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A Forest Journey: The Role of Wood in the Development of Civilization Paperback – March 1, 1991

4.7 out of 5 stars 21 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Perlin has accumulated what seems every reference to the use and misuse of forests in the period beginning with Gilgamesh and ending with the 1880 U.S. census. In between, he chronicles the deforestation of Asia, the Mediterranean, Europe, the West Indies, and the United States by kings, warlords, and robber barons for purposes ranging from building navies to smelting iron to clearing land for cash crops. The research is exhaustive, but the book disappoints in two ways. First, the style is flat. All information is treated as equal in weight, without interpretation or expert opinion. This makes for heavy reading; the hundreds of subheadings in the text accentuate a sense of the book as a compilation, rather than a narrative. Second, given how deforestation has recently become a hot topic, one wishes for a connection to the present time, so that the information might be applied, rather than simply noted.
- Mark L. Shelton, Columbus, Ohio
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


A delightful book...[It] is history in the etymological sense of the word--a story, told with grace, fluency, imagination, and humor...Perlin's central thesis is that wood has been both humanity's main material and main fuel, that its abundance made possible the rapid growth of successive civilizations, and that its exhaustion has been a major cause of their collapse...Out of this rich experience emerges a many-sided understanding of the causes of deforestation...[This book] deserves to become a classic. (Philip Stewart Forest and Conservation History)

An intriguing and informative account...This work not only captures the significant impact of wood on past and present civilizations but also provides special insight into world history and demography. The book is well written and well illustrated and has an extensive note section...It should have appeal to a broad readership. (Choice)

Outstanding...profusely documented and illustrated...with a story-teller's pace and ability to surprise...This book takes one of those bold imaginative sweeps through history that leave you full of excitement, as suddenly events seem to fall into a pattern for the first time. (British Broadcasting Corporation)

A Forest Journey is a timely and absorbing piece of history. Perlin marshals his authorities with skill...His story never flags. (Times Literary Supplement)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (March 1, 1991)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674308921
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674308923
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.1 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,451,702 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
A Forest Journey first reminds us of the absolute importance of wood to human history: how much we have depended on wood for our very existence:
"Throughout the ages trees have provided the material to make fire, the heat of which has allowed our species to reshape the earth for its use. With heat from wood fires, relatively cold climates became habitable; inedible grains were changed into a major source of food; clay could be converted into pottery, serving as useful containers to store goods; people could extract metal from stone, revolutionizing the implements used in agriculture, crafts, and warfare; the builders could make durable construction materials such as brick, cement, lime, plaster, and tile for housing and storage facilities....
"Transportation would have been unthinkable without wood. Until the nineteenth century every ship, from Bronze Age coaster to the frigate, was built with timber. Every cart, chariot, and wagon was also made primarily of wood. Early steamboats and railroad locomotives in the United States used wood as their fuel...
"Wood was also used for the beams that propped up mine shafts and formed supports for every type of building. Water wheels and windmills ­ the major means of mechanical power before electricity was harnessed ­ were built of wood. The peasant could not farm without wooden tool handles or wood plows; the soldier could not throw his spear or shoot his arrows without their wooden shafts, or hold his gun without its wooden stock. What would the archer have done lacking wood for his bow; the brewer and vintner, without wood for their barrels and casks; or the woolen industry, without wood for its looms?"
Perlin then thoroughly documents how all past nations declined once their forests were depleted. Today, with the world's forests in jeopardy, A Forest Journey provides much needed information that can help us avoid another needless repetition of history.
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This is one of the most important books I have ever read.

The relevance for our times of this highly engaging history of how the earliest civilizations to late 19th-century America have exploited wood (primarily as fuel, then as building material) and cleared forests cannot be overstated. Again and again, Perlin shows that the tragedy of the commons repeats itself throughout the patterns of human history, and the cycle has continued to the present day when we have the choice to break it by developing renewable, clean energy.

Beginning with the Mesopotamians, and continuing unabated to the present day, civilizations have access to forests previously admired and considered sacred. Greed for economic gain and/or military power, not the necessities of life (for which the forests amply provide) motivates Man to cut down forests at an increasingly alarming pace, as everyone wants to get in on the profits. Enormous quantities of wood are often cut down to produce a small quantum of finished products, such as a few kilograms of iron or refined sugar. The exploitation of forests is almost completely unregulated until it is too late for governments to do much about it. Often governments themselves dismiss or respond insufficiently to concerns by educated citizens, who warn of economic and ecological devastation if the free-for-all logging continues. And often this is because government members are well-placed to make personal profits from the wood/fuel trade. The individual cutters don't think to replant what they have taken, or even to spare saplings and young trees - why, when there's so much of it for oneself? Within several hundred years, there is little or no wood left (the latter situation was more common).
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Format: Paperback
A Forest Journey should be required reading in every school. It thoroughly documents the absolute importance of wood to human history and how all nations declined once their forests were depleted. In his introduction, John Perlin reminds us of something taken for granted: the importance of wood to our very existence...At a time when we have lost touch with the basis of much that makes us human, this book can help us avoid the downfalls suffered by nations that have gone before us. As Lily Tomlin supposedly said, "If we would just pay attention, history wouldn't have to keep repeating itself."
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Format: Paperback
Perlin's Forest Journey traces civilizations from the Fertile Crescent to Colonial North America and how their rise and fall is related to the health of their forests. His knowledge of history is extensive and his writing style is enjoyable. The surprise is that we have yet to learn the lessons of history.
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Once upon a time, at the dawn of civilization, the planet's forests were in peak condition, in terms of their age, range, and health. Wildlife was thriving. Modern lads and lasses would not believe their eyes if they could dream their way back to 10,000 BC and observe the stunning abundance of birds, fish, and wild grazing animals -- and the absence of cities.

Sadly, on a dark and stormy night, some wise guys figured out how to smelt ore and forge ax heads, and things have been going downhill ever since. Axes did make it much easier to cut down trees, but the mad scientists totally failed to imagine the unintended consequences of their brilliant invention (as usual). But this was an era when it was quite popular to invent technologies that would have negative effects for many, many centuries. It was the trendy thing to do.

For example, the digging stick. Agriculture preceded metal making. First, they farmed shorelines and riverbanks until the soil fertility wore out. Then, they cleared forests, and wore out the soil there. Then they moved to a different forest, killed the trees, and wore out that soil. And on and on. This cycle has been repeated for thousands of years.

Prior to the digging stick, hunter-gatherers simply limited the number children they allowed to survive. By keeping their numbers low, they could live in a wild and healthy land, and enjoy a life that required far less effort and drudgery. Remember that!

John Perlin's book, A Forest Journey, is a history of forest destruction, with stops including Mesopotamia, Crete, Greece, Cyprus, Rome, Venice, England, Brazil, and America.
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