Environment and History: The Taming of Nature in the USA and South Africa

By William Beinart; Peter Coates | Go to book overview

3

The fall and rise of trees: forests, felling and forestry

Thick and intricate forest composed of a diverse range of hard and softwood species often dominates mental pictures of the North American physical environment. This leafy image is reinforced by recent films such as The Last of the Mohicans, based on the J. Fenimore Cooper novel (1826) set on the wilderness frontier of upstate New York, with its canopy of birch, beech, maple, hemlock, fir and spruce. By contrast, trees (and forests especially) rarely spring to mind when one pictures the South African natural world. Southern Africa does in fact support a large variety of trees and bushes, especially hardwoods, numbering nearly 900 species. But dense forest of big trees is the least extensive type of vegetational cover. The most heavily wooded areas were also those enjoying the highest rainfall—the sub-tropical forest along the east coast and the southern coast of the Cape.

Conventional statistics reinforce the notion of a sharp divergence between the proportion of forested land in our respective regions. Only a quarter of 1 per cent of South Africa remains under indigenous forest while little more than an additional 1 per cent is afforested in commercial plantations. Over 40 per cent of the land area of the contiguous United States, on the other hand, is estimated to have been wooded in 1492. The proportion of land under tree cover in the United States today amounts to a third—a figure well up on that of the early twentieth century. Yet we should look behind images and stark statistics. In the United States, trees have been—and remain—the dominant form of vegetation east of the Mississippi. The Pacific Northwest, which includes the world’s biggest temperate rainforest in the Alaska panhandle, the Californian coastal ranges and slopes of the Sierra Nevada, are also heavily timbered. But notwithstanding these and lesser exceptions, many parts of the trans-Mississippi West are either treeless desert, semi-desert or grassland. In South Africa, the extensive Karoo region, as well as much of the highveld, has no forests, but the

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