Book of the Week: The History of American Tree-Huggery

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If you are an American, you know who Smokey the Bear is. He’s the bear in the ranger hat who has been adamantly spreading the same message for 70+ years: “Only YOU can prevent forest fires” — and he’s been pretty successful.

According to polls, 99% of us recognize Smokey and apparently get the message. But do we? If we pick apart the philosophical underpinnings of this simple campaign slogan, we come to a place of personal reflection:

 “What does Smokey mean by only I can prevent forest fires? Don’t I prevent them every day by not starting them in the first place? Isn’t this enough? What does this bear really want from ME?”

Smokey might want more. Even though we know who Smokey is, do we really understand his message and all of the responsibility that it entails? The recent fires that are stripping the natural beauty in the state of Colorado as we speak, remind us of our own fragility and the havoc that one small spark can create for America’s forests. It’s time to revisit Smokey’s historical origins in early American forestry and the deeper meaning of his message.

Smokey the Bear was born out of necessity in 1944. A child of the the United States Forest Service, the National Association of State Foresters, and the Ad Council, all of which were founded in the earlier half of the 20th century. The important historical question to ask ourselves is: Who was protecting America’s forests before Smokey and these federally funded institutions?

Answer: This task fell to state run wildlife, game and fishery commissions sprinkled across the nation. Today we highlight one such commission, who was “trailblazing” the field of Forestry (pun intended). The State of New York Forest, Fish and Game Commission was spreading the fire prevention word long before cute and cuddly Smokey came along–albeit in a less concise fashion.(see above) Contrary to what one might think, their public awareness campaign was incredibly successful–and on a global scale too. This particular Commission was a formidable forestry force in its heyday. The gentlemen that ran the State of New York Forest, Fish and Game Commission were respected as top experts in forest preservation, conservation and study. Additionally, their Annual Report became, like Smokey, extremely popular and the key to their public awareness campaigns. These Annual Reports were so sought after and well-received by naturalists and the general public alike, that the Commission could never fulfill the orders for the publication. If you were to visit the Imperial library of Japan you will find a full run of the serial sitting on the shelves–that is how far reaching and influential this publication was. Even Japanese royalty coveted the tomes.

This is why we have chosen it for this week’s Book of the Week; now you may enjoy what so many others couldn’t. And while the report may not be as famous as Smokey the Bear is today, at the time the publication’s popularity could be equated with a New York times bestseller. You might be wondering how a small State Commission became an international player and authority in the budding field of American Forestry? The answer lies in the annual reports themselves. Each one is a cornucopia of natural beauty: whimsical yet reflective articles, photos of forestial scenes, colored plates of perch, woodpeckers, moose and all of the wondrous biodiversity found beneath the tree canopies of New York’s Adirondacks and Catskills. A few BHL favorites for your viewing pleasure:

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As one can see, the annual report seemed to be a labor of love for the commissioners in New York. If you dive into some of the articles, it becomes obvious that these men were on a mission to raise Forestry’s status from a mere vocation back to its rightful place as an ancient Teutonic art. One such man, Judd Northrup spoke of the Forest and her mysteries with poetic longing:

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Judd on the forest: “all the mysteries of sound, the low murmur of the pine needles, the sweet odors of soil and vegetation, the silences, the glittering waters, the dark-hued pools, the hermit thrush’s notes at evening – a hundred other things we can name and label; but beyond all these there is something like the secret of what is life itself, which no mortal has ever solved. The humblest blade of grass, the tiniest insect, hides this sublime secret of life, and laughs at man’s ineffectual effort to reach the mystery by observation, analogy or analysis.”– Judd Northrup, United States Circuit Court Commissioner, 1897

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From Judd’s description one can’t help but think of the Forest as the rugged man’s (and woman’s) holy place: commune with Her and enter that which is sublime. Stripping you down to your naked soul, Her majesty will both humble and uplift you– at least that’s what how we interpreted it here at BHL. These naturalists took their task to heart and pursued their mission with religious fervor. Their early successes proved that public awareness and strong legislation against human carelessness were the keys to forest conservation and more specifically the prevention of forest fires. The Commission in New York was even given the legal right to confiscate neglected lands from those heedless towns without fire-wardens–for the greater good of all. These early efforts paved the way for a nationally recognized Smokey the Bear campaign and subsequent legislation.

Perhaps, the most important legacy that the Commission’s Annual report leaves us with, is that the deeper meaning behind Smokey’s words lies in the superficial knowledge of this slogan. Paradoxically profound, yes! However, in this case, by simply uttering the phrase you become aware. It’s this simple self-awareness in Nature that is the primary key to preventing forest fires. Cleaning up after oneself; putting out camp fires, cigarettes and grills; and leaving no flammable item behind is what we can do to prevent fires on a personal level. So in a sense yes, most of us are doing great! It’s just those few careless folks that can destroy so much in such a small amount of time that we are worried about. On that note, I’m sure Smokey would love it if we vote for harsher penalties for arson, donate to forest conservation organizations, and participate in local forest clean-ups. Do what you can. If you aren’t already convinced, then take a hike! Literally. Lose yourself in the woods this weekend and experience some of Commissioner Judd’s old fashioned tree-huggery for yourself. You may come back a forest conservation convert, bringing home a little piece of bliss that will last you a lifetime.

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JJ Dearborn (née Ford) is co-owner of the Makers Guild, Inc., a Design+Build firm focused on biophilic design solutions. Formerly, she served as the Digital Collections Librarian for the Biodiversity Heritage Library at Smithsonian Libraries and Digital Projects Librarian at Harvard University's Botany Libraries.