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A: Boston, Massachusetts, United States

George B. Emerson Begins the American Conservation Movement

Title page of Emerson's Report on the forests of Massachusetts

Title page of an extensively foxed copy of Emerson's report

A Report on the Trees and Shrubs Growing Naturally in the Forests of Massachusetts issued by American educator and president of the Boston Society of Natural HistoryGeorge B. Emerson, in 1846 was one of the earliest pleas for "a wiser economy" in the use of forests, and a pioneering treatise on conservation. This non-technical guide to the state's principal trees grew out of a zoological and botanical survey of Massachusetts headed by Emerson.

" 'The cunning foresight of the Yankee,' George Emerson complained,' seems to desert him when takes the axe in hand.' The wanton destruction of the state's woodlands was endangering not only wildlife and the ecological order, but the very basis of the human economy as well. It is not generally remembered today that until 1870 the United States took the vast part of its energy and materials from the forest. For 250 years, from the first settlement to the advent of steel fabrication, America lived in an age of wood. The people of Massachusetts, numbering almost 750,000 when Emerson wrote his book, had to take from the forests almost every product they made: houses furniture, ships, wagons. sleighs, bridges, brooms,whips, shovels, hoes. casks, boxes. baskets, bootjacks. From the maples they got sugar, from hickories and chestnuts a good supply of nuts. Most basic was their cordwood for winter fuel; according to Emerson, this fuel, costing an average of four dollars a cord, was annually worth five million dollars. The railroads required another 55,000 cords, chiefly pine, for their locomotives. Altogether, then, the state could not have survived without a steady, cheap supply of trees. Even the bark was needed for tanning leather, while sumac and barberry roots supplied valuable dyes to the cloth industry. Yet each year the forests were recklessly cut away, and no provision was made to replant and protect them. By the 1840s Massachusetts was already importing great quantities of both hard- and softwood from Maine and New York; and Emerson warned that 'even those foreign resources are fast failing us.'

"At best, then, the practical art of woodland management existed only at a primitive level in New England. In 1838 Emerson canvassed some of the more knowledgeable people of Massachusetts to gather a fund of folk wisdom for the future. Two chief principles emerged from his survey to guide the woodsman in cutting: for timber, select only the more mature trees, but for fuel, cut the entire woodland 'clean and close.' In the latter case the consensus of opinion was that the forest would renew itself enough to be profitably cut again every twenty-three years, though the average would vary widely from species to species. 'When the trees are principally oak, white, black, and scarlet, the forest may be clean cut three times in a century,' Emerson noted. After each cut, some of his correspondents maintained, the old stumps would sprout anew and thus perpetuate the oak woods. But in the experience of others, this seldom happened. Instead, the pines would spring up to replace the oak grove, or vice versa. It had long been a vexing problem for the state's farmers to explain why such a succession occurred, and when one's livelihood depended on whether it was oak or pine one had to sell, a reliable answer was vital. According to some countrymen, the cause lay in a magical spontaneous generation that no one could predict. Emerson, though, was sure that by some natural means the older woods must perpetually contain its successor species, either as seeds lying domant in the soil or as small trees growing unobserved on the forest floor" (Worster, Nature's Economy. A History of Ecological Ideas. 2nd ed. [1994] 68-69).

In 1875 Emerson issued a second edition of his treatise in 2 volumes, doubling the length of the text and including many more illustrations including fine chromolithographs of leaves, flowers, and seeds of numerous species.

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