OAK: The Frame of Civilization

By William Bryant Logan

Reviewed by Lynn N. Duke




After last year’s hurricanes, Central Floridians might consider many of the remaining oak trees a menace, wondering when they, too, might come crashing down.


But after reading a few pages of William Bryant Logan’s “OAK: The Frame of Civilization,” it’s easier to forget about last year’s destruction, and get caught up in the amazing role this mighty species has played in the development of civilization.


From the origin of surnames and classic turns of phrase, to the ink Da Vinci, Bach and Jefferson used to shape their worlds, as well as the massive beams that made it possible to build ocean-going ships, oak trees were a dominant source of inspiration and sustenance for people in the Northern Hemisphere until less than 150 years ago.


Logan, an arborist and award-winning nature writer, is clearly enthralled by the oak’s humble, yet majetic presence:


 “The oak’s distinction is its insistence and its flexibility. The tree helps and is helped in return. It specializes in not specializing….No tree has been more helpful to human beings than the oak.”


But it is the oak’s munificence through which Logan establishes it as a shepherd of civilization:


“Human beings learned from the woods around them. The more people used oak, the more they found it could do….The material necessities of human life can all be made from an oak tree.”


After the Ice Age, it was no coincidence that oak forests in the Northern Hemisphere could be found along the same geographic contours where human civilization developed. For almost 3,000 years, according to Logan, people depended on acorns as their primary food source, which at that time were easier to harvest than wheat or barley, and perhaps even more nutritious.


With a major food supply readily at hand, people began exploring other aspects of the world around them. Oak forests became the super Wal-Mart of their times:


“Up until our times, a forest was not a wilderness. From it might be harvested timber, firewood, tanbark, charcoal, fence and hurdle poles, splints for wattle, grass to pasture sheep or cattle, acorns to fatten hogs, honey from beehives, ink from oak galls.”


The oak forests also helped people develop a variety of crafts and trades – cooper, collier, tanner, forester, carpenter, ironworker – many of which have either survived or fostered successors.


Logan is an impassioned scholar who helps readers understand the relevance of oak from Stone Henge to the War of 1812, and seemingly everything in between. 


Like any good history lesson, Logan includes some interesting tidbits for the small-talk file.


Druid – the order of Celtic priests who appear throughout Irish, Welsh and Christian legends as magicians and wizards – is derived from Dru-Wid, or “oak knowledge”


The USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” got its name from the thickness of its oak planking and ribs, which put 22-inches between the crew and the enemy’s cannon, while the hulls of British and French ships afforded only 14 inches of protection. Designers commissioned to build the fledgling U.S. Navy had at their disposal a continent full of a wide variety of the best oak, allowing them to build for both speed and endurance. Meanwhile, the British and French were beginning to run out of prime lumber after centuries of use on an every-increasing scale.


Logan pegs the end of the Age of Oak to April 1862, when the first ironclad battleships debuted in the Civil War. Although reliance on the tree had been declining for decades, the battle between the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor made sailing ships obsolete.


Tall-masted ships may never regain their preeminence on the seas, oak trees are having a renaissance in certain areas. Across upstate New York, where hundreds of farms died out during the latter half of the 20th Century, the forests have reclaimed pastureland. Most of the new timber is oak, and the area has become one of the world’s leading sources of hardwood.


“OAK: The Frame of Civilization” has a broad appeal, ranging across history, shipbuilding, engineering, forestry and anthropology. But it’s a comforting tale as well for those of us with their mighty limbs still dangling over our roofs.