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A Natural History of Trees: of Eastern and Central North America

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One of two genuine classics of American nature writing now in paperback; the other is A Natural History of Western Trees.


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One of two genuine classics of American nature writing now in paperback; the other is A Natural History of Western Trees.

30 review for A Natural History of Trees: of Eastern and Central North America

  1. 5 out of 5

    Roy Lotz

    Every day, for about two months, I arrived home from work, picked up this book, and, weather permitting, sat down on my back porch. There, to the sound of leaves lazily swaying in the breeze, I let the stress built up from the day ease away, as I lost myself in these pages, pausing occasionally to look up at the two giant tulip trees that flank my back yard like sentinels. And as I looked from book to tree, and from tree to book, I often couldn’t decide which was more lovely. Some years ago—nev Every day, for about two months, I arrived home from work, picked up this book, and, weather permitting, sat down on my back porch. There, to the sound of leaves lazily swaying in the breeze, I let the stress built up from the day ease away, as I lost myself in these pages, pausing occasionally to look up at the two giant tulip trees that flank my back yard like sentinels. And as I looked from book to tree, and from tree to book, I often couldn’t decide which was more lovely. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having no money in my purse, and too much time on my hands, I decided that I would teach myself something about the leafy part of the world. I had always enjoyed trees, found peace in their summertime splendor, and beauty in their bare branches in winter. So I picked up an old guide book, and headed out in the forest behind my house. What was before homogenous green revealed itself to be a tapestry of species, each with their own unique charms. But sad to say, after the coming fall denuded these trees, I lost the habit. After I could identify nearly every tree, it became less interesting. For I felt that I hadn’t achieved any substantial knowledge. I didn’t know anything about the evolution, the biology, the anatomy. My knowledge was purely verbal. This nagged me for some time. So when I heard about this book, and read the many glowing reviews online, I snatched it up. For many months, it sat on my bookshelf, taunting me, daring me, defying me to work up enough nerve to read a 600 page book about trees. But as soon as I opened its pages, I found that my fears were misplaced, for this book is a pure delight. This shouldn’t be titled a “natural history” of trees. There is not much science in it. Nor is this book a guide book. For one, it’s too big and heavy to be conveniently carried around; and its pages are not color-coded to easily find species. Besides, it doesn’t have any color photographs, which are the easiest way to identify a new species. Rather, this book is a collection of essays on trees in the American imagination. It is an exploration, species by species, of the ways that particular trees have played a role in our country’s history. Peattie is one of those people who seem to have learned more than a lifetime could allow. He quotes often from obscure books of American pioneers, from journals and letters, from the earliest explorers to this continent, and occasionally from literature. He know the properties of each separate type of wood, and what they are good for—cabinets, canoes, ship masts, fence posts, crates, railway ties, tool handles, gun stocks, wagon wheel hubs, or simply pulp for paper. He has spent enough time speaking to lumbermen to tell us how they classify trees (often in highly inaccurate ways, because they only care about how the wood will be used). But most important of all, he has scoured the continent for species, traveling up mountains, through valleys, down rivers in canoes, finding trees hidden in swamps and hugging rocks at high altitudes. He has tasted their fruits, crushed their leaves, scratched their bark, smelled their flowers, fallen asleep in their shade. He has climbed them, watched them swaying in the distance, looked mournfully on as old trees were felled, and smiled as he noticed a new baby birch sprouting in the sunlight. This knowledge is compressed into a series of short essays, all masterpieces of taste, brevity, and eloquence. Indeed, for a book about trees, the level of writing is almost absurd. The most magnificent display of color in all the kingdom of plants is the autumnal foliage of the trees of North America. Over them all, over the clear light of the Aspens and Mountain Ash, over the leaping flames of Sumac and the hell-fire flickerings of poison ivy, over the war-paint of the many Oaks, rise the colors of one tree—the Sugar Maple—in the shout of a great army. Clearest yellow, richest crimson, tumultuous scarlet, or brilliant orange—the yellow pigments shining through the over-painting of the red—the foliage of Sugar Maple at once outdoes and unifies the rest. It is like the mighty, marching melody that rides upon the crest of some symphonic weltering sea and, with its crying song, gives meaning to all the calculated dissonance of the orchestra. At first, it is a bit funny to read passages like these. It seems like so much spilled ink over a rather ordinary topic, a ridiculous display of sentiment over a hunk of wood. But, if you are like me, you will soon discover that Peattie is not being silly, not at all. Rather, he is simply seeing the beauty in something that we often overlook. The case of trees is proof that anything can be rendered ordinary through overexposure. Imagine if you had never before seen a tree, and suddenly you found yourself standing under a great oak, its leaves an autumn red. It would be unbelievable, magnificent, glorious, heavenly! It seems that Peattie never quite lost this. He is constantly moved to rapture at the sight of a spectacular tree. And therein lies the value of this book; for if you spend some time with Peattie, maybe you too will see the world with fresh eyes once again.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Tim Weed

