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The Age of Wood

Our Most Useful Material and the Construction of Civilization

A groundbreaking examination of the role that wood and trees have played in our global ecosystem—including human evolution and the rise and fall of empires—in the bestselling tradition of Yuval Harari’s Sapiens and Mark Kurlansky’s Salt.

As the dominant species on Earth, humans have made astonishing progress since our ancestors came down from the trees. But how did the descendants of small primates manage to walk upright, become top predators, and populate the world? How were humans able to develop civilizations and produce a globalized economy? Now, in The Age of Wood, Roland Ennos shows for the first time that the key to our success has been our relationship with wood.

Brilliantly synthesizing recent research with existing knowledge in fields as wide-ranging as primatology, anthropology, archaeology, history, architecture, engineering, and carpentry, Ennos reinterprets human history and shows how our ability to exploit wood’s unique properties has profoundly shaped our bodies and minds, societies, and lives. He takes us on a sweeping ten-million-year journey from Southeast Asia and West Africa where great apes swing among the trees, build nests, and fashion tools; to East Africa where hunter gatherers collected their food; to the structural design of wooden temples in China and Japan; and to Northern England, where archaeologists trace how coal enabled humans to build an industrial world. Addressing the effects of industrialization—including the use of fossil fuels and other energy-intensive materials to replace timber—The Age of Wood not only shows the essential role that trees play in the history and evolution of human existence, but also argues that for the benefit of our planet we must return to more traditional ways of growing, using, and understanding trees.

A winning blend of history and science, this is a fascinating and authoritative work for anyone interested in nature, the environment, and the making of the world as we know it.

Prologue: The Road to Nowhere PROLOGUE The Road to Nowhere
Many years ago, toward the end of an arduous walking tour of the French Pyrenees, my brother and I stumbled across an engineering feat that had helped change the course of human history and shape the modern world. As we made our way down from the peaks to the village of Etsaut, the route took us from alpine meadows to the conifer forests of the Vallée d’Aspe. The path, which had been broad and easy to follow, suddenly changed. As the river valley continued to drop, the path maintained its level, but only by cutting into the walls of an almost-sheer rock face. Soon we were walking along a narrow ledge perched precariously six hundred feet above the trees and foaming river in the Gorge d’Enfer below. The path continued like this for almost a mile before the gorge finally opened out, and we descended down to the level of the river and once again felt safe. Only then did a sign helpfully tell us that we had navigated the Chemin de la Mâture. Why had such a spectacular path been built in the middle of nowhere? And what was mâture?

The answer lies in the rivalry that developed in the eighteenth century between the two emerging superpowers of the Western world, France and Britain, and provides just one of the more striking examples of the way wood has helped shape the human story. With the two nations vying for power and influence over their developing colonies and territories in the Caribbean and North America, an arms race started as they built up their navies. Both nations strove to build bigger and more heavily armed ships of the line, capable of acting as firing platforms for up to a hundred huge cannons, which could batter other ships and shore defenses into submission. But both countries came up against the same problem; how could they access enough trees to build their ships? The problem was not the lack of wood itself. France in particular had large areas of forest, which covered around 30 percent of the country. The problem was the lack of trees tall and straight enough to make the 100-to-120-foot masts of the ships. Most forests in Europe were already being managed, and it was becoming harder to find areas of primary forest where tall trees could still be found. For France the answer lay in the wilds of the Pyrenees, where stands of huge fir trees still stood. The engineer Paul-Marie Leroy put forward his plan to extract trees from the previously inaccessible Vallée d’Aspe by cutting a daring path through the edge of the cliff. The path was completed in 1772 and named the Chemin de la Mâture (literally, the Mast Road). Soon masts and other timbers were being hauled down the new path, before being rafted down to the sea. France’s supply problems were fixed, at least temporarily.

In Britain the problem of obtaining masts was even more acute. The country had a tree cover below 10 percent, and its forests had long before been put under management. Few conifers grew there, and no trees tall and straight enough to be made into ships’ masts. Even by the sixteenth century, Britain had been forced to obtain almost all its masts from the countries adjoining the Baltic Sea. The problem was that the fleets of its northern rivals, Holland and Sweden, were always threatening to cut off this supply, and in any case tall trees were becoming scarcer and more expensive. Britain turned to its American colonies, where the old-growth forests of New England contained huge, straight-trunked eastern white pine trees in seemingly limitless numbers. From the mid-seventeenth century onward these trees, which could grow up to 230 feet tall with a diameter of over five feet, became the tree of choice for the British navy; Samuel Pepys, the naval administrator, mentions the trade several times in his famous diary, rejoicing on December 3, 1666, when a convoy carrying masts managed to evade a Dutch blockade:

There is also the very good news come of four New England ships come home safe to Falmouth with masts for the King; which is a blessing mighty unexpected, and without which, if for nothing else, we must have failed the next year. But God be praised for thus much good fortune, and send us the continuance of his favour in other things!

