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The Age of Wood: Our Most Useful Material and the Construction of Civilization
By Roland Ennos
Scribner, 2020; $24.49

On the heels of his popular debut volume Trees, Roland Ennos chronicles humans’ relationship to those trees. The Age of Wood: Our Most Useful Material and the Construction of Civilization begins far back in the evolutionary record, up among the branches and trunks, where primates found it useful to construct nests for snoozing and resting their big brains. As protohumans climbed down and took to ground-dwelling, stick-based toolkits expanded their reach to include materials like stone, whose durability causes those items to dominate the archeological record. Only the rarely preserved wooden artifact, like the 450,000-year-old Clacton spear, found at Essex, England, belies the ubiquity of a material for tools and weapons. An enduring mystery dating to Ice Age Europe is the precise utility of the “baton de commandment”—decorated scepter-like rods of wood or antler with a hole drilled at their wider ends. Ennos, who teaches wood biomechanics, dismisses the popular theory that users employed these implements to straighten projectile shafts. He convincingly posits that, combined with cordage, the hole directed a spear in the manner of the Mayan atlatl throwing stick.

Roland Ennos is a visiting professor of biological sciences at the University of Hull. His popular book Trees, was published in 2001 by the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.

Human exploitation of wood accelerated through the better-known ages of bronze and iron. Metal tools allowed more ingenious woodworking, a step on the path to invention and the rise of civilization. Wood from trees felled to clear acreage for farming helped transport and process agricultural products, nourishing empires. Rome lived on Egyptian grain imported on large wooden ships. Such vessels, exemplars of the Age of Wood, waged war and commerce for roughly 2,000 years. Briton Ennos keenly grasps their impact on his homeland’s history. First bringing waves of invaders—Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Normans—to the island, the shipping tradition propelled British colonization worldwide.

Securing suitable trunks large enough for mast-making proved trying once the empire exhausted its native old-growth forests. The American colonies, though, proffered arboreal resources in abundance. The Crown claimed ownership of all mast-worthy white pines, prompting the 1772 Pine Tree Riot in New Hampshire, antecedent to the Boston Tea Party. Once the Revolution began, rebel warships flew the Pine Tree flag.

Humans still work wood, but the Age of Wood technically ended when fossil fuels, notably coal, supplanted it as the pre-eminent industrial-age fuel. Newer substitutes—wrought iron, steel, cement, and plastics whittled away the economics of wood use. Advances in engineered wood still influence architecture and furniture design, but Ennos argues entertainingly that wood in its natural state, the forest, now is paramount in humankind’s relationship with wood for both environmental and psychological reasons. Any trivia hound will find this book highly engaging, but its appeal goes deeper. Like fishing, hunting, and gardening, fashioning artifacts of wood no longer is essential to survival but seems engrained in human DNA. The ur-material in all its sensuous permutations—bonfire, treehouse, driftwood—transfixes us. —Citizen archaeologist Doug Dupin’s family name derives from the French phrase meaning “from the pines.”   

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