The International Writers Magazine
:Book Review

Oak: The Frame of Civilization by William Bryant Logan
W. W. Norton & Company, 2005, 336 pp. ISBN: 0-393-04773-3
A Charlie Dickinson review

At 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 far."

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" @

How I became Stupid by Martin Page
A Charlie Dickinson review

More Reviews

© Hackwriters 1999-2005 all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibiltiy - no liability accepted by or affiliates.