousand gathered around the tree. A few people stepped forward, cut down the straw dummy, placed it in a coffin and led a procession past the home of the royal governor. The mob later turned unruly and battered down the newly built stamp office. They also burned the effigy in front of Oliver’s home and broke his windows. Oliver had privately been against the tax all along, and the next day he made it clear he would not administer it.
Within a month, the Boston Sons of Liberty – a group that included Samuel Adams and Paul Revere – returned to the tree and affixed a copper plate bearing the words “The Tree of Liberty.” Thereafter, they used the tree as an outdoor meeting spot. Rutkow notes that it was an egalitarian venue where no one was excluded. In May 1766, they also gathered there to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act.
Having the colonists rally around the Liberty Tree rankled the British. It fell to a party of redcoats in August 1775, soon after the start of the Revolutionary War. Rutkow quotes a newspaper’s account of the event. “After a long Spell of laughing and grinning, sweating, swearing and foaming, with Malice diabolical, they cut down a Tree, because it bore the Name of Liberty.” A year later, in the wake of the Declaration of Independence, the citizens of a self-proclaimed sovereign nation reclaimed the site and erected a flagpole on the stump of the Liberty Tree.
These stories strike a chord as we celebrate Independence Day, and they’re indicative of the approach Rutkow uses throughout the book. We learn about our nation’s relationship with trees through the likes of romantic iconoclasts such as Daniel Boone and Johnny Appleseed, Presidents Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and David Thoreau, naturalists John Muir and John Bartram, creator of the U.S. Forest Service Gifford Pinchot and the agency’s mascot Smokey Bear, timber magnate Frederick Weyerhaeuser and archetypal logger Paul Bunyan. In Rutkow’s hands, the trees themselves become compelling characters. There are rapturous stores about the giant sequoias of California and poignant ones about the demise, from disease, of our stately chestnuts and elms. The book begins with the casual felling in 1964 of the world’s oldest tree, a bristlecone pine named Prometheus that had survived nearly 5,000 years in what is now Nevada.
Early colonists from a denuded England sometimes feared the impenetrable forests they encountered here and even saw them as a nuisance, an obstacle to overcome before building shelter and working the land. In time, American forests were seen as an opportunity, a resource of infinite abundance. This misguided notion, as well as evolving technologies and introduced diseases, led to unsustainable levels of harvest. In the face of exponential losses, people began to realize our forests weren’t limitless. If we wanted to maintain our industries and our standard of living, not to mention some semblance of wilderness, we had to learn how to manage and conserve this precious resource.
That’s a fine balance, and we struggle mightily to achieve it, but when America is at its best, we do so in a spirit that honors our democracy.