Unfortunately, in seeking to secure their supply of masts, the British government made a series of policy blunders that were to have disastrous consequences. They had difficulty buying tree trunks on the open market because the colonists preferred to saw them up for timber; this was after all a much easier way of processing them, considering their huge size, rather than hauling the unwieldy trunks for miles down to navigable rivers. The British could have bought up areas of forest and managed them themselves, but instead, in 1691 they implemented what was known as the King’s Broad Arrow policy. White pine trees above twenty-four inches in trunk diameter were marked with three strokes of a hatchet in the shape of an upward-pointing arrow and were deemed to be crown property. Unfortunately, this policy soon proved to be wildly unpopular and totally unenforceable. Colonists continued to fell the huge trees and cut them into boards twenty-three inches wide or less, to dispose of the evidence. Indeed wide floorboards became highly fashionable, as a mark of an independent spirit. The British responded by rewriting the protection act to prohibit the felling of all white pine trees over twelve inches in diameter. However, because trees were protected only if they were not “growing within any township or the bounds, lines and limits thereof,” the people of New Hampshire and Massachusetts promptly realigned their borders so that the provinces were divided almost entirely into townships. Many rural colonists just ignored the rules, pleaded ignorance of them, or deliberately targeted the marked trees because of their obvious value. The surveyors general of His Majesty’s Woods, employing few men and needing to cover tens of thousands of square miles, were almost powerless to stop the depredations of the colonists, and the local authorities were unwilling to enforce an unpopular law. The situation reached a crisis in 1772, exactly when the Chemin de la Mâture was being completed, with the event known as the Pine Tree Riot.

The event was precipitated when sawmill owners from Weare, New Hampshire, refused to pay a fine for sawing up large white pines, and Benjamin Whiting, sheriff of Hillsborough County, and his deputy, John Quigley, were sent to South Weare with a warrant to arrest the leader of the mill owners, Ebenezer Mudgett. However, before they could complete their task, Mudgett led a force of twenty to forty men to assault them at their lodgings, the Pine Tree Tavern. Their faces blackened with soot, the rioters gave the sheriff one lash with a tree switch for every tree being contested, cut off the ears and shaved the manes and tails off Whiting’s and Quigley’s horses and forced the two men to ride out of town through a gauntlet of jeering townspeople. Eight of the perpetrators were later punished, but their fines, twenty shillings each, were light, an indication of the weakness of British authority.

News of the riot spread around New England and became a major inspiration for the much more famous Boston Tea Party in December 1773. The Pine Tree Flag even became a symbol of colonial resistance, being one of those used by the revolutionaries in the ensuing War of Independence. Designed by George Washington’s secretary Colonel Joseph Reed, it was flown atop the masts of the colonial warships.

The start of the Revolutionary War cut off the supply of masts for the Royal Navy from New England. The British were forced to use smaller trees from the Baltic for their masts, and had to clamp together several trunks with iron hoops to construct “made masts.” This arrangement was at best unsatisfactory, and many British ships spent most of the ensuing war out of action in port with broken masts. To make matters worse, the colonists started to sell their pines to the French, who had opportunistically sided with the rebels. The French defeated the British in important naval conflicts—such as the Battle of Grenada in 1779, the most disastrous British naval defeat since Beachy Head in 1690—while British naval actions against the colonists themselves proved indecisive. Without Britain’s usual naval superiority, America prevailed and became independent in 1783. What would become the world’s most powerful nation had been born. Britain would soon regain its naval supremacy, managing to replace its supplies of masts by using trees from its other dominions, Canada and eventually New Zealand, but the world would never again be the same. Thus is a turning point in geopolitics glimpsed in a path hewn out of a cliff in the Pyrenees.

Considering its historical importance, it is astonishing that the Great Mast Crisis is not better known. All schoolchildren are taught about the Boston Tea Party, even in Britain; none are taught about the Pine Tree Riot. But this is not an isolated instance; accounts of human evolution, prehistory, and history routinely ignore the role played by wood. For instance, anthropologists wax lyrical about the developments of stone tools, and the intellectual and motor skills needed to shape them, while brushing aside the importance of the digging sticks, spears, and bows and arrows with which early humans actually obtained their food. Archaeologists downplay the role wood fires played in enabling modern humans to cook their food and smelt metals. Technologists ignore the way in which new metal tools facilitated better woodworking to develop the groundbreaking new technologies of wheels and plank ships. And architectural historians ignore the crucial role of wood in roofing medieval cathedrals, insulating country houses, and underpinning whole cities.

