A Comparison of Scientific and Literary Perceptions of Pre-European Settlement Forests in Michigan

By Copenheaver, Carolyn A. | Michigan Academician, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview
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A Comparison of Scientific and Literary Perceptions of Pre-European Settlement Forests in Michigan

Copenheaver, Carolyn A., Michigan Academician


In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Americans viewed pre-European settlement forests as untouched preserves of large trees and abundant wildlife. Scientists have been testing this view of pre-European settlement forests for the past 75 years, and the idealized image does not match the historical data. Witness trees and bearing trees from the original land surveys record a dynamic pre-European settlement forest with disturbances creating a mosaic of old-growth, mature stands; juvenile forests; and open grasslands across the landscape. Although today's scientists have changed their perceptions of pre-European settlement forests, most literary descriptions either continue to reflect an idealized view of a dense primeval forest or describe an environment similar to present-day forest conditions. As environmental policy from the early twentieth century has shown, policymakers are often more persuaded by literature and art than by scientific publications. Until there is a closer match between science and literature or until scientists make a concerted effort to communicate to a nonscientific audience, forest policy will continue to be influenced by inaccurate ideals of pre-European settlement forests.


Americans since the late 1700s have been interested in the forests that covered their lands before European settlement. Part of this interest stems from the idealized portrayals of the New World's virgin forests in many nineteenth century American paintings and novels. Artworks from the Hudson River School, such as Thomas Doughty's In Nature's Wonderland, 1835, and Thomas Cole's Schroon Mountain, Adirondacks, 1838, depict a majestic, forested landscape with pristine lakes, picturesque mountains, and no human influences (Sweet 1945; Powell 1990). The themes of these artworks often expressed concern for the future management of the nation's resources (Roque 1987). Literary works from this time period depict a similar view of the idealized forest primeval which is best represented in Cooper's (1840/1980) description of a virgin New York state forest where

  the eye ranged over an ocean of leaves, glorious and rich in the
  varied but lively verdure of a generous vegetation, and shaded by the
  luxuriant tints that belong to the forty-second degree of latitude.
  The elm, with its graceful and weeping top, the rich varieties of the
  maple, most of the noble oaks of the American forest, with the
  broadleafed linden, known in the parlance of the country as the
  basswood, mingled their uppermost branches, forming one broad and
  seemingly interminable carpet of foliage that stretched away toward
  the setting sun, until it bounded the horizon by blending with the
  clouds (11).

In the early twentieth century, many foresters compared these characterizations of pre-European settlement forests to early twentieth century forests and warned the public about the "depletion of our virgin forests" (Pinchot 1910/1967) and the risk of a "timber famine so severe that its blighting effects will be felt in every household in the land" (Forest Service 1920). One of the most active advocates of reforestation was Joseph Rothrock, a former member of the Pennsylvania State Forestry Commission, who in 1915 threatened that "unless we reforest, Pennsylvania's highlands will wash to the oceans" (DeCoster 1995). Active lobbying for forest conservation by concerned foresters led to a public demand for reforestation and conservation regulations (van Hise 1910; Ise 1920/1972; Schamaltz 1972). Many forest policies enacted in the early twentieth century reflected a fear that the nation was irretrievably losing its primeval forests due to resource mismanagement. This concern originated from foresters incorrectly comparing early twentieth century forests with idealized literary and artistic descriptions of pre-European settlement forests.

Many of the conservation regulations from the early twentieth century called for foresters to restore the forests to their pre-European settlement, resource-rich condition.

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A Comparison of Scientific and Literary Perceptions of Pre-European Settlement Forests in Michigan


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