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Tanoak (N. densiflorus) is a resilient and common hardwood tree native to California and southwestern Oregon. Paradoxically, people's radically different perceptions of the tree have ranged from cash crop to treasured food plant to trash tree. Having studied the patterns of tanoak use and abuse for nearly twenty years, botanist Frederica Bowcutt uncovers a complex history of sociopolitical and economic factors affecting the tree's fate.
This common associate of coast redwood was known by many indigenous names, including in the Kashaya Pomo language, chishkale, which translates to "beautiful tree." As the source of nutritious acorns, tanoak remains important to Native Americans committed to maintaining traditional cultural practices. Many are working to revive indigenous burning practices that foster tanoak wellness.
From the mid-19th to early 20th centuries, tanoak bark was a lucrative source of the vegetable tannin used in leather production. However, resource depletion and increased global competition led to a tapering of bark harvesting by the 1920s and to its end in the early 21st century. Despite protests since the 1980s, tanoaks continue to be killed in industrial forests to favor reforestation with the currently more commercially valuable coast redwood and Douglas fir. As one nontoxic alternative, many foresters and northern California communities promote locally controlled and smaller-scale hardwood production using tanoak, which doesn't depend on clearcutting and herbicide use.
Today tanoak is experiencing massive die-offs due to sudden oak death despite more than a hundred years of plant quarantine laws and scientific forestry as well as decades of environmental regulations designed to safeguard our forests. Bowcutt examines the complex set of factors that set the stage for the tree's current ecological crisis. However, the appearance of some disease resistance in tanoak offers hope for the future, as does the emerging army of tanoak defenders, from plant pathologists and foresters to concerned citizens, including Native Americans. This well-researched book will appeal to readers interested in how economics and ecology intersect in tangible ways and how the resulting impacts on the land in turn impact local communities.
Watch a book trailer below:
Foreword by Frank Kanawha Lake
1. The Beautiful Tree
Frederica Bowcutt teaches botany in interdisciplinary programs at The Evergreen State College. She specializes in floristics, field plant ecology, and plant-centric environmental history.
"Bowcutt examines the history of the tanoak tree, bringing to life a rich story about how humans are connected to this beautiful yet unassuming tree [...] [T]his valuable book will be important for a broad audience."
"Bowcutt's account of the invaluable but imperiled tanoak is comprehensive and well organized [...] She provides a wealth of detail, citing hundreds of sources that enable engaged readers to further explore the tree's remarkable story [...] Anyone who reads Bowcutt's deeply affecting book will be prompted to add a new call to action: 'Save the Tanoaks'."
– Jerry Rohde, Humboldt Historian
"We may hope that one day a future edition of this nicely written, heavily referenced little book will conclude with a tale of successful restoration."
– Wendy L. Applequist, Economic Botany
"The book is an honorable treatment of Indigenous Peoples and accurately portrays their health struggles due to the loss of their ancestral diet, as well as their resilience in recreating their food systems. People with an interest in Native culture and lifeways, history, biodiversity, the environment or just fascinating reading will enjoy this book."
– Terri Hansen, Indian Country Today
"Especially good [...] Through the lens of the tanoak Bowcutt vividly brings home how carelessly and how rapidly our own species has exploited and manipulated nature, and how devastating our impacts have been [...] [The tanoak], as is so thoroughly documented in the book, should stimulate reflection on the ethics of how we use our power to change the natural world."
– Peter Crane, H-Environment
"A fascinating treatment of a tree that remains central to the region's Native American cultures but has little value to the timber industry [...] This is a model of how histories can deploy visuals as central storytelling tools [...] This is a fine addition to the literatures of historical ecology and forest history."
– Erik Loomis, Environmental History
"This book will be helpful for someone wanting a general overview of tanoak–conifer forest of southwestern Oregon and northern California. It could serve as a basis for, or as part of, a seminar or class on broadening the scope of forest management to include Native American cultural values in contemporary western U.S. forests."
– John Tappeiner, Northwest Science
"The book is a multifaceted and fascinating treatment of a tree whose history and cultural and ecological importance are certainly underappreciated. There are unexpected twists and turns in this tree's history that make this account important, complex, and compelling."
– Douglas Sackman, author of Orange Empire: California and the Fruits of Eden
"This book spells out the gravity of human-facilitated spread of pathogens and the limitations in the existing efforts to keep sudden oak death from spreading. The potential loss of this tree, one of California's most common hardwood species, is a presage of the loss of biodiversity all over the world."
– M. Kat Anderson, author of Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Resources
"This important book puts into historical context tanoak's current sudden oak death crisis."
– Susan Frankel, plant pathologist, Pacific Southwest Research Station, U.S. Forest Service