In one of those career-defining moments that pops up by accident and never quite seems to exit the public consciousness, Barbara Walters asked Katharine Hepburn during a notorious 1981 TV interview just what kind of tree she'd like to be.
Never mind that Hepburn had originally brought up the whole business. The damage was done. The tree query has lived on as an allegedly egregious example of the pitfalls of the touchy-feely celebrity interview, in which wacky or insipid questions proliferate.
Yet a new book by Eric Rutkow — one that has more to do with holly trees than Hollywood — may inadvertently rescue Walters from mild journalistic purgatory, from the fate of having once uttered what is widely described as the World's Dumbest Question.
Rutkow's book, "American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation" (Scribner), an enthralling and fact-rich account of the nation's history based on its relationship with timber, makes Walters' question seem positively inspired.
"How easy it is to forget that much of American history has been defined by trees," writes Rutkow, a graduate student of history at Yale who has worked as an environmental lawyer. "No other country was populated because of its trees quite like the United States. Nowhere else has the culture been so intimately associated with wood … America has some of the most spectacular tree resources on the planet."
He adds: "The United States is home to the world's biggest trees (the giant sequoias), the world's tallest trees (the coastal redwoods), and the world's oldest trees (the bristlecone pines). The biggest single organism on Earth is also a tree species — and is also American — a stand of quaking aspens in Utah, known as Pando; it reproduces clonally, weighs 6,600 tons, and is tens of thousands if not millions of years old."
All of which makes the argument that "What kind of tree would you be?" should become the standard red-carpet question at all celebrity affairs, edging out the previous favorite: "Who are you wearing?"
Rutkow's book doesn't stop at science. It also delves into history, politics, business, sociology, literature and popular culture, as it traces the way that trees have shaped the nation's destiny. From quarrels about conservation and global warming to myths and legends based on trees starring the likes of Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan and George Washington — accused chopper of that cherry tree — trees have been front and center in our national imagination.
"Trees," Rutkow states, "are the loudest silent figures in America's complicated history."
The author introduces some unlikely tree-huggers, including President Franklin Roosevelt — whose favorite trees, Walters might like to know, were Douglas fir and Norway pine, and who, as a young man, planted more than a thousand seedlings on his family's estate in upstate New York.
"Tree planting wasn't just an activity for Roosevelt; it provided something of an identity as well," Rutkow notes. "For many years, when voting in Hyde Park, he listed his profession as 'tree grower' instead of 'politician' or 'lawyer' … Trees were one of his favorite topics of conversation." Later, members of Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps planted some 3 billion trees.
Rutkow is clearly enraptured by his topic and, like another great popular historian, David McCullough, has a knack for making the reader enraptured as well. He tells history's story as just that: a story, not a boring lecture stuffed with dry statistics. Trees matter to this author, and he sets himself the task of making them matter to readers, too. Trees, he explains, give us building materials, medicine, fuel, pulp from which to make paper, seeds and shade. And that's just for starters.
He is particularly skilled at describing the dire threats to trees, from the blight that decimated the chestnut population to the Dutch elm disease that toppled the elm. The onset of the latter is especially galling to read about, because it might have been slowed or stopped in Europe, before it reached the U.S. Just after World War I, a young Dutch graduate student identified the fungus — spread by a beetle — that was causing the leaves on trees in Holland to turn brown and wither.
That student was Maria Beatrice Schwarz. Because of sexist attitudes toward female scientists, her findings were slow to be accepted, and the elm-bark beetle enjoyed a 10-year head start. It "marched through Europe like an invincible army," Rutkow writes. By the 1980s, at least 77 million elm trees in the U.S. had been lost to the disease.
The author's narrative vigor rarely flags, and "American Canopy" is entertaining and valuable. The only moment that gives pause occurs toward the end, when he discusses the global warming issue. In a derisive and unduly simplistic description of President George W. Bush's attitude toward climate change, Rutkow refers to "President Bush, the self-appointed Decider."
Self-appointed? Bush was twice elected to the highest office in the land. One may agree or disagree with his policies and actions — but there was nothing "self-appointed" about Bush. He won the job, just as Barack Obama won it in 2008.
Otherwise, "American Canopy" is an energetic, illuminating book, and it ends on a rising note of beauty: "Daily life seems alarmingly virtual. Trees provide the antidote. The smell of pine needles, the crunch of autumn leaves, the roughness of bark are all reminders that we are part of nature."
And just in case Walters ever asks — I think I'd want to be a sycamore. How about you?
JULIA KELLER, the Chicago Tribune's cultural critic, won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.