George Walford: A Wooden World

John Perlin A Forest Journey; The role of wood in the development of civilization. NY & London, W.W. Norton & Co. 1989. 445 pages, ISBN 0 393 02667 1. £14.95.

It would hardly be going too far to say that in A Forest Journey John Perlin presents a society made of wood. Old Stone Age, New Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Age of Gold, Age of Silver and Middle Ages; they were all ages of wood. Wood for floors, roofs, ceilings, beams, walls, furniture, ships, roads, tools, canoes, pavements, mills, mines, sleds, masts, chariots, boats, flagpoles, rails, carts, weapons, wheels, books, pipes, boxes and barrels, but above all wood for fuel. Humanity has been defined as the fire-using species and fire has meant wood, not only for warmth but for industry; even now great numbers in the less developed countries depend upon wood as their main source of energy.

We may think of iron and bronze as early alternatives to wood, but neither could be produced without burning great quantities of it. Not until the early 18th Century did Abraham Darby succeed in substituting coal for charcoal in smelting iron – by first turning it into coke. One ingot of copper required six tons of charcoal, which in turn took one hundred and twenty pine trees, or four acres of forest. Around 1300-1200 BC Cyprus was consuming some four or five square miles of forest each year in copper manufacture and a similar amount for cooking, heating and other industries. Glass needed wood. Roman aqueducts needed concrete, and concrete needed wood for burning the limestone; without wood for fuel, no piped water. Olive oil needed wood to keep it liquid in cold weather. Bricks needed wood for their firing. As sugar-production developed, in Madeira and later in the West Indies, each mill consumed about 90 acres of forest each year. The railways that crossed America, uniting the States, were drawn by wood-burning locomotives.

In England under Elizabeth I coal began to replace wood for fuel, but only because accessible timber was running short and in the face of protest against the dirt, smoke and smell; where people could still use wood they did so. One section-heading here seemed likely to provoke argument: Scarcity of Wood Inhibits Growth; but Perlin goes on to show that this was a temporary condition, the scarcity in the slightly longer run promoting growth by encouraging the change to coal. The English shift, later repeated elsewhere, points the theme which runs just below the surface of the book; its subtitle speaks of the role of wood in the development of civilization, but this could almost equally well have read: “The role of civilization in the destruction of forests.” Going against conventional reformist wisdom, Perlin shows that this began long before capitalism or modern industry appeared. The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2,700 BC), turning history into literature, was already telling how the hero and his companions, having fought and slain the forest god went on to devastate his domains, stripping the mountains of their cover, leaving bare rock in their wake. The story was repeated through history: Mesopotamia, Crete, Knossos, Cyprus, Mycenean, Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic Greece, Rome, Europe, Britain, Islamic civilisation, Canada and the USA, each of them built its growth on forests and in doing so destroyed them; Perlin suggests a connection, in early times at least, between exhaustion of forests and decline. We are, perhaps, obliged to try and save the Brazilian rain-forest, for the sake of their future as well as our own, but we have no ground for feeling superior; its destroyers are following an example set by our own forebears, and we have no intention of returning England to the oaks.

Each civilization has destroyed its own forests, and most of them also those of others. Perlin does not make the point, confining himself to the role of wood in civilization – a large enough subject – but in doing so they have followed the pattern of behaviour set by the first human communities, the foragers who went far towards wiping out large game over the whole of Europe. Archaeology and anthropology show that from its first appearance humanity has behaved expansively, at first in an undirected, casual way but from the appearance of government and agriculture with drive and determination, smashing down resistance where it could. The forests were among the victims. Looking back now, one cries: Why did they not replant? Had they done so, to maintain the forests in their original condition, we would not be here today. Deforestation brought flood, drought and erosion, but it also gave arable land, fields, and agriculture on a scale that enabled the development of cities and civilization.

Perlin takes a calmly objective approach. From soon after its beginnings the devastation was causing alarm (and sometimes despondency too); two thousand years before Christ Zimri-Lim, king of Mari, was in difficulties for lack of timber, and in the 1880s Harper’s Monthly was worrying about it. Perlin quotes these, and others in between, but limits himself to a single concluding sentence drawing the moral for our own times: “We, too, must learn from what has happened in the past, and by doing so, we can help save what remains of our world’s forests.” Supported by the weight of evidence that has gone before, that sentence carries more conviction than some of the books on the subject.

Splendidly produced, well printed on pleasantly off-white paper and with some of the many large illustrations in the text having an almost mezzotint quality (one furnace-worker shown on a Greek vase wears what seems to be a plastic safety-helmet), A Forest Journey is a pleasure to handle; it has satisfying heft. The Notes and Comments are relaxed, conversational; altogether a friendly book. “Civilization” in the subtitle means only that which spread from the Mediterranean; Meso-America, China and India remain unmentioned and Africa too, apart from the countries bordering the Mediterranean. One must not, of course, finish a review without finding something wrong, but I am driven to picking a hole in the blurb. Here Perlin’s precise and thoughtful writing is replaced by (if I may use the phrase) the woodenness of: “One of the most important environmental issues facing our planet today is the destruction of the world’s forests.” True enough, but in presenting this book something with more life was called for.

from Ideological Commentary 47, September 1990.