The International Writers Magazine:Book Review
The Frame of Civilization by William Bryant Logan
W. W. Norton & Company, 2005, 336 pp. ISBN: 0-393-04773-3
A Charlie Dickinson review
first glance, despite the appealing cover of William Bryant Logan's
nonfiction work OAK: THE FRAME OF CIVILIZATION, I was skeptical
a book solely about oak trees could be rewarding. One might be
more skeptical, though, of Mr. Logan's subtitle: THE FRAME
OF CIVILIZATION. That promises so much beyond the specificity
of tree genus Quercus.
Yet it is oak's
ubiquity--north and south, across continents--that Logan asserts made
oak the central player in one of two versions of the world: "the
world made with wood and the world made with coal and oil. One lasted
twelve to fifteen millennia; the other has lasted about 250 years so
The audience for this book is really anyone interested in the march
of humanity for millennia told by the story of one tree's contributions.
Moreover, it is a story enlivened by the domain knowledge of a certified
arborist. True, some woodworking joinery discussions get technical,
but illustrations are used aptly.
Logan first offers a paleobotanist's opinion for why Quercus, became
a dominant tree genus. Oak owes it success to being "nothing special."
Oak never suffered the misfortune of overspecializing in any one environment,
and as Logan details in a later chapter, the plasticity of its DNA has
made for a few amazing adaptations.
After two brief chapters establish oak's prowess at worldwide distribution,
Chapter Three, "Balanoculture," (defined as societies
whose diet staple is the oak acorn) discusses evidence the oak tree's
earliest contribution to civilization was to feed people. Recent research
suggests not all early humans were big game hunters who eventually converted
to farming. Some of our human ancestors were balanophagists. As an example,
the archaeological site at Catal Huyuk, a settlement 8,000 years ago
in the Fertile Crescent (modern-day Turkey), offers clues its residents
ground and ate acorns as their diet staple. Once its tannin is leached
out, the acorn is highly nutritious and surprisingly filling. (Logan
personally sought out Korean acorn jelly and thought it even an appetite
suppressant--Slim*Fast(TM) buyers might soon be trekking to their neighborhood
Korean food stores.) The crucial fact for theories about what our ancient
ancestors ate is acorns are much easier to harvest and store, for calories
spent, than chasing animals.
Interestingly, California is home to some of the finest remnants of
balanoculture. As an example, if one travels two and a half hours northeast
of, say, the Bay Area, one crosses Highway 49 to reach the town of Volcano,
where the Indian Grinding Rock State Historical Park preserves a legacy
of those early Californians, the Miwoks: some 1,185 mortar holes, the
largest collection of bedrock mortars anywhere in North America. Miwoks
used pestles in these mortars to grind acorns and did so for five thousand
years until early in the twentieth century.
The bulk of OAK, Chapter Four, "The Age of Oak," spreads
over 117 pages. Logan turns from the more speculative evidence early
people used the oak as a food source, to human use of the oak as structure.
In an arresting statement, Logan writes "One day in the spring
of 3807 B.C.," a group of people living in the fens of southwestern
England decided to do something about travelling more directly to their
neighbors. With Neolithic ingenuity they built the "Sweet Track,"
a boardwalk or plank road, historically the first of many wooden bridges
and highways to follow throughout Northern Europe. How did Logan know
when the Sweet Track was built? One Mr. Sweet uncovered the trackway
in a peat bog in 1973. The recovered oak wood gave a dendrochronology,
whose tree ring dating is far more accurate than carbon-14 techniques.
Other topics covered in "The Age of Oak" include construction
of the first ocean-going boats by Vikings, vessels which rode the waves
with a dolphin-like flexibility designed into their oak structure; discovery
of such joinery as the mortise-and-tenon (which allows strong right-angle
joining of boards) in a Dutch structure circa 1475 B.C., which in turn
led to timber-framed oak houses for the next 3,000 years; the invention
of charcoal, a necessity for the advance of metalworking; and Western
Civilization's preferred permanent ink--what Bach used to write his
cantatas--derived from the parasitic galls that form on an oak's trunk.
Chapter Five, "End of the Age," recaps the centuries
sailing ships, typically 90 percent oak, spanned the globe. The principles
of timber-framed buildings were applied to ship building and Logan's
genius is he shows the oak tree superbly suited the various specifications
for a sailing ship's structural timbers. As an arborist, he readily
explains how, as an example, a forester charged with picking the right
tree to cut for a compass timber might make his selection in a forest.
Rounding out the chapter is a compelling account of the USS Constitution's
first battle against a British frigate in The War of 1812, earning the
nickname "Old Ironsides." Finally, Logan marks the end of
the age of wooden ships as the Civil War battle between the CSS Virginia
(nee USS Merrimack) and the USS Monitor, an inconclusive standoff between
two ironclad steamers.
Chapter Six, "Oak Itself," is a thorough arborist-wise
compendium of the virtues of genus Quercus. Diversity (as mentioned
at the outset, the oak avers specialization), Cooperation (for millennia,
fascinating mutual dependencies have existed between oaks and jays),
Flexibility (plasticity of the DNA), Prudence (the oak conserves energy
superbly, regulating the release of new growth), Persistence (oaks make
lots of roots), Community (oak roots feed other ailing oak trees), and
Generosity (the oak hosts countless species, most notably the gall-making
wasp). Logan's argument on behalf of the oak is quite simple: "There
is no structure more supple and sustainable than nature's, and oaks
are among the most widely adapted and successful of all plants."
Logan suggests computer modelling as a useful ally for unlocking and
deploying the subtle power of nature's design. In one example, he cites
surgical screws for repair of bone fractures, whose design derives from
computer analysis of how an oak tree grows.
In the book's epilogue, Logan compares the Eiffel Tower to an oak tree.
The Eiffel Tower, meant as an icon of the Industrial Age, offers little
utility, other than making a lasting impression and for those inclined,
a vertiginous look-see from up high. In contrast, the oak tree, a "nothing
special" structure, has always meant utility. Logan asks the reader
which of the two might we emulate, if we had to choose. By the end of
OAK, we know his choice. Arborist Logan might be anticipating the day
our dinosaur heritage runs out after a brief 250-year run, and we start
casting about for less exploitive, more nature-friendly survival strategies.
Read OAK: THE FRAME OF CIVILIZATION for an intelligent and heart-felt
survey of one tree species that has served humanity well for thousands
of years, and which might still have lessons for our future
© Charlie Dickinson October 2005
read "stories & more" @ http://charlied.freeshell.org
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