In his inaugural address, President Obama prioritized a topic often swept under the rug in politics: climate change. Though his commitment to addressing such an issue may seem like relatively uncharted waters for a governing politician — the term “tree hugger” only first came to be in 1965 — empowered environmentalists have been around for centuries. Just ask New School art historian Laura Auricchio. Trees of the 18th century are her latest academic focus — and the topic of “tree huggers,” the latest episode from Research Radio, a podcast series from the New School in New York that tells the university’s stories of academic inquiry.
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Auricchio, co-editor of the recently released book, Invaluable Trees, first stumbled upon receipts for trees from Marquis de Lafayette while researching another topic. Later, she found similar notes on exchanging trees from Thomas Jefferson. Then there were the letters, also dating back to the 18th century, between Lafayette and George Washington ... some on caring for trees and exchanging specimens across the Atlantic.
“It was incredibly eye-opening,” Auricchio says. “All of these founding fathers—Washington, Jefferson, Lafayette — took their trees very seriously.” Indeed, more than a strictly personal interest for these revolutionaries, the sustainability and vitality of trees were very much a part of the politics of the times.
“Both the French and the American governments explicitly used trees not only as part of their diplomatic missions but also as a means of influencing aspects of culture,” Auricchio says. According to Invaluable Trees, French authors even proposed filling arboretums with species from immigrants’ native lands for purposes of comfort and to facilitate immigrants’ assimilation into French society.
Invaluable Trees is a collection of essays focusing on the varied uses and meanings of trees in the 18th century. Articles range from musings on what the impact on the slave trade would have been had Americans favored maple sugar over sugar cane, to stories of neighborhood competitions in which enormous tress were whittled into passageways for carriages.
Beyond offering historical anecdotes, the book reveals an 18th-century awareness of the environment and the need for conservation that might seem far ahead of its time.
“We sometimes think we’re coming to things for the first time, and we’re actually not,” says Auricchio of the modern-day environmental movement and the president’s interest in the matter. “Conservation and deforestation are issues people have been grappling with for centuries.”
So if the phrase “tree hugger” calls to mind a dreadlocked hippie longing for the 60s and 70s, think again — and find some space for George Washington in your definition.
Learn more about Invaluable Trees here.
An earlier version of this article appeared on The New School’s blog.