I just finished reading John Knott’s Imagining the Forest: Narratives of Michigan and the Upper Midwest (2012, University of Michigan Press), and thoroughly enjoyed his flowing narration of the path our forests have taken over the past 400 years. He uses a series of novels, books, and periodicals (both fiction and nonfiction) written during different periods to provide images of not just what our forests were like ecologically, but how they were perceived by those who lived in them.
His book begins not with the northwards retreat of the glaciers (when our forests truly began to be forests), but with the Ojibwa who utilized forest resources in seasonal movements and traditions. These traditions served them well when the first fur-trappers established themselves in the area, and the Ojibwa and traders formed integrated communities and relied on intact forests to support their trade in resources.
However, as the timber boom spread from Lower to Upper Michigan, the forests were stripped and sold to support urban expansion in Chicago, Detroit and beyond. His descriptions of the fires that raged out of control in the 1870′s, destroying top soil and villages, are difficult to imagine. The forest residues that remained after the logs were transported away from the area, combined with an intense series of summer droughts, seared the Upper Peninsula so completely in some areas that the forest has yet to return. These same drought conditions also fueled the Great Chicago Fire in the same year.
After the timber boom, government efforts to encourage agriculture on the near-barren soil failed, and reforestation began. The UP began to be marketed as a vacation destination, in the hopes of developing a new tourism-based economy.
Knott concludes his book with a discussion of the opportunities that our National Forests, Wilderness Areas, and State Parks provide us: hints of what our forests were like before the timber boom in the late 1800′s.
This book is a great read for both natives and newcomers; I recommend bringing it along on your next camping trip in the Porkies!!