Author’s Note: This is the eighth part in a series of blog posts looking at the historical big picture of modern day urban flooding and the importance of trees. Go here for part one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven. Read this blog post on why I’ve decided to take on this project.
The destruction of the great North American virgin forests by European colonists in the 18th and 19th centuries was swift and ruthless. It was fueled by our engrained behaviors, religious doctrine, and the advent of steam engines capable do doing the work of hundreds of men by just a few. Trees were cut down by the billions without the slightest consideration for the ramifications.
In the mind of the devout Christians arriving in America, these trees were put here by God, therefore he wants us to cut them down. God created us in His likeness, therefore the Earth is mankind’s to do as we please.
This mindset to how we regard our only home, planet Earth, would begin to drastically change in the United States in the mid 1800’s.
And it was all because of our trees.
Westward expansion was an obsession from the beginning. America’s forefathers purchased land by the millions of square miles in the quest to reach the Pacific Ocean and create a continent spanning nation that was sea-to-shining-sea. We talked about the Pennsylvania purchases from the Indians in Part 6. Probably the most well known land purchase is Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase from the French in 1803. The other big and lesser well known land acquisition by the United States was taken by force as a result of the Mexican-American War from 1846 to 1848. On February 2, 1848 the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which succeeded the rights to much of the American southwest, including the grand prize of California.
Soon gold would be found in northern California and a rush of new European settlers would pour into the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Hundreds of mining companies and make shift outfits would open up with the hopes of striking it rich. Very few in the end did.
In May of 1852, a man by the name of Augustus T. Dowd, hired as a hunter to supply fresh meat to the newly arriving workers, shot and chased a bear in Calaveras County located approximately 30 miles north of Yosemite Valley. Eventually Dowd’s pursuit of the bear led him deep into the forest grove where he would stumble upon the giant forest behemoths known as Sequoiadendron giganteum or the giant sequoia. Dowd would be the first white man to “discover” these trees, in what is today located in the Calaveras Grove in Calaveras State Park.
It’s astounding to think that just 170 years ago that much of California was largely an unknown frontier to many Europeans. And within this unknown frontier contained its otherworldly god-like trees, some of which are millennia in age that have been standing on Earth since the time of Christ.
Outside of the local native tribes, the world really had no concept about these ancient trees. Dowd and a small California newspaper, the Sonora Herald, would go on to publish Dowd’s account of his discovery that same year. Within a year, the story of giant trees would capture the imagination of the world and help usher in a new era of environmental stewardship.
The discovery of these awe inspiring forests would be the beginning of a new chapter in the history of America. It would be the beginning of an idea of preserving forests for the greater good for the planet. That mankind’s place on Earth maybe is not to cast dominion over all things, but rather to find a balance between nature and mankind that is reciprocative.
Remember August T. Dowd, we will be returning to him later on.
A changing of our collective belief systems as humans takes generations. Sometimes centuries. Especially when our beliefs are deeply engrained in our religious doctrines that are held with such great passion.
To change our beliefs often takes a series of many events stringed together, each building and growing off one another. Events that cumulate over time and crescendo into a mountain of evidence, rather than just one singular “A-HA!” lightening strike of a moment. Sure it’s fun to think about a singular moment changing the course of history. The apple hitting Isaac Newton in the head under the tree and discovering gravity. Or Benjamin Franklin’s kite being struck by lightening and discovering electricity. Or (spoiler alert) Doctor Emmett Brown while hanging a clock in the bathroom, slipping on the edge of the toilet, hitting his head on the kitchen sink, and conjuring up the idea of time travel using a flux capacitor powered via nuclear energy, and (spoiler alert part 2) everyday household kitchen scraps and garbage.
But those moments are sensationalized with moments of fiction for our own amusement. Or in the case of Doctor Emmett Brown 100% made up awesome fiction for our own amusement. We humans love to think of the possibility of the instantaneous “life changing epiphany” where all of our problems are solved on the back of an envelop or on a post-it note while sitting in traffic. Which reminds me of one of my favorite Onion articles of all time. But in reality, solving the world’s problems takes hard work and generations of human dedication.
