How Forests Have Shaped Human Civilizations Through History Is Warned About In A Book

The thirty-four year history of A Forest Journey: The Role of Wood in the Development of Civilization has been an epic story of it repeatedly being sent to oblivion, followed by dramatic rescues. First published in 1989 by W.W. Norton, the author John Perlin looked at the rise and fall of civilizations through the lens of the forests that supported them, and then showed how, time after time, subsequent deforestation contributed to a civilization’s collapse. Though a few reviews recognized the book’s originality and astonishing erudition, sales were meager. Thus began a tale of abandonment and rescue as several, successive influential admirers saved the book from pulping. The author’s journey has been no less fraught, including a four-year period during the writing of the book when he lived in a friend’s back yard. Now, thanks to the intervention of Yvon and Malinda Chouinard, the founders of Patagonia Press, who view as a “foundational environmental text,” the work has. If the book ultimately finds its deserved place in the conservation canon alongside such works as Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, it will be because its readers would not let it die.

The relationship between humans and forests began long before homo sapiens emerged as a species. In the new edition, Perlin has added a chapter on Archaeopteris, the first modern tree, which dates back to Devonian times, 385 million years ago. This ancient tree, which blanketed Gondwana before the continents formed, helped sequester carbon and increase oxygen levels, lowering surface temperatures and paving the way for a more temperate climate suitable for land animals. At the same time, its logs and branches, along with other plant matter, helped clog the shallow seas. This created selective pressures favoring those aquatic creatures with limb-like fins, animals that could propel themselves through obstructions more efficiently than those relying on basic fins. As decomposing organic material reduced oxygen levels in the seas, another set of selective pressure favored those creatures with lungs to gulp air. Once, these air breathing creatures limped onto land, they found plenty of insects to eat in the Archaeopteris forests. Thus, Perlin argues, the first forests prepared the way for land mammals and ultimately, humanity.

Fast forward to the Holocene, and trees provided shade and building materials for the first civilizations. In case after case, humanity returned the favor by successively destroying the forests, first in the Middle East, and Mediterranean, then in Europe and North America, all in our quest for building materials, fuel, open farm lands, and, quite importantly, masts. The book describes the relationship between naval power and the rise of civilizations dating back to antiquity, and pieces together a sine wave, during which a civilization rises to greatness, denudes its forests, loses naval power, and ultimately its empire. Perlin traces this through Phoenician, Greek, Roman, and other ancient civilizations, and up through more modern sea powers, such as the Venice, Portugal, Spain, Holland, and the British Empire. Over this span of history, not one declining empire seemed to learn from the forestry mistakes of their predecessors.

The book goes into some depth on the need for masts as a motivating factor for the British in their efforts to hold on to their American colonies. Throughout Britain’s history as a naval power, there was a constant search for trees for their ships. Perlin notes that it would take 2,000 oaks, each over 100 years old (wood from younger trees didn’t have the strength of more mature wood) to build a warship. Britain exhausted its own suitable timber long before the American Revolution, and also found itself cut off from Scandinavian forests. The Dutch threatened to cut Britain off from trees from the Baltic area (the Rhine empties through Holland), but the British realized that New England contained vast, old growth forests of White Pine. Trouble was, the Americans also realized their value and wanted them for their own purposes.

The British were so strapped for appropriate trees during the war that they spliced logs together to make masts, and many of these masts failed during storms in 1781 as the British tried to move a fleet from the West Indies to break through the American siege that trapped General Cornwallis in Yorktown, Virginia. Damaged, the fleet, had to stop in New York to refurbish, and Cornwallis surrendered before the delayed rescue arrived. It turned out to be the last major battle of the war.

The matrix of forests, masts, naval power, and empire is just one thread explored by Perlin. Over 500 pages, the A Forest Journey delves into every conceivable aspect of how forests helped temper climate, bank and meter water supplies, keep diseases in check, and inspire art imagination, and awe. And, as has happened in almost every human society, he also documents how, once the forests have been cut, humanity pays the price in terms of pandemics, as pathogens try to find new hosts, and as droughts, heat waves, famines, and other symptoms of ecological breakdown replace the balanced biome of forestlands.

Perlin’s life has been something of a sine wave as well. He grew up in Los Angeles. His father worked as a best grip in Hollywood until he was black-listed – Perlin jokes that he was one of very few kids in LA who’s house had the complete works of Joseph Stalin on the bookshelves. Perlin’s mother was a dancer with the Lester Horton Dance Group (Horton was a major influence on Alvin Ailey). With his father out of work, the family never had much money. Perlin started college at Berkeley, but transferred to the University of California at Santa Barbara to be nearer the ocean and surfing. At the peak of the counter culture, in 1968, Perlin took off travelling the world on the cheap, taking odd jobs along the way to keep going. It was during these years of travels to many parts of the third world that he first saw evidence of deforestation and its consequences.

Perlin’s first book, A Golden Thread: 2500 Years of Solar Architecture and Technology, was published in 1980. When researching this book, he discovered that time and again, when ancient civilizations began running out of wood, they had turned to the sun for energy. This planted the seed of the idea to write a book about the dysfunctional relationship between humanity and forests.

He spent about a decade researching and writing A Forest Journey, and the ups and downs of those years foreshadowed the tumultuous life of the book after publication. The counterculture left its imprint on Perlin through a wanderlust and environmental ethic, and also through a tenuous relationship with money. He was so poor during part of this period that he spent four years living in a sleeping bag in the backyard of a friend. A kind neighbor provided a workspace in the form of a table in her laundry room, and he honed his skills on dumpster diving behind a pizza parlor under the tutelage of a homeless man living nearby (Perlin later did a stint counseling the homeless on how to navigate job interviews). He also resumed his travels, trekking on a shoestring through archaeological sites in Mexico—“Ten bucks could get you almost anywhere in Mexico on a third-class rail ticket back then,” he marvels—to the Jari river in the Amazon, and to Troy, among other places.

Perlin is an extraordinarily gifted researcher. When his book first came out, a British reviewer scoffed at the idea that a Californian could learn all the ancient languages necessary to pursue his research. In fact, Perlin didn’t learn Akkadian, Linear B, Greek and Latin, not to mention Dutch, German, and French, among the many languages of the texts he explored. Who could? But he did learn the words for tree, forest, cedar, pine and oak in several ancient languages. Then he would pore through lexicons for their use in ancient texts, and once he found a reference, he enlisted the help of people in various departments. Carroll Purcell, a leading scholar in the history of technology helped secure him access to interlibrary loans of rare books, and scholars in the classics and religious departments helped him