“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 first tree I remember hanging out in was a maple.  My dad built us  a platform at the place where its major branches reached out in four different directions.  Time and space seemed different in that leafy world far above the ground.   But the tail of a tornado yanked the branches apart to the ground,  and our tree house slid neatly down the middle.  It was one of those anamolies that tornadoes leave in their wake, and was the talk of the town.

I can’t help thinking that if it had been an oak, that tree house might still be supporting childhood daydreams.

Oak: The Frame of Civilization by William Bryant Logan reaffirmed my basic respect for oak and deepened it.  Logan has also written a book called Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, which I am looking forward to digging into (couldn’t help myself).

Oak has been my engrossing bedtime reading for the past few weeks, and I have drifted off to sleep much more peacefully than when I was reading myself to sleep with Weather of the Future (see my post on that book here.).

Climate change does not sooth nor relax.  But contemplating the amazing natural history of oak and its association with human endeavor is uplifting.

Oaks come in all sizes and shapes, and their leaves and acorns vary endlessly.  I look out my office window today and see my Old Man Oak clutching his leaves to him to him like a drunk clutches his paper bag, but my counterpart in California is looking at an evergreen oak.

Because of their generalist tendencies, oak  have been able to adapt to changing conditions and swirl about the earth — sometimes pushed back by glaciers, other times crossing land bridges that have been replaced by oceans.  According to Logan, a symbiotic relationship with jays has given them wings.

Jays have always seemed like the motorcycle gang of the bird world to me.  But jays have throats designed to swallow and temporarily hold a handful of acorns.  They often fly several miles  from the middle of the forest where it is too shady for young trees to get a start and bury their treasure at the forest’s ever-moving edge.

Months later jays  can fly right back to the spot, but they don’t find every one, and the escapees drive the forest forward.  Where ever oaks have gone, humans have followed.

Logan explores our long association with oak, which has provided food and then building material, and then charcoal to make the extra hot fires needed for forge metal.  The tannin from oak makes it possible to turn rotting animal skin into serviceable leather.  The galls on oak provided the substance for  the blackest inks used to preserve documents like our Constitution.

Oak long boats helped the Vikings take to the sea, and Logan spends a chunk of the book lovingly explaining how British sailing ships were made of hand-selected oak.  Those oak vessels first knit the world together.  The British ruled the waves, backed by their wealth in oak, but they consumed that wealth at a non-sustainable pace and by the 1800s agriculture was turning a prettier profit than oak, and landowners began to cut the forests to make fields.

Logan suggests that what gave a former colony the oomph to take over the seas was our own much fresher and seaworthy oak forests.

All the uses we make of oak are  lovingly detailed in Oak.  But even more fascinating is the section called “Oak Itself.”

Read this book, and you’ll never look at oaks the same way again.

2 replies

    • Yes, I am appreciating oak on a whole new level. I had thought of it mainly as the stately prairie tree, but we owe it a debt that goes back before recorded history.

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