Rarely do big life shifting changes happen in an instant other than in the movies. All of us are standing on the shoulders of giants in the name of future progress. We are continually building upon the foundation of past discoveries that inch us one step further on the path of progress named “who the hell knows where we are going and why the hell we are here.” (Author’s note: Who can I petition to make this a trail name in Frick Park?)
The same can be said for our trees. We understand them better and their importance to our survival on this planet thanks to the cumulation of advancements from multiple generations. Advancements that would eventually put emphasis on protecting nature and its trees. And this emphasis would lead to where we are today with national, state, and locally protected forests, public parks, and wild game lands.
But how did we get to where we are today? Actually protecting and valuing our trees rather than destroying them without regard? How did this change of consciousness come about?
We will need to rewind centuries to unpack this moment in the story of humanity. To me, it’s by far the most fascinating and uplifting look at ourselves as humans and how we have collectively worked together to change our behavior on this planet for the greater good.
The change in consciousness towards our trees begins at the same point in time as the story about its destruction. In Part 3 of in this series of blog posts you will remember that it was religious unrest in the 1600s and the Thirty Years War that drove many of Europe’s peoples to North America in the first place.
The Thirty Years War was one of the bloodiest and most tragic wars in the history of humanity. Explaining full breadth of the Thirty Years War can fill volumes on bookshelves. For example, see Peter H. Wilson’s 1024 page sweeping triumph “Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tradegy”. Another worthwhile and much shorter read on the significance of the war is this thesis from Justin McMurdie titled, The Thirty Years’ War: Examining the Origins and Effects of Corpus Christianum’s Defining Conflict
By all accounts, the Thirty Years War was a shockingly brutal struggle between Protestant and Catholic forces in the battle for Christendom in mainland Europe. The Thirty Years’ War is thought to have claimed between 4 and 12 million lives and that 20% of Europe’s people perished, with some areas seeing their population fall by as much as 60%.1
The war left Europe exhausted. Both in physical and emotional tatters at its conclusion in 1648. Seeing no end in sight to the bloodshed with neither Catholics or Protestants willing to give into the other side, a landmark treaty called the Peace of Westphalia was signed ushering in a new age of toleration among Christian religions. This toleration would help sow the seeds for the advancement of the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment. Both of which would provide a platform for changing humanity’s consciousness. Both of which would usher in a new way of understanding our natural world and humanity’s collective impact on our planet and our trees.
The Scientific Revolution
While the Thirty Years War raged on in central Europe, two locations were spared from the brunt of the conflict. These countries were England and Italy.
In England, Francis Bacon just after the start of the war published his groundbreaking Novum Organum in 1620. This book would go on to change the course of the humanity and would determine a whole new method for reasoning, logic and truth. This single work would be responsible for “setting the dinner table” for generations of future scientists.
The scientific method or Baconian method would be outlined in Book II of Bacon’s Novum Organum. Most of us have heard of the scientific method and most of us have fallen asleep in some high school science class hearing about it. Mainly because by today’s standards of understanding the scientific method seems so obvious and boring. But in the time of Francis Bacon it was not. In the time of Bacon, witch trials were a real thing and at their peak of infamy. As were street magicians and alchemists looking to turn regular common metals into gold with philosopher stones. As was the selling of miraculous healing potions considered as the most advanced form of “medicine” at the time. Bacon saw these and was skeptical. He instead said verifiable proof was needed to establish truth, not magic from wizards, not spells from witches, not blind faith in potions from street corner healers. Real truth was obtained through meticulous observation using the study of our natural world, our surroundings and our collective experiences. Bacon was a naturalist and natural philosopher because he believed God’s truths were in nature, not in blind faith. It was a radical idea at the time, but very obvious now.
Over 1200 miles away in Italy a man by the name of Galileo Galilei was improving upon the invention of the refracting telescope in 1608 by Hans Lippershey. Lippershey’s original telescope magnified objects by three times, Galileo would dramatically improve upon the telescope with the ability to magnify objects by thirty times. Using the scientific method, an improved telescope, and decades of meticulous observations of the sun, the planets and moons, Galileo would go on the write Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632 right near the mid-point of the Thirty Years War. The Catholic Church was in a fight for its future, now it had a rabble rouser in its own empire questioning its holy scripture and teaching a sun centered universe. Galileo’s book would be banned by the Catholic Church, officially listed as heresy, and would land Galileo a court date. Galileo would be convicted at his trial and would live out the last nine years of his life under house arrest in exile.
