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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Oak: The Frame of Civilization by William Bryant Logan

Oak: The Frame of Civilization by William Bryant Logan. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005. ISBN: 0-393-04773-3

What an amazing story this book has to tell! The oak is not the tallest tree. It's not the most massive. Nor is it the oldest, strongest, or fastest growing. And yet it has had the most profound influence on human development of any tree, if this book and its author are to be believed. He certainly makes a good case. Read the book, and you're likely to be convinced. Here's a sample of some of the author's assertions:

Since the glaciers last retreated and since humans began to build and settle down, there have been but two versions of this world: the world made with wood and the world made with coal and oil. One lasted twelve to fifteen thousand millenia; the other has lasted about 250 years so far . . .

In most of the temperate world, oak is the primary, the titular tree of the forest. In Sanskrit, the name for the oak and the name for trees in general is the same: duir. No tree has been more useful to human beings than the oak. It was the oak that taught humans forestry. . . Oak alone could so flexibly and reliably be shaped with stone axes.

But even more than that, the oak may well have been the subsistence food of prehistoric times. The word for oak means “the meal-bearing tree” in at least one language. The 8th century B.C.E. Greek poet, Hesiod wrote that “Honest people do not suffer from famine, since the gods give them abundant subsistence: acorn-bearing oaks, honey, and sheep.”

The term “balanoculture,” a word new to me, is used to describe a way of life that is based on meal (flour) made from acorns. It is the author's contention that most early human cultures thrived on a diet of acorn meal. Balanocultures existed almost up to modern times, with the author describing in detail one such culture among native Americans in California that lasted into the first decade of the 20th century. Another quote:

The Tartars of the Crimea were still eating it at the end of the nineteenth century. In Corsica and Sardinia and in North Africa it is sometimes still eaten today. The California Indians all ate acorn breads, and the naturalist John Muir called the acorn cakes he learned to make from the Indians “the most compact and strength-giving food.” It was easily portable, very nutritious, and it kept for months without spoiling.

Other chapters talk about the role of the oak in our civilization, right up through the 19th century, and well into the 20th. The viking ships, and all ships until the ironclads, were made principally of oak. Houses, furniture, casks and barrels, all from oak. Even ink was made from oak galls. Charcoal, the fuel that made glass, bronze, eventually iron and much more, came primarily from oak. Tanners used oak bark as an important ingredient in creating leather from hides.

One could go on and on, and the author at times does just that. But the story of the myriads of ways in which the oak has under girded civilization is a truly fascinating one, and this book and its author tell that story in a way that keeps you turning the pages, wondering just what marvels will come next. Highly recommended!

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