A Forest Journey: The Role of Trees in the Fate of Civilization
- By John Perlin
- 520 pp.
- Reviewed by Christopher Lancette
- February 21, 2023
A promising expedition stops disappointingly short.
It’s easy in life to miss the proverbial forest for the trees, so author John Perlin was kind enough to give his new book a subtitle that smacks us in the head with all the subtlety of a two-by-four. First published in 1989, the updated 2023 edition of A Forest Journey: The Role of Trees in the Fate of Civilization repeats a refrain we need to keep hearing: Our continued existence on this planet hinges on the leaves of our trees.
“As this book chronicles, the civilizations we know today couldn’t exist without forests,” Perlin writes. “Likewise, many civilizations have crumbled when the land had reached its limit. We can no longer ignore the warnings of these gentle giants. To save our home and each other, we must actively protect what is left of the Earth’s forests.”
In other words, no forests, no us.
It’s easy to tune out works from writers who hope endless doom-and-gloom accounts of our existential crises will spur us to act. But Perlin wants no part of that crowd. “A Forest Journey does not merely prophesy disaster,” he explains. “It also encourages hope: that we can learn from past mistakes and break out of the cycle of deforestation and land degradation that undermined earlier civilizations.”
Despite his stated intention of offering hope, however, the book falls many board feet short. There’s little insight or information here that conveys any sense of optimism — just a handful of anecdotes tossed haphazardly into the epilogue about what a few private companies and U.S. municipalities are doing to protect forests and water quality. Even after poring over the book twice to see if perhaps a greater merit lay in hiding, I was left mostly disappointed.
(To its credit, A Forest Journey is an outstanding work of history. Its storytelling is as engaging as it is expansive. This alone makes it worth reading. Ditto for the QR code inside that leads readers to extensive, compelling online endnotes and for the teacher’s guide due to be added shortly.)
Much of the book documents humankind’s tendency to slaughter our forests as if we held grudges against them — a practice that must change. Writes Perlin:
“I do believe we should stop our war against them because they do so many good things for the world. Retaining our forests can help keep global warming at bay, protect the integrity of many of our streams and rivers, and continue to provide food and shelter for much of the world’s land animals.”
His opening chapter, “How Trees Have Changed the World,” offers an adrenaline-laced look at the planet’s first modern tree and every subsequent form of life it made possible. Perlin is every bit as passionate moments later, when he makes the case that wood “is the unsung hero of the technological revolution that has brought us from a stone-and-bone culture to our present age.”
He uses the rest of the book to guide readers through human space, time, and geography, starting in “the old world,” as it’s not just us modern folk who’ve done our best to destroy life and limbs. “All great civilizations — whether Chinese, Indian, or Mesopotamian, or for that matter, American — celebrate the conquest of surrounding forests and subduing the wilderness that once thrived there,” Perlin explains.
Haunting readers with accounts of forest destruction by old-world gods and people alike, A Forest Journey repeatedly connects the parallel phenomena of tree depletion and felled societies. Perlin notes that in the ancient Mediterranean alone, the smelting of copper and iron consumed 100,000 square miles of forest. Double that number to account for wood burned to heat homes and to cook. On the Venetian island of Murano, demand for its beautiful glass once caused furnaces to burn nonstop.
The high volume of such self-destructive acts might choke George Santayana. (He’s that oft-misquoted philosopher who actually wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”) Deforestation struck the planet so hard that Zeus himself tried to stop the ecological plunder: According to myth, he launched the Trojan War so “that the load of death might empty the world” and allow Earth to recuperate.
Perlin is equally thorough in covering the tradition of societies destroying the golden geese that are forests when he pivots to the new world. It’s hard not to let out a nervous laugh when reading about how the Colonists continually outsmarted the British Crown’s efforts to claim all big timber for the exclusive use of the Royal Navy. Stamps and tea may get all the attention in history class, but the cat-and-mouse games of rebellion that nascent Americans won in the first half of the 18th century laid the groundwork for the Revolutionary War.
History lessons concluded, A Forest Journey leaps into a 14-page epilogue that’s as tall as a redwood but thin as its bark. Subjects include the value of old-growth forests, carbon storage and forest soils, forests in relationship to temperature control and water supply, migratory birds and forest health, and forests and human health.
The book ends abruptly with a reference to Enkidu and Humbaba, mythological figures mentioned (and likely forgotten) hundreds of pages earlier. Readers quickly turn the page thinking there must be more — a prescription pad full of both proven and trial forest-restoration remedies, maybe.
After all, John W. Reid and Thomas E. Lovejoy managed to lay out bold solutions for saving the world’s largest forests in Evergreen. Enric Sala, meanwhile, waxed practical and near poetic when calling on humans to engage in “rewilding” — “reintroducing native species to restore the full natural cycle of an ecosystem.” The natives he cites include keystone species such as Yellowstone wolves that can fortify forests. Sala’s The Nature of Nature brims with the kind of hope A Forest Journey doesn’t deliver.
Perlin would have done better by sharing even small-scale tips for restoring forests. Instead, his journey just stops, sadly not reaching what portended to be a splendid destination.
Christopher Lancette is a Maryland-based freelance writer focused on nature and the environment. He has written for some 50 national and local publications. He publishes a passion project at EyeOnSligoCreek.com. Follow him on Twitter at @chrislancette.