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Group Efforts: seeing history through the trees


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Whenever Western Civilization has stumbled across some unfamiliar living thing, it's sorted it into one of four categories. Whether it's a plant or animal, bigger or smaller than we are, it's always something to be (1) feared, (2) consumed, (3) domesticated, or (4) worshiped.

During the 500 or so years since European explorers first came to North America, the continent's trees have spent time in each of the four bins. They've been scary, primeval sentinels on a forbidding landscape; they've paved the way for western expansion; they've graced our parks and country estates; and they've become beloved, huggable icons. That's a lot in just a few centuries, especially considering that they had evolved undisturbed for millions of years before we got here.

This history is detailed in the exhibit "From Forest to Park: America's Heritage of Trees," a joint effort of the Newberry Library and the Morton Arboretum marking the 75th anniversary of the Lisle tree museum. More than 150 rare books, magazines, and prints are displayed in mostly chronological order, allowing viewers to track changing attitudes. "We go from the endless forest to a realization of the need to protect and preserve the small forests that are left," says Ruth Hamilton, exhibits officer at the Newberry. She developed the show with the arboretum's head librarian, Michael Stieber, who envisions the exhibit as a "look at American history as something other than politics."

Starting with a 1553 book on conifers, the show covers a lot of ground. Early on, North American trees were thought to be a limitless treasure, "growing gold," says Stieber. When French explorer Jacques Cartier and his crew were afflicted with scurvy in the mid-1500s, they were cured by a vitamin C-rich tea they brewed from the foliage of a North American native species that was later named the "tree of life," or arborvitae. Later, in 1614, John Smith (costar of the Pocahontas story) wrote to English investors predicting that the timber-rich continent would become a battleground among economic interests and advising immediate action. He was right: In 1779 future French revolutionary leader Jacques Pierre Brissot de Warville informed his countrymen that they'd better jump into the North American lumber business before England got too far ahead.

Books, pamphlets, and prints track the growth of the logging industry, especially along the routes of the railroads. A chart prepared for the War Department in 1853-'54 maps the dominant species along a route between Fort Smith, Arkansas, and San Pedro, California. The trail would later become the Southern Pacific Railroad, and many of the trees would be used along its route. The 1880 U.S. Census counted trees as well as people. But, says Hamilton, "they're counting cords of wood per acre--the value is in cut trees. It's very clear what the mentality was."

By then vast tracts of nature had given way to cities and towns, especially in the east. The continent's forests, which had once seemed so endless, were plainly not. Americans began to feel nostalgic about their shrinking woodlands, leading to the development of city and national parks, local forest preserves, and the creation of Arbor Day. Julius Sterling Morton, a Nebraska businessman and politician who became secretary of agriculture under Grover Cleveland, launched the holiday in 1872 as a way to encourage his fellow Nebraskans to plant trees on the sun-parched plains there. His son Joy Morton moved to Chicago, made a fortune in salt, and continued the tree-hugging tradition by establishing the arboretum on his country estate in 1922.

"From Forest to Park: America's Heritage of Trees" runs through March 14 at the Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton. Admission is free; call 312-255-3700 for more information.

--Dennis Rodkin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): poster photo courtesy Sterling Morton Library, Morton Arboretum.

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