In William Cronon’s wonderful book Changes in the Land, he argues that Native Americans and English colonists had “two ways of belong to an ecosystem” which had fundamentally different implications for the colonial environment. In chapter 6 “Taking the Forest” he elaborates all the ecological implications of English settlers’ cutting down New England’s forests: warmer, drier soil, earlier snow melt, flooding and then drought, and the reduction of edge-dwelling species. By the late 1800s, New Hampshire’s forest cover had declined from 94% to 48%!
(This bit of history helps explain why many stones walls are today in the middle of a forest. Those areas were likely antebellum meadows, former forests then filled with sheep. As New Hampshire’s forests have grown back to cover about 85% of the state, the trees have reclaimed the walls!)
But the political and economic implications of colonial lumbering were even greater. In North Carolina, the major trade good for over 100 years was naval stores – items necessary for the building of England’s imperial navy. Long-leaf pines, once covering 90 million acres, provided tar and pitch, which helped to keep mast ropes stuck to masts and waterproofed ship’s keels. Britain was so desperate for naval stores that in 1705 they passed the Bounty Law to encourage production and by 1725 North Carolina was producing 80% of Britain’s naval needs. Naval stores remained a central part of North Carolina’s economics until the mid 1960s, when long-leaf pine lands were more valuable for development than naval stores. Only 3-4% of the once extant long-leaf pine forests still exist today.
In New England, white pine trees were the king’s own property, a necessary national security item that provided masts for naval vessels. From 1691 on the Broad Arrow policy reserved white pines of a certain size for the king’s use and all colonists had to pay fees to have their land surveyed by the appropriate official to ensure no white pines were “misused” for such items as colonial houses, floor boards, or export trade. Just outside the College, the main road through town is called Mast Road and was so named in 1761 for the large numbers of trees cut down in the area and shipped to Royal ships at the coast for export to England. In 1772, a sheriff attempting to enforce the law was beaten and run out of town by a mob of 20-40 men furious at the assumption that they had to pay a fine for sawing wood on their own property. This “Pine Tree Riot” is still a source of Revolutionary pride in Weare, NH, much like the Boston Tea Party in that city to our south.
It takes an environmental history class to help us think of nature as central to national security or trees as crucial to political radicalization!