The 19th century may seem distant to us today, but in a new book by Alexander Nemerov, “The Forest: A Fable of America in the 1830s,” readers have a chance to walk through the woods of the early 1800s—and discover that the often contradictory ways we relate to nature now have been with us at least since then.
In an early scene, Nemerov writes about an 1837 poem that later became famous as a song, played on pianos in parlors across the country. The lyrics preserve the story of a man who is so sentimental about an old oak tree that he begs that it be saved from the landowner’s ax: “Woodman, spare that tree! / Touch not a single bough! / In youth it sheltered me, / And I’ll protect it now.”
“So much about the song was clear,” Nemerov writes. “The old lands were sold. A new generation, lazy and seeking easy profit, had to be paid off to keep from destroying the last vestiges of a gentler way of life.”
Blending historical fact with lyrical fiction, “The Forest” describes a world where folktales like the one in the song still felt real, where society was tugged between “nostalgia and progress,” where ancient woodlands were being razed and some of the nation’s greatest artists and writers turned to nature in search of divine inspiration. It was a time of tanneries, whaling and timber, and also an age where leading thinkers saw the land as a font of revelation and the sublime.
“It’s a shifting point where the primeval forests of the country are beginning to be destroyed,” Nemerov said, in an interview. “The forests are both present and vanishing at the same time.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Thomas Cole “were all working in that world,” he said. “There’s a kind of reciprocity between destruction and glorification.” Nemerov is an art historian at Stanford, and “The Forest” peers closely at the art of the period in order to better capture how people then felt, thought and dreamed about themselves and the land. Between 1800 and 1880, nearly 200 million acres of American forest were cleared for fuel, agriculture and building materials. Americans sang about sparing trees while they were chopping them down.
That relationship to nature—one where endangerment breeds reverence—feels familiar in the 21st century, beset as we are by climate change and rampant biodiversity loss. All that precariousness only seems to make us cling more fiercely to the “last vestiges” of wildness America has left. Contemporary writers like Annie Dillard, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Michael Pollan and Richard Powers have made nature a central subject of their work, and many artists who previously focused on other themes are now turning their attention to the natural world.
Forests have always been part of the mythology of the United States, whether as a source of fear or wonder, and Nemerov taps into that wellspring of magic, memory, history and holiness that Americans have long associated with trees. Reading “The Forest” feels like wandering through the woods, with each vignette appearing like a clearing or a grove, a stream or a lone cabin, every tree with its own legend to whisper. In “The Forest,” we come upon Cherokee trail trees, visit the infant Harriet Tubman in a sweet gum cradle crafted for her by her carpenter and timber inspector father and listen to Edgar Allan Poe as he imagines the Great Dismal Swamp as “a forest of tall eastern trees” whose shadows “sunk slowly and steadily down and commingled with the waves” and where “darkness fell over all things.” In this world, forests contain the seeds of epiphany, wisdom and imagination.
One of the fables Nemerov spins is about Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman whose travels in the United States in the 1830s were immortalized in his book “Democracy in America.” Nemerov follows de Tocqueville as he searches, at first in vain, for “untouched American forest” in the backwoods of Michigan. “An American thinks nothing of hacking his way through an impenetrable forest, crossing a swift river, braving a pestilential swamp, or sleeping in the damp forest if there is a chance of making a dollar,” de Tocqueville muses. “But the urge to gaze upon huge trees and commune in solitude with nature utterly surpasses his understanding.”
The U.S. Forest Service still recognizes de Tocqueville’s assessment as a valid one; the agency has developed a digital tool called i-Tree to quantify the market value of intact forests in order to help protect them, even as it acknowledges that not everything forests give us can be reduced to a line item on a budget sheet. In some ways, i-Tree is an extension of the Forest Service’s original mission to conserve trees mainly so that their lumber might later be “wisely” harvested, a policy that many climate activists say it struggles with today.
Despite the endurance of this national ethos that sees trees as commodities, and in part because of growing environmentalist forces that question it, forest cover in the United States stabilized in the 1920s, and forests have since rebounded to cover two-thirds of the land they once did in 1600, reversing a trend of unchecked deforestation that had lasted for 200 years. Species like the wild turkey, the white-tailed deer and the black bear now exist in greater numbers than they did in 1900. Because of forests’ growth, according to the Forest History Society, U.S. forests “currently sequester about 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.” Conservation efforts now incorporate Indigenous knowledge of forest management, and the number of Americans who visit national forests for recreational reasons has skyrocketed since the 1920s.
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Still, American forests are again in danger. Just as in the 1830s, our forests stand at a critical juncture that will decide their fate. From Alaska to California, they are threatened by drought, wildfires, invasive species, insects, diseases and other aftershocks of a rapidly changing climate. A 2016 report from the United States Forest Service put it plainly: “For the first time in more than a century, the United States is facing a net forest loss.”
Though it is more like an escape to the past than a looking glass held up to the present, “The Forest” shows us what we stand to lose without forests and their mysteries. In writing this book, Nemerov was interested in posing questions about “whether or not in the destruction of the natural world” in the 1830s, a certain kind of “eloquence or emotional truthfulness vanished with it.”
The language, creativity and feeling that the wilderness provokes in humans who cross its threshold cannot be replicated elsewhere; these are the rewards of the forest that carry no monetary value but are worth far more because of that fact. “If a sentiment that is true is one that flowers or grows or buds, then if one is destroying that world, whither goes that sentiment,” Nemerov said. “Perhaps, it too disappears.”