True Gardens of the Gods: Californian-Australian Environmental Reform, 1860-1930.
Ian Tyrrell's, True Gardens of the Gods: Californian-Australian Environmental Reform, 1860-1930 tells a series of interconnected stories about the exchange of trees, bugs, knowledge and dreams between California and Australia. In so doing, the author demonstrates the importance of the "Pacific exchange" in shaping the cultural landscapes of the two regions. Australians and Californians were drawn to one another by similar environments, expanding networks of communication, the perception that their societies occupied peripheral positions in the world economy, and most importantly, by similar historical patterns of development. In the 1870s, reformers in both places sought to transform societies shaped by gold mining, large-scale monocropping, and pastoralism into egalitarian societies based on small-scale agriculture and morally cleansing garden landscapes. The dreams and projects of these reform movements form the center of Tyrrell's story.
In California, visions of the garden landscape emerged in conjunction with the rise of horticulture in the Central Valley. Fruit growers such as Sarah and Ellwood Cooper criticized broad-acre wheat production for creating land monopolies, migrant (non-white) labor forces, and vast monocultures. In a departure from the wilderness ethic espoused by John Muir and the Sierra Club, these propertied, well-educated and largely Anglo reformers believed that local environments could be improved through the "acclimatization" (i.e., introduction) of useful, aesthetically pleasing plants from elsewhere. One of the places to which these idealistic "renovators of nature" turned in search of new species was Australia.
Among the introduced biota that would alter the Californian landscape were several species of eucalyptus, promoted both as ornamentals and for reforestation projects. Spurred on by the enthusiasm of Eliwood Cooper and real estate developer Abbot Kinney, eucalyptus planting became a "mania" in the 1870s as streets, farms, orchards and even the University of California's Berkeley campus were lined with gum trees. Investments in eucalyptus for lumber did not take off until the early 1900s, amid growing concern about a national timber shortage. But the U.S. market for eucalyptus hardwoods never approached that of Australia. Tyrrell argues that this can be explained primarily by changing timber markets and the regeneration of softwood forests in the United States (which ameliorated fears of a timber shortage). By the 1920s, demand for hardwoods declined as the construction trades turned to concrete and steel building materials. Also, labor costs associated with seeding eucalyptus further diminished their populari ty as a timber commodity. However, the eucalyptus did succeed in becoming an integral part of California's cultural landscape; by the 1920s, many observers assumed that the tree was a native, species.
Around the same time that the eucalyptus craze was taking root in the western United States, Australian-based forester John Ednie Brown began promoting the Monterey Pine of California as the key to transforming the arid Australian bush into lush forest. Not unlike the Californian proponents of acclimatization, Brown favored the Pine for a mixture of aesthetic and utilitarian reasons. Although his theories about the ability of tree plantings to transform the arid bush country into lush garden landscapes proved false, the Monterey Pine became extremely popular in southern Australia where it began to replace cut over stands of eucalyptus. In 1903, a growing surplus of Monterey Pine prompted the Australian government to build a sawmill. By the 1920s, the tree was widely cultivated in tree farms throughout much of southern Australia. Ironically then, the Monterey Pine, of little economic importance in California, became a valuable timber commodity in Australia. In contrast, the eucalyptus, an important timber spe cies in its native Australia, found a niche in California primarily as an ornamental shade tree.
Tyrrell's chapters on the eucalyptus and Monterey Pine highlight the value of his transnational perspective. Readers are able both to compare the fates of two introduced species in distinct environments and understand how the histories of the two species were interwoven by a similar set of ideas about resource management and landscapes. The author's portrait of the promoters of the Pacific exchange as morally complex people, motivated in part by their sense of aesthetics, is a refreshing change from historical actors driven by economic rationality. Tyrrell, who pays considerable attention to market forces, does not ignore economics; rather he demonstrates how the interaction of cultural, ecological and economic processes shaped both the motivations behind, and the often-unanticipated outcomes of, mixing biota.
Subsequent chapters devoted to the history of irrigation projects and biological pest control further demonstrate how the exchange of ideas and biota shaped landscapes in California and Australia, albeit in unintended ways. This is particularly true in the case of irrigation where Tyrrell warns against teleological readings of nineteenth century irrigation promoters' discourse by historians seeking to demonstrate the historical ties between irrigation and the formation of California agribusiness in the twentieth century. Tyrrell argues that irrigation appealed to middle class reformers because it fit into their larger visions of yeoman farming communities flourishing in renovated arid lands.
Comparing the failure of irrigation to fulfill these dreams in both Australia and California, Tyrrell concludes that changes in fresh fruit markets (lower prices, higher production) weakened the position of small-scale growers. Here, one would like to know more about how market forces beyond price fluctuations may have undermined small-scale cultivators. For example, did the greater emphasis on marketing lead to "quality" standards that compelled growers to rely more heavily on agricultural inputs, thereby increasing production costs and favoring highly capitalized enterprises? Another key question concerns the degree of social and economic stratification among fruit growers. Tyrrell states that reformers such as the Coopers were "neither the poorest nor the richest in California society," a definition that is much too broad to be analytically useful.
The greatest limitation of Tyrrell's framework is its tendency to operate primarily at the level of dreams and visions rather than on the ground. The author acknowledges the importance of class, ethnicity and gender in shaping ideas about landscapes, but readers are given few opportunities to see life on the farms where cross-cultural encounters and class dynamics were played out. Consequently, the reader has little sense of how field hands viewed the landscapes in which they worked. Tyrrell provides some intriguing glimpses of conflict between Asian laborers and their Anglo employers that lead one to wonder if competing ideas about what constituted a "garden" had as much to do with undermining middle class utopias as the scientific bureaucracies and monopoly capitalism cited by the author.
The transnational perspective offered in True Gardens of the Gods begins to reconceptualize the environmental histories of Australia and the western United States while reminding readers that the exchange of biota between continents continued long after the voyages of Columbus. The book's innovative framework is a valuable model that merits the attention of environmental historians; its intelligent organization and jargon-free prose make it an excellent choice for undergraduate courses.
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2000|
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