When I stumbled across the Chemin de la Mâture thirty-five years ago, I too was largely ignorant of the importance of wood. I knew about its anatomy, its mechanical properties, and some of its structural uses. However, only when I turned to research the mechanics of root anchorage in plants and landed a permanent post in academia did I start to learn more about wood. One of the great benefits of being an academic (or it used to be) is that it gives you the opportunity to find out about a wide variety of topics, through your own research and teaching, and through discussions with your colleagues in (now sadly defunct) tearooms. In my case, I started to find out more about biomechanics by supervising a wide range of student projects. I set bright young students to study subjects such as the mechanical design of our own bodies, the mechanics of wood and trees, and latterly the benefits of urban forests. I wrote a book about trees and started to learn more about the uses of wood and the relationship between human beings and trees. My teaching also led me to think more about the relationship that our relatives the apes have with trees, and to learn about exciting new research that was uncovering the ways in which apes make and use a variety of wooden tools. I was lucky enough to become involved with researchers who studied how apes move through the canopy and build wooden nests. And I started to think about how early humans could have made effective woodworking tools and shaped their spears and ax handles.

All these discoveries tied in with my happy memories of visits I had made from childhood onward to a wide range of wood-related attractions: local archaeological museums with their rows of ax heads and reconstructions of the life of “early man”; Scandinavian open-air museums, filled with wooden farmhouses, water mills, windmills, and stave churches; Viking longboats; the roofs of Gothic churches and cathedrals, medieval barns and castles; and Palladian country houses. It became clear to me that wood has actually played a central role in our history. It is the one material that has provided continuity in our long evolutionary and cultural story, from apes moving about the forest, through spear-throwing hunter-gatherers and ax-wielding farmers to roof-building carpenters and paper-reading scholars. And knowing something about the properties of wood and the growth of trees, I started to work out why this was the case. The foundations of our relationship with wood lie in its remarkable properties. As an all-round structural material it is unmatched. It is lighter than water, yet weight for weight is as stiff, strong, and tough as steel and can resist both being stretched and compressed. It is easy to shape, as it readily splits along the grain, and is soft enough to carve, especially when green. It can be found in pieces large enough to hold up houses, yet can be cut up into tools as small as a toothpick. It can last for centuries if it is kept permanently dry or wet, yet it can also be burned to keep us warm, to cook our food, and drive a wide range of industrial processes. With all these advantages, the central role of wood in the human story was not just explicable, but inevitable.

So it is time to reassess the role of wood. This book is a new interpretation of our evolution, prehistory, and history, based on our relationship with this most versatile material. I hope to show that looking at the world in this fresh wood-centered way, what an academic might call lignocentric, can help us make far more sense of who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going.

Above all I hope to encourage the reader to look at the world in a way that is unhindered by the conventional wisdom that the story of humanity is defined by our relationship with three materials: stone, bronze, and iron. It refutes the common assumption that wood is little more than an obsolete relic from our distant past. I hope it will show that for the vast majority of our time on this planet we have lived in an age dominated by this most versatile material, and that in many ways we still do. And that for the benefit of the environment and our own physical and psychological health, we need to return to the Age of Wood.
Photograph by Yvonne Golding

Roland Ennos is a visiting professor of biological sciences at the University of Hull. He is the author of successful textbooks on plants, biomechanics, and statistics, and his popular book Trees, published by the Natural History Museum, is now in its second edition. He lives in England. 

“Ennos, a professor at the University of Hull in England and a specialist in the mechanical properties of trees, shares his insatiable curiosity with us. He applies his sharp eye for details, and he does so entertainingly.” Washington Post
“Ennos’s special love and concern is for things made from trees...The principles of every significant technology, from tree-felling and carpentry to shipbuilding and papermaking, are described with a precise, almost mesmerizing detail.” New York Times Book Review

“[Ennos] takes a fresh look at the familiar substance, wielding it like a wedge to pry open our past, examine our present and even glimpse our future.” Wall Street Journal

“A lively history of biology, mechanics and culture that stretches back 60 million years… A specialist in the mechanics of wood, Ennos has a fierce love for his topic.” Nature

“Nearly the whole of human history deserves a different title: the Age of Wood.” The New Republic

“An excellent, thorough history in an age of our increasingly fraught relationships with natural resources.” Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“This expansive history will give readers a newfound appreciation for one of the world’s most ubiquitous yet overlooked materials.” Publishers Weekly

“Smart and surprising, Ennos' inquiry proves that there is much we still need to learn about wood and how it has shaped our past and present.” Booklist