5/30/2011

A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization

5000 years of the Wood Age

John Perlin's, "A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization," is book of epic proportions. This monumental story does justice to both the beauty, and the importance of trees. In it, Perlin weaves together a 5000 year history of the Wood Age, as well as the history of greed, selfishness, and hubris that accompanied it.

The availability of wood has affected civilization from the start. There is some question as to whether civilization would even be possible without trees. Perlin would say it is not. Tragically, the planet's forests would have been enough to meet everyone's needs, within environmental limits.

Unfortunately, civilization has never recognized limits of any kind. Repeated waves of forest over-exploitation, followed by erosion and loss of soil, then heavy silting of waterways and harbours, caused cycles of unbelievable wealth and luxury, followed by environmental collapse and abandonment. Perlin records the peaks and troughs from Mesopotamia to 18th century America.

Even 5000 years ago, the Mesopotamian writers of Gilgamesh knew that once civilization gained access to the deep, dark, primeval forest, trees would never be safe again. This proved to be true as Gilgamesh entered the cedar forest, "abode of the gods", and started the war on forests which has continued to this very day. Mesopotamian cedar forests were replaced with agriculture, which was followed by reduced soil productivity, famine, and the desertification that we are familiar with today.

Forest Journey describes how forests across the ages were transformed into fuel for industry, from smelting to glass-making. Vast amounts of wood were also required for firing pottery and making bricks. Seemingly endless global forests were the source of timber for shipbuilding, which for centuries was the main pathway to wealth and power. For this reason, repeated efforts to curb forest exploitation (starting 5000 years ago) were met with threats and death.

In the Wood Age trees were the primary energy resource and building material, and empires crumbled as their sources of timber disappeared. Parallels for us as deforestation continues unabated, and as we reach Peak Oil simultaneously, are obvious.

A Forest Journey is a good read with a good message - our forests are critically important, and as we destroy them, we destroy ourselves.

"The American Colossus was fiercely intent on appropriating and exploiting the riches of the richest continents - grasping with both hands, reaping where he had not sown, wasting what he had thought would last forever. At long last, however, the reaction began, and lovers of their country, bewailing its baldness, are now crying aloud, 'Save what is left of the forests!'" - Gifford Pinchot, 1890

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