There is not an advertisement for garden furniture made from tropical hardwoods that does not protest that the wood is from some ecologically “renewable source.” Counter protests follow fast.
This sort of polarity develops whenever an indigenous population becomes too large to be sustained by the natural resources around it. Of course, in undeveloped, uncolonialized communities- the kind of land in which Rousseau’s communities- the kind of land in which flourish- there is a sort of equilibrium between what the environment can provide in the way of food and other necessities of human life and the size of population. There are still, just, Amazonian tribes who live thus and whose traditional knowledge of the plant and animal resources with which they share the land enables them to maintain a simple subsistence civilization. Their survival into the 21st century is less to do with worthy Western anthropological conce4rns that the footprint upon the land is light, and that rapacious incomers have not yet used up resources nearer to hand and easier to exploit. As, one fears, has always been the case.
Enlightened people, which of course mean us, rightly have intellectual worries about the situation but probably do little about it apart from remembering that John Donne has already worried more eloquently about no man being an island. Our interest in trees, however, can bring it all very much home to our own surroundings. Existing bristle cone pines and redwoods living in America today were already flourishing trees when the local native peoples (though not necessarily co- existing in happy harmony) knew what the land offered and had lived off it for untold generations. There are yews in English country churchyards that predate the Norman church they shade. They began their life cycle at a period when, in spite of waves of human invaders of varying unpleasantness, as mall population lived off its land and knew what its flora and fauna could provide, just as do those Amazonians today. These were pre- industrial communities in which native trees were essential to survival. They were the universal providers; what is extraordinary is that which they offered to medieval man has not been superseded in any way.
In Britain, there may be virtually no wild woodland left, and what comes nearest to it- Wystmans wood on Dartmoor with its age- old contorted oaks and the remnants of royal hunting forests- is carefully conserved, so it has become necessary to grow as crops the trees needed for different purposes. No building construction takes place without wood; even in the most excessive mode of 1950s and 1960s brutalist building, the “honesty” of concrete walls carries still the grain of the wooden shuttering between which the slurry was poured, like the passing breath of a sympathetic ghost.
In earliest times, wood was the building material. Shelters were made of a framework of thin branches woven together and covered with skins or, more permanently, with turf or puddled clay. Even when stone could be employed, wood still permitted wider spans for roof support, as well as providing flooring, paneling, furniture, and so on. It is a happy suggestion that the builders of classical Greece and Rome, in their use of constructional pillars and ornamental dentil cornice, were intentionally paying homage to the tree trunks and cross beams of their cultures first buildings.
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