Back in England a young child by the name of Robert Boyle was traveling the world as part of his upper class education. In 1641, at the age of 14, he would travel to Florence Italy where he would read Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. This would be the passing of the scientific torch. Galileo would die that same year. But Boyle, captivated by Galileo’s mathematics and writings would carry on his legacy. Boyle would return to England becoming a titan of science and popular figure. He would go on to help establish the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge.
By this time, the snowball of scientific discovery was in full effect. Other well known scientific titans of the era include Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, and Issac Newton. But there are many much lesser known, but just as important figures. One of my favorite books on the history of science is The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest Inventors by John Gribbin. It’s just a great reference book that basically lives permanently on my nightstand.
The importance of these early scientists were that they changed the course of humanity through reasoning and understanding of the natural world. They cast off the shackles from strict hard line literal interpretations of the Bible based solely on beliefs. They established that the scientific method and observing our natural world was the only true mechanism for determining real “truth”. That the only real “truths” are the laws of nature.
Furthermore to look deeply into the laws of nature was how we can best bring ourselves to truly understanding God’s hand, His love for humanity, and it’s creations on Earth. God is within nature. God is nature. Not only in humans, but in the stars, the planets, the mountains, the rivers, animals big and small, and all the way down to the smallest of insects. Everything is connected through God’s laws of nature on this planet of ours.
Even its trees.
The Age of Enlightenment
In parallel to the happenings of the Scientific Revolution, a dawning of new philosophical thinkers would help further usher in a change in consciousness towards humanity’s role on the planet. Science proved that the Earth and humanity were no longer at the center of the universe. Rather we are actually revolving around the sun and part of a larger revolving solar system.
What sacred Biblical scripture had told us for centuries as absolute truth was cast off in a matter of a few decades between the works of Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo. At the very same time we were in the midst of killing ourselves by the millions in the Thirty Years War over these same religious doctrines. What for? Isn’t there a better way of going about this? Why are we doing this to ourselves?
To think deeper of the “why.” That to me is the essence of philosophy. It’s an attempt to reach the bottom floor of “why” and then pull out a shovel and dig even deeper at the floor of that question. And most of the time the walls of the hole collapses and buries you because there really is no bottom.
There’s no way I could give a full account of the Age of Enlightenment and all of its thinkers in this blog post. You could literally take an entire college semester course on the topic. But the names are massively important in humanity’s history and our change in consciousness: Descarte, Locke, Hume, Voltaire, Spinoza, Kant, to name a few of most notable. If you want to read more about these names I’d recommend starting at Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It is 100% totally free and I often go deep down into rabbit holes on there. For the quickie but goodie on the Age of Enlightenment in a 45 minute podcast form, check out this episode from Brad Harris’ How it Began. It’s a great episode that I’ve listened to many of times.
The main takeaway from the Age of Enlightenment is it helped pave the way for individual freedoms of expression and toleration of new ideas. The ability to question religious authority, which at the time of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries ruled over most of the land and people. Eventually the Enlightenment thinkers helped usher in a new era of the separation from the church from the state which we now currently live, recognizing that not everyone has the same religious beliefs and none of them are the absolute “truth”. It established our modern ways of thinking towards each other not as rival religious factions in a long and brutal Thirty Years religious war, but as human individuals with a right to pursue our own happiness regardless of our background.
This kind of open thinking would allow for a change in consciousness regarding our natural world as well as our trees. Just maybe the Biblical scriptures of casting dominion over the land and unfettered destruction of our forests is not such a good idea after all. Maybe we should also consider the idea of conservation of our resources and striving for a sustainable balance between our natural world and human progress. Maybe human progress need not be at the cost of the destruction of our home planet, the only planet that we have.
Maybe we can preserve some of our forests for future generations. Hey, not to mention, the science guys over here say it’s also a good idea for protecting our water and air, which we need to, like you know, live.
