How Forests Shape History

The thirty-four-year history of A Forest Journey: The Role of Trees in the Fate of Civilization, has been an epic tale of repeated consignments to oblivion, followed by dramatic rescues. First published in 1989 by W.W. Norton, 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, who view A Forest Journey as a “foundational environmental text,” the work has new life. 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 whose 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 translate the texts. He took the title to his book from Tablet Five of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which recounted Gilgamesh’s conquest of the cedar forest.

Once he had a draft, it took two years for him to find a publisher, and that only came about by serendipity, the first of several times that luck would rescue the book. Reading an article by Lester Brown, the late founder of the World Watch Institute, Perlin saw that it referenced A Golden Thread. As a Hail Mary he called Brown, and was told by his secretary that the man was very busy and unlikely to call back anytime soon. Shortly after putting down the phone, however, he got a call, and it was Lester Brown on the line. It turned out that A Golden Thread was one of his favorite books. Brown promoted Perlin’s draft of A Forest Journey to his publisher, W.W. Norton.

Though the book failed to gain traction with the public, it did attract some supporters. TIME listed it as one of its recommended books on Earth Day in 1990. I was told about the book separately by both Al Gore, and former Senator Tim Wirth. When Norton decided to auction the book rather than put out a paperback edition, Howard Blair, a distinguished editor at Harvard University Press grabbed the rights. Once again, chance had intervened, as the head of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum had earlier recommended that Blair read this remarkable book.

The book became one of Harvard University Press’s best sellers, and Harvard named it as one of 100 books that should be on every book shelf. An academic press best seller, however, has only a fraction of the sales of a bestselling mainstream book. With 35,000 copies sold, spread out over 15 years, and with royalties paid out in a manner that would have elicited a fist pump from Ebenezer Scrooge, the income couldn’t support someone even as scrimping as Perlin. Once again, he found himself on his uppers in the late ‘90s, and once again chance interceded.

Living in Santa Barbara without a car (by choice as well as necessity, though not the most practical decision in a part of the world where mass transit is as rare as the desert pupfish), Perlin would take the bus with his then five-year-old son to the UCSB campus for after-school activities. On one such ride he struck up a conversation with a fellow rider who turned out to be a physics professor at UCSB. Perlin gave him a copy of his book, and a few days later the physicist invited him to lunch, singing the praises of A Forest Journey as one of the best books he had ever read. In 1998, the physicist, Walter Kohn, won the Nobel Prize for chemistry, and shortly thereafter arranged for Perlin to get a paying job at the University. Kohn also became a de facto grandfather for Perlin’s son, and in a perfect coda to this relationship, that son, Pesach, is now a Ph.D in organic chemistry, pursuing work that draws upon the breakthroughs that won Kohn the Nobel Prize.

After 2005, Norton took another go at publishing the book, securing the rights from Harvard for a Norton imprint called Countryman Press. Again, sales were modest, and by the late-2010’s A Forest Journey looked like it would meet the same fate as the forests its documented. Yet again, happenstance offered the book a new start.

Among the people frustrated that A Forest Journey was hard to find were the Chouinards. They had given away many copies, and wanted to see whether Patagonia could put out a new edition. The problem was that they didn’t know how to get in touch with Perlin (perhaps, in part because Yvon Chouinard doesn’t use a computer). They found him through chance. In 2017 Perlin organized a colloquium on Eunice Foote (an American scientist who, in 1856, was the first to argue that putting greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere could cause climate change). Two weeks after an article on the colloquium appeared in a local paper, Perlin got an email from an associate of the Chouinards saying that they had been looking to get in touch with him for years.

Patagonia chooses its books carefully, only publishing 4-6 titles a year, but they get behind each book. With the promise of a new edition, Perlin jumped in, updating some sections and adding a new opening chapter on Archaeopteris. In his new introduction, Perlin notes that since the first printing of his book in 1989, more than 500,000 square miles of forestland has been deforested, an area larger than California, Texas and Iowa put together. The publication was delayed two years by the pandemic, and the new edition came out last February. Karla Olson, the editor-in-chief of Patagonia notes that the new edition has received broad and positive coverage, a far more extensive reception than it received when it was originally published. She also notes that a publishing decision to put the book’s 1800 endnotes online rather than in print has reduced the length by 80 pages, and saved a lot of trees.

I reached out to Ms. Olson to see how the book was faring a year after publication. She said it had exceeded the main goal of publicizing the book, which was to reach a new audience for a book that was first published more than three decades earlier. She also noted that none of Patagonia’s books has gone out of print. To borrow a phrase from the lexicon of animal shelters, it looks like A Forest Journey has found its forever home.

Let’s hope so, because the message of Perlin’s book has never been more timely. At the end of A Forest Journey, Perlin returns to the Epic of Gilgamesh. He writes how Gilgamesh, shaken by the cruel death inflicted on his friend and fellow king Enkidu for his role in destroying the great cedar forests, “threw off his robes, walked away from his kingdom and aimlessly roamed under an indifferent sky, weeping bitterly, condemned to suffer death in life, for he was the one who killed Humbaba, the Guardian of the Forest, and stripped the mountains of their cedars.

Could this be our fate as well?” he asks.

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