The Tree of Life

It has provided nourishment, shelter, and fuel. Without the hardy and ubiquitous oak, humans would have never made it this far.

By Frank Graham Jr.


Oak: The Frame of Civilization
By William Bryant Logan
W. W. Norton & Company, 320 pages, $24.95

William Blake once celebrated our ability “To see the world in a grain of sand, / And a heaven in a wild flower.” In the more than two centuries since then, other writers have illuminated history by viewing it through the lens of disease, agricultural innovations, or war (as Jared Diamond did several years ago in his best-selling Guns, Germs, and Steel). If a writer links the part to the whole by supplying compelling evidence, the reader comes away with a fresh look into the human past.

At first Oak: The Frame of Civilization seems a bit of an overreach. Could those be the trees our ancestors dropped out of, or from which they plucked the forbidden fruit? Well, no. But William Bryant Logan, a professional arborist and a skilled writer, has the wit to make a pun of his subtitle and go on to provide an oaken proscenium arch for the beginnings of Western civilization.

“What is so special about oaks?” Logan asks, and lets a paleobotanist supply the answer: “Nothing.” And that's just the point. Oaks boast no titles in the arboreal world. They aren't the oldest trees or the tallest; they don't supply the strongest wood, the sweetest fruit, or the prettiest flowers. But like the tortoise beating the hare to the finish line, the adaptable, tenacious oaks grow almost everywhere in temperate regions, assume both deciduous and evergreen forms, and diversify into as many as 450 species. Tracing the distribution of oaks on a world map, Logan finds them “coterminous with the locations of the settled civilizations of Asia, Europe, and North America.”

As early man emerged from the antediluvian shadows, oaks of one kind or another were at hand to supply the very needs that confirmed his humanity. The trees were widespread and abundant, their wood durable yet tractable. “Even a polished stone ax could take down a moderate-sized oak, and seasoned oak wedges then split it,” Logan writes. “As long as the oak logs were fresh cut . . . they were easily split into lengths along the lines of the prominent annual rings and along the radial rays to make plank-paved boardwalks and sturdy boats. Oak logs could be squared and framed, and joints cut in the strong wood held buildings together.”

Charcoal made from oak was primarily the wood that ended the Stone Age. Logan's case for its key role in human history is bolstered by the discovery during the 1970s that oaks can tell time even more accurately than radiocarbon dating. The annual growth rings in the wood pinpoint events exactly, going back 10 millennia, and even reveal the season of the year in which the wood was cut.

Reading Logan about many aspects of oaks, such as their fruit, is to expand one's vocabulary: balanophage means “acorn eaters.” If mighty trees from little acorns grow, the implication is that much nourishment lies in those fruits produced by oaks, and primitive people in many parts of the world made them staples in their diet. They proved to be tasteless to most later humans, however, who figured out that pork beats acorns any day, and began feeding them to their pigs. Roaming the woodlands in search of acorns, pigs deposited the droppings that in turn helped to produce healthy oak forests.

From various parts of the trees, advancing civilizations were able to take their most valuable raw materials. They cut the wood to build homes and churches, and to fashion boats that triggered commerce and exploration. They buried their dead first in hollowed-out oak logs, and later in elaborate oaken coffins. Oak barrels held their wine and other perishables, while cork oaks provided just the thing for stoppering their bottles. Oak galls became a prime source of both the dyes that brightened their cloth and the ink that preserved their accounts and sagas. Converting oak to the best charcoal fired their forges to produce swords, cannons, hinges for their doors and windows, and crowns for their kings.

Logan doesn't push his thesis too far. For him the year 1862 marks the end of the Age of Oaks. The “ironclads” arrived during the Civil War to establish their dominance over the magnificent oaken sailing ships that had fired the human imagination. Coal and oil, along with the myriad products based on them, then carried us into the industrial era.

Yet as Logan remarks, the substance of these triumphant new materials is “just old stem and branch and leaf and root.” Looking at an oak today, we see not a world or a heaven but a unique living thing, out of a time even deeper than the ingenuity that first put it to civilization's uses.



