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The memory of trees

Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis, Michael Williams, University of Chicago Press: 689 pp., $70

March 09, 2003|Brian Fagan | Brian Fagan is the author of "The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850" and the forthcoming "Before California: An Archaeologist Looks at Our Earliest Inhabitants."

The myth of the dark, primordial forest still exercises a strong hold on the Western psyche. So does the notion that the forests were part of a harmonious, God-given backdrop, a passive spectator of history. Geographer Michael Williams' authoritative history of deforestation draws on a broad range of sources to debunk these myths. He shows how forests were always dynamic entities, affected by short- and long-term environmental and climatic changes and even by quite minor human disturbances. The ax and the fire stick are inseparable from forests and make a mockery of the myth of the divinely provided backdrop. Yet the fiction persists: that the Earth was pristine, unaltered by humanity, before the Industrial Age.

Williams begins with the return of forests to Europe after the Ice Age, in what he calls "the deep past," for which only climatology and archeology can tell the story. He describes the dramatic vegetational changes and global warming that transformed Europe, North America and the tropical world. Humans colonized the newly vegetated land and transformed it with fire, hunting and foraging, and soon with their fields and grazing animals. The fire stick was one of the most powerful artifacts in the human armory. It allowed people to clear and manage forest landscapes long before anyone put a hoe into the ground.

Farming was the reason for the first great forest clearance, beginning 10,000 years ago in southwestern Asia, the first great human change of the face of the Earth. The effect of the first farming societies paled into insignificance when compared with the promiscuous forest clearance of Classical times, when brick making, building, heating, metal smelting and shipbuilding consumed enormous quantities of timber. Williams looks behind the trees at the changing "cultural climate" of the day, the social and political setting of deforestation. The nature that had once been revered was modified, traded and sold. Land was wealth.

Medieval Europe witnessed forest clearance on a grand scale in the 11th through 13th centuries. The forest was deeply embedded in the fabric of medieval life, the property of monarchs, a place where nearly everyone had some rights, covering everything from firewood to grazing land for swine. Timber had become an indispensable raw material in daily life. As populations grew, so the forest dwindled in the face of subsistence farming to the point of near-crisis. Much of the deforestation came at the hands of religious houses, which preached that the world was a "sojourner's way station," a place where humans assisted God in improving their earthly home.

Williams contrasts Europe with China, where persistent population pressure and the demands of agriculture destroyed forests everywhere. Europe broke out of the cycle with the Black Death and the Age of Discovery, which took some pressure off tree clearance. China never had such epidemiological or environmental safety valves.The Age of Discovery defined the context of deforestation of the next 250 years, during which Europe discovered the wider world. Soon discovery gave way to bulk trade commodities like coffee, tea and sugar, which affected forest growth in the tropics. In Europe, forests again dwindled in the face of growing populations and a rising demand for timber for shipbuilding and such other activities as charcoal burning. But along with the deforestation came the first efforts at coppicing and forest management and deliberate tree planting, for both economic and entirely pleasurable reasons. Despite these efforts, the demand for timber was insatiable. By the end of the 18th century, China and Southern and Western Europe were effectively cleared of forest. America was beginning the clearing that would transform the continent and be a model for colonists everywhere: a vast continent's frontier forests cleared to create new farms, complete with the inevitable log cabins. By the end of the 18th century, an irrevocable change in forest biomes was underway.

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