Actually protecting our trees and our natural world for the greater good and the well being of future generations. It was a radical and crazy idea in the 17th and 18th century, but one that would eventually come to fruition in the 19th.
Final ingredient needed to our change in consciousness was to develop a profound and deep love for nature among the general public. This would be done through poetry. You have to remember that during the 18th and 19th centuries, the forms of entertainment options while sitting at home were limited. It was basically reading and chess or backgammon. Pretty sure Monopoly wasn’t invented yet. Poetry was a huge way to reach out and connect with and influence large masses of people.
During the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, a French philosopher by the name of Jean Jacques Rousseau would help spur an artistic and poetic movement for the natural world. This movement would be known as Romanticism and would create a deep and spiritual love for nature. Particularly among poets, artists, and eventually spreading to the general public at large into the 1800s and lasting until even today. People grew to love nature during this period. In the age of the Industrial Revolution there was also another revolution, a Natural Revolution. Many people realized that being surrounded by loud machines, endless city concrete, and smoke billowing factories while at the same time living in overcrowded tenement houses was no way to go about living one’s life.
Massively popular poets such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge would go on to influence millions of people with their poems which were often written in common everyday language so that they can be enjoyed by the masses. Lyrical Ballads in 1798 would change the course of literature and poetry and would eventually spread across the globe. Including the shores of America in the 1800s while America’s trees were in the process of being slashed by the millions.
In America there were two natural philosophers, writers, and poets during the 1800s who would carry the baton from across the Atlantic Ocean to the new shores. They are the American tag team of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. They would be America’s own home grown version of the Romantics. Emerson would write Nature in 1836 and Thoreau would write Walden or Life in the Woods in 1854. Both should be mandatory reading for any red blooded flag waving freedom loving American. Both Emerson and Thoreau would serve as a couple of flashing red beacons sitting atop the forested mountains of America. They would call for return to the beauty of nature and help forever change our consciousness with respect to nature and our forests.
The Scientific Revolution, The Age of Enlightenment, and Romanticism were cultural movements that took decades to germinate and take off. All three were massively steeped in the human understanding and love for the natural world. The coalescence of these three movements would help create our new state of consciousness with respect to our natural world and forests.
The coalescence of these three movements just so happened to coincide with August T. Dowd’s discovery in 1852 of the ancient and towering sequoia trees in northern California. After the Sonora Herald published Dowd’s account of his discovery of the ancient trees, the world all of a sudden took notice, because it truly cared about the natural world and its beauty. By the mid 1850s the trees would become a point of national American pride. America has the oldest, biggest and best trees daggumit.
This would mark the beginning of new radical environmental ideas. Ideas of environmental stewardship, conservation of our natural world, preserving the beauty of nature for the sake of beauty. The idea that it is perfectly normal to a have deep and profound love for nature. That the ideal of preserving nature for the greater good for future generations could in fact come before the ideal of making enormous profits for a select few.
On June 30, 1864 Abraham Lincoln would sign “The Yosemite Valley and Big Tree Grant” that would protect the ancient trees and the surrounding natural beauty “for public use, resort, and recreation inalienable for all time.” The stroke of his pen was the precursor to every national park, state park, wild game land preservation in the country. It was the first time the government stepped in to preserve our natural landscape and its trees instead of bowing to corporate profit making.
From there, over the next decades and into the 20th century, our country would move into a new direction of environmental preservation. Its effects are even felt to this day in the 21st century. We would go on to create whole systems of parks, protected game lands, and national and state forest management areas that people are out likely leisurely exploring at this very moment you are reading this sentence.
To me, Ken Burns is the ultimate master of story telling. His The National Parks: America’s Best Idea is profoundly moving and should be required viewing for everyone. It tells the story our nation’s beauty in interviews and pictures that will likely never be surpassed.
It’s a story of us and our country and our relationship with nature.
Do I want to live a country that casts dominion over the land and all living things, or do I want to live in a country that tries to work with nature and treat it well?
To me, the first option just sounds like I’m being an asshole.
The choice is easy. I’ll choose the second.