To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifelong Obsession
By Dan Koeppel
Hudson Street Press, 304 pages, $24.95

Everyone has his or her addiction, be it coffee, alcohol, or nicotine. Birdwatching is the drug of choice for Richard Koeppel, father of author Dan Koeppel, who writes affectionately but honestly about his father's unhealthy obsession with counting birds. The elder Koeppel's addiction was born when he saw a brown thrasher as a 12-year-old boy in Queens, New York. Later, as an adult, his life begins a slow downward spiral, as he chooses birds over his career as a doctor, his marriage, and his relationships with his family and friends. After his parents' divorce, Koeppel writes, “I knew, then, that Dad would never allow himself to fall in love again, at least not with a human.” In spending more than $300,000 to support his habit of traveling the world in search of every bird on earth, Richard Koeppel comes ever closer to his life's goal (he eventually sees 7,200 species). But then, when he is afflicted with throat cancer, it also becomes a race against time for him to quit his pursuit before it's too late.

—Jesse Greenspan


Dancing at the Dead Sea: Tracking the World's Environmental Hot Spots
By Alanna Mitchell
University of Chicago Press, 239 pages, $25

As a child, Alanna Mitchell recalls that her father, George Mitchell, one of North America's earliest and most esteemed field biologists, “fed us ecology at the dinner table.” This deep environmental immersion has served Mitchell well in her career as an award-winning earth sciences reporter for a Canadian newspaper and in the writing of the heartfelt Dancing at the Dead Sea. This book is as much a personal journey as it is a scientific and journalistic investigation of some of the world's most endangered places. It grew out of a newspaper assignment in Madagascar, an island nation off southern Africa that Mitchell describes as an “evolutionary incubator” for birds, plants, bugs, and snakes “found nowhere else on the planet.” But the island's forests are rapidly being destroyed, wiping out habitat for lemurs and other unique species. Soon, Mitchell hopscotches to other imperiled “hot spots” of biodiversity, including the Arctic (threatened by global warming) and the parched oases of Jordan (where the Dead Sea is disappearing because of water diversion). Darwin's evolutionary (and revolutionary) findings on the Galàpagos (which Mitchell visits as well) guide her appreciation of earth's diversity; they also inform her understanding of “the modern ecological crisis.” (Mitchell, in the book's least engaging parts, blames overpopulation and overconsumption in a preachy, finger-waving manner—at one point calling humans “so numerous, so ravenous” and “so self-centered a species.”) “Evolution makes up the unfailing cycle of life,” she writes. But the “staggering rates of species threatened with extinction—30 percent of fishes, 25 percent of reptiles, 24 percent of mammals, 20 percent of amphibians, and 12 percent of all bird species,” she says, add up to a kind of forced evolution, an “artificial selection of species on a wide scale, the opposite of the natural selection Darwin described. It is the planet telling us that we have gone too far.” Dancing at the Dead Sea is a lively, impassioned ecological travelogue, shot through with heavy doses of conservation polemics. If you can abide the occasional lecture, it's worth the ride.

—Keith Kloor


Pinhook: Finding Wholeness in a Fragmented Land
By Janisse Ray
Chelsea Green Publishing, 160 pages, $12

In her previous book, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, Janisse Ray wrote about her desire to save the South's longleaf pine ecosystem. Her latest work, Pinhook: Finding Wholeness in a Fragmented Land, delves into a similar theme via the immense Pinhook Swamp, located on the border of Georgia and Florida. Employing a variety of narrative techniques, from journalistic reporting to essay writing and poetry, Ray explores the wonders of unadulterated wilderness. “It's like a whale so ancient and so colossal and so fulfilled by its own life that it cares nothing of yours,” she writes of the 170,000-acre swamp, which is part of an ecologically important wildlife corridor larger than Rhode Island. With loving and engaging accounts of the area's animals, landscapes, and people, Ray argues for the preservation of large tracts of wilderness and against the fragmentation of habitat.

—Jesse Greenspan


Art of the Wild

Camille Solyagua's aptly named Twenty-One Red-Crowned Cranes and One Black Crow (Nazaraeli Press, 16 pages, $40) is an ode to one of the world's rarest and most majestic birds. Each black-and-white image shows the cranes—only 2,000 exist in various pockets of East Asia—in wintry bliss as they forage, squawk, and fly. Solyagua has been making winter visits to Japan's Hokkaido Island since 2002 to capture them on film. “From the first time I saw a red-crowned crane, I was just completely taken with it,” she says. The book is the 27th in a series of One Picture Books, all of which are 16 pages long and sold with an original print.

—Jesse Greenspan

© 2005 National Audubon Society

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