    A lyrical and surprisingly gripping field guide to the noble and beautiful beings which abide here. Written in 1948 by an eloquent and deeply appreciative human naturalist. Highly recommended for anyone who cherishes trees and wants to know more about them!

  3. 4 out of 5

    Mark Desrosiers

    This was one of my most exciting random library discoveries: a book about trees (zzzzzzzz) written by someone whose prose sparkles and snaps like M.F.K. Fisher or Gore Vidal. Each tree species is reborn in Donald Culross Peattie's geeky trivia, vivid purple prose, and poetic license. He's also a connoisseur of history and wood, so Antiques Roadshow fans will drool over some of these entries. Here he is on the Butternut: "When, all unwary, you pick up a Butternut's fruit where it has fallen on the This was one of my most exciting random library discoveries: a book about trees (zzzzzzzz) written by someone whose prose sparkles and snaps like M.F.K. Fisher or Gore Vidal. Each tree species is reborn in Donald Culross Peattie's geeky trivia, vivid purple prose, and poetic license. He's also a connoisseur of history and wood, so Antiques Roadshow fans will drool over some of these entries. Here he is on the Butternut: "When, all unwary, you pick up a Butternut's fruit where it has fallen on the ground after a windy autumn night, you learn your first botanical lesson about this tree, for the sticky, rusty hairs of the husk leave a brown stain upon the fingers. You try to wipe it off but find that you cannot, nor can you scrub it off; only time will cleanse your hand. For this is no ordinary stain; it is a genuine dye. Even the white inner bark yields a yellow or orange dye that has been used for a century and a half by the southern mountaineers in dying their homespuns. During the Civil War, the backwoods Confederate troops were sometimes dressed in homespun 'uniforms' of butternut-dyed cloth, and they became known as 'Butternuts'. So the very name of this tree has become a synonym for tattered glory." [I should also mention the many beautiful engravings in this book by Paul Landacre, who died in 1963 from complications of a botched suicide attempt.]

  4. 5 out of 5

    Andrea

    I first read parts of this book when I was 12 (about 1976) and recently re-acquired a copy. Too many people have previously examined and praised this classic for me to add too much. The writing is elegant and the information is unusual, engaging and idiosyncratic. In my opinion, there is less really high quality natural history being written today. Much of what passes for it is more personal memoir or implied argument (Barbara Kingsolver, for example) or rather ironic in tone (David Quammen type I first read parts of this book when I was 12 (about 1976) and recently re-acquired a copy. Too many people have previously examined and praised this classic for me to add too much. The writing is elegant and the information is unusual, engaging and idiosyncratic. In my opinion, there is less really high quality natural history being written today. Much of what passes for it is more personal memoir or implied argument (Barbara Kingsolver, for example) or rather ironic in tone (David Quammen type). Peattie is the real deal, mixing human history with vivid description of natural phenomenon. The focus is on his subject, rather than his own views, but his love and appreciation for trees and their crucial role in human society comes through in every page. This book should not be missed by anyone who wants to understand, not just identify, trees.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Tuck

    funny old thing this. each tree gets about 2-3 pages with the usual physical descriptions of leaves, bark fruit, habitats, ranges, many with very nice pencil drawings. but what is really cool about peattie's books are all the unique and entertaining stories and histories he digs up about the tree types, like the chestnut oak, pretty much obliterated from its range (maine to alabama more or less) because leather tanners used its bark as it has highest tannins. so they'd strip the bark and just le funny old thing this. each tree gets about 2-3 pages with the usual physical descriptions of leaves, bark fruit, habitats, ranges, many with very nice pencil drawings. but what is really cool about peattie's books are all the unique and entertaining stories and histories he digs up about the tree types, like the chestnut oak, pretty much obliterated from its range (maine to alabama more or less) because leather tanners used its bark as it has highest tannins. so they'd strip the bark and just leave the wood to rot, though it turns out it was some of the best for lumber there was, next to white oak. i think also has titles about trees in west north amer, and a newer latest edition combining the two books. if you ever need references and stories about trees, this is THE go-to source.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Catherine

