Eric Rutkow: An America shaped by trees

Next week, environmental historian Eric Rutkow will be appearing at two events in Portland. Eric is the author of American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation (Scribner, 2012), which offers a novel retelling of U.S. history with trees at the center of the story. As you might imagine, the forests of the Northwest feature prominently. Eric recently discussed his book with his law school classmate, former (and future) state representative Brent Barton, OLCV-endorsed candidate for House District 40:

 
Event details: 
 
Monday, July 30, 7:30 p.m., Book Talk and Signing, Powell's Books, 1005 W. Burnside, Portland.
 
Tuesday, July 31, 6:00 p.m., Book Talk and Signing, Hoyt Arboretum, 4000 SW Fairview Blvd, Portland.
 
What inspired you to write American history told through the lens of trees?
 
Two different ideas initially drove my curiosity. The first was an interest in exploring the unique relationship between trees and history. Trees are both fixed in space and remarkably long-lived. Such longevity makes their intersection with history of paramount importance in understanding their social function. The second concern was a desire to locate new ideas that might illuminate what it meant to be an American. The last fifteen or so years have seen a remarkable polarization in our political system that has produced widely divergent views on American identity. The book offers a new interpretation of our past, one that raises different questions and highlights different commonalities from more traditional histories. 
 
How have trees shaped American self-identity?
 
If I could answer that question with a short response I probably wouldn't have needed to write the whole book! From my perspective, however, this question misses half of the story. We need to ask not just how have trees shaped Americans, but how have Americans shaped trees. It’s this reciprocal relationship that forms the heart of the story.
 
Perhaps my favorite part of your book described what could almost be called a military takeover of the northwest lumber industry during World War I. How did you uncover that story?
 
It's an incredible story and one that receives relatively little attention these days. The Sitka spruce trees of the Pacific Northwest, which were essential to early airplane construction, became one of the most important strategic materials in World War I, and the Army took over a huge chunk of the region's lumber industry to guarantee its production. I believe that I first came upon that story while reading some primary sources from WWI. But there's an interesting book on the subject from the 1960s called "Soldiers and Spruce." For my purposes, I wanted to illustrate the ways that trees shaped American life in war as well as peace, and the tale of Sitka spruce in WWI offered a very tight narrative structure that helped to explain the function of tree resources in a sprawling, global military conflict.
 
That story is largely forgotten today – why should Oregonians remember it?
 
So many reasons! First of all, the military takeover of the Northwest forests in WWI contributed significantly to the decline of the Industrial Workers of the World. So if you want to understand the long-term arc of labor in the Northwest, it's a key piece of the puzzle. The story also illustrates how the intersection of technology, politics, and nature often drives social change. Before wooden airplanes, Sitka spruce was not a major commercial species, but suddenly this combination of military necessity and air power turned the species into one of the most coveted resources on the planet and transformed the lumber industry. Additionally, many people might simply be interested to know that Northwest forests played such a central role in a conflict fought halfway around the world. To quote one official from WWI, "We could have fallen down anywhere else, and the Allies might have carried on, but if we fell down in the spruce production the Allies went down with us.”
 
You also reference the great Tillamook burn of 1933, which is still talked about in Oregon – what is the continuing relevance of that incident?
 
We're in the midst of one of the worst wildfire seasons in history, so obviously this is an issue that is not simply a relic of our past. Wildfires, whether we like it or not, are part of life in many forested zones. There are lessons to take from our past experience, but many of the problems today are relatively new (drier summers likely due to climate change, overgrown forests caused by aggressive fire suppression, widespread home building inside of regions prone to fires). As quickly as we develop ways to manage the threat of fire, we seem to develop new challenges. 
 
You also write about the social turmoil surrounding the transition of the Oregon timber industry in the early 1990s – where does that story fit into the larger narrative of trees in America?
 
As most people know, the forests of Oregon grabbed the attention of the world in the late 1980s and early 1990s due to the plight of the spotted owl. On the one hand, you could see the conflict as one limited to the Northwest, which contains some of the last stands of U.S. old growth forest (a primary habitat of northern spotted owls). On the other hand, you could see what happened as a conflict of two views of forest management, one that emphasizes the economic importance of trees as lumber and another that emphasizes the ecological importance of trees as pillars of a diverse biological world. Seen in this light, the spotted owl saga was something of a microcosm for battles that are happening around the country and around the globe.
 
Are there any other Oregon stories about trees that you researched but did not include in your book?
 
More than I'd probably care to admit. The style of my book emphasizes storytelling. I tended to take narratives that I found fascinating and use them as illustrations of broader issues (such as the spotted owl controversy). Hopefully, this makes for engaging reading, but it sometimes comes at the cost of encyclopedic coverage. The forests of the Northwest have spawned hundreds of books. It would be an impossible task to capture more than a small fraction of these stories within the covers of my own work.
 
What is the most important lesson that an environmental activist should learn from your research?
 
My hope is that different people will be able to take different lessons away from the book. Part of the reason for this is that different environments demand different approaches, and a book that covers as broad a territory as mine can't necessarily offer specific solutions. But an activist reading my book will hopefully see the range of possibilities that can be found in the past. Oftentimes, history can provide us with an expanded sense of what's possible. It's easy to think that a system that's been in place for thirty years has always been there, but that's very rarely the case.
 
Although you are not an Oregonian, you volunteered on a political campaign here. What happened from your perspective? 
 
Oh, that's a rather tragic tale. When you go to law school (as I did), you tend to meet a lot of people interested in government. I had the misfortune of befriending one of them. And then I compounded this error by spending far too much time with him for the better part of three years. Now, most civically-minded people just complain without ever doing anything about it, but leave it to me to find the one guy who seriously believed he could make a difference. Barely a year after we graduated law school, he informed me of his plans to run for the Legislature in his home state of Oregon. I tried to talk him out of this over the phone, but he refused to listen to reason. So I flew out to Oregon to address the situation personally, and he misinterpreted this as an offer to assist in his campaign. He handed me a bike (with no brakes, I should mention) and insisted that I pedal across the hilliest territory in the region to drum up support. Well, knowing next to nothing about state-level Oregon politics, I realized that my campaigning on his behalf was the surest way to ruin his chances and spare him working in politics. I have no doubt that I cost him at least one hundred fifty votes through my tireless door-knocking and brakeless kamikaze biking. But somehow he managed to win anyway and thwart my plan.
 
[Brent’s note: I sent Eric to canvass the rural area surrounding Redland, just east of Oregon City. I admit that he had to bike some brutal hills, but I didn’t realize that the brakes on the bike I loaned him weren’t working.]

 

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