    This most beautiful book was given to my by a friend who found it at an estate sale. It is now one of my most treasured possessions. The author writes about these trees as if he's talking about his dearest family and friends. How I'd love to get my hands on a copy of Mr. Peattie's book on Western Trees of North America!

  7. 4 out of 5

    Patrick

    At first glance, an unwieldy tree guide covering a huge swath of diverse landscapes. No photographic depictions of key characteristics. No range maps. But none of that matters, because each species is deftly illuminated in Peattie’s poetic essays. It does what other field guides cannot, that is, shine a light on the individual personalities of trees. Peattie gives you something to hold onto. A way to know the trees on a level more intimate than phylogenetic classifications. I meandered through th At first glance, an unwieldy tree guide covering a huge swath of diverse landscapes. No photographic depictions of key characteristics. No range maps. But none of that matters, because each species is deftly illuminated in Peattie’s poetic essays. It does what other field guides cannot, that is, shine a light on the individual personalities of trees. Peattie gives you something to hold onto. A way to know the trees on a level more intimate than phylogenetic classifications. I meandered through this one for two years, and it was always a delight. Even in the dead of winter I could take a walk through the Appalachian spring. Peattie studied French poetry before becoming a botanist and he brings that poetic eye to the natural sciences in a way that is so refreshing. Peattie’s lyrical renderings are illustrated through the woodcuts of Paul Landacre, which while not strictly conveying the technical aspects a photograph or even a botanical illustration would, contribute by clothing these beings in a mythic (almost mystic) nobility. The finest nature writing I have read. 10/10 White Pine “When the male flowers bloomed in these illimitable pineries, thousands of miles of forest aisle were swept with the golden smoke of this reckless fertility, and great storms of pollen were swept from the primeval shores far out to sea and to the superstitious sailor seemed to be ‘raining brimstone’ on the deck.” -p.4 Prickly Ash (Toothache Tree) “And one whiff of the lemony odor of the fruits of the Toothache-tree, or one nibble on their skin -- which first completely benumbs the palate and then fiercely bites it -- will inform your sense that you are making the acquaintance of something with an exotic flavor.” -p.428 Pitch Pine “The cones tend to persist on the tree, not as living unopened cones, as in Jack and Pocosin Pines, but dead and black, as if hundreds of black birds were clustered on the boughs. Or, after long weathering, they turn gray like the color of an unpainted, abandoned house down in the Jersey Pine barrens, while at a distance the trunk seems to be black.” -p.21

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jacob Jordan

    I didnt have the attention span to finish it but I enjoyed it thoroughly.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Lauren

    ACK!! Too much information! But, it's perfect if that's what you're looking for. Lengthy descriptions of each tree within each category, brief description of the categories, lots of nice drawings to help tree-spotters spot trees... Plus, any book that contains the phrase, "juicy thick flesh surrounding the tiny nutlets" is automatically okay by me.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Alan

    Re-reading... such well-written essays! And love the account of the American Revolution being provoked by the crown's heavy-handed ways with white pine mast trees...

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    This sounds delicious!

  12. 4 out of 5

    Cws

    636Pea

  13. 4 out of 5

    Alex

  14. 4 out of 5

    Bert

  15. 5 out of 5

    Matthew

  16. 5 out of 5

    Denovich

  17. 4 out of 5

    Cliff Davis

  18. 5 out of 5

    John

  19. 4 out of 5

    Nathan

  20. 5 out of 5

    Echinops

  21. 5 out of 5

    Slowman

  22. 4 out of 5

    Amanda Foster

  23. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jkentlayman

  25. 5 out of 5

    Efrona Mor

  26. 5 out of 5

    Melissa Mcavoy

  27. 5 out of 5

    S

  28. 5 out of 5

    Coley

  29. 5 out of 5

    Eliot Foulds

  30. 5 out of 5

    Paola Ortis

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