The oak tree as unsung hero

The story of one of mankind's most generous friends

It's astonishing that it took 18 tons of paper blueprints to specify exactly how the World War II battleship the U.S.S. Missouri was to be constructed.

Or that near Windsor, England, there is a plantation of still-living oak trees planted in 1588 - back when Elizabeth I was in power and Shakespeare was a young man.

Those are two of the interesting pieces of trivia a reader learns from "Oak: The Frame of Civilization," a new book by arborist William Bryant Logan. Interesting, yes, but it's not entirely clear what ties these two pieces of information together, which is a problem for "Oak."

Not that the oak is an unworthy topic for a general-interest book. Logan successfully convinces us of the oak's majesty, even though he tells us right off the bat that oak is neither the world's tallest nor oldest nor strongest type of tree.

But its very failure to find a niche is part of what makes it so special, Logan tells us. "The oak's distinction is its insistence and its flexibility," he says. "It specializes in not specializing."

Then there is its ubiquity. In the Northern Hemisphere, at least, the oak is to be found everywhere that humans are. "[T]he distribution of oak trees is coterminous with the locations of the settled civilizations of Asia, Europe and North America.... Where there are or have been the cities and cultures that shaped the modern world, there are or have been oaks."

That was not mere coincidence, argues Logan. No other tree, he says, played such an integral role in the creation and development of human civilization.

We ate the acorns (and in some places still do). We used oak wood to build houses and furniture, as well as the boats that sailed from Europe to the New World. We extracted tannins from oak bark to tan leather, and we've turned to oak galls to make the ink in which the great works of European art and poetry, as well as the American Constitution, are written.

Logan muses about the imaginative uses early humans found for trees and the way those ideas turned into realities, such as a wooden walkway in Britain that connected primitive households separated by shallow water, built as early as 3807 BC.

He uses oak as a prism through which to view the rise of human civilization, examining the ways in which human use of oak became more sophisticated. It's an interesting way to sift through human history, and yields some interesting insights.

"Patience is what you acquire by working again and again on resistant materials," he says. "There is never a right or wrong, only a closer and closer approach to wholly useful."

Yet "Oak" as a whole is not entirely successful. It lacks cohesion and feels haphazard, a compendium of facts with only one common thread: Logan finds them interesting. Sometimes Logan, on a discursive tangent about, say, non-oak 20th-century battleships seems to be struggling to find his way back.

The story he seems to want to tell isn't really about oak, but about human ingenuity and our relationship to trees. And that's a fine topic. But because "Oak" is not organized outright around it, the book meanders disconcertingly.

One of the most amazing features of oak (the tree) is how very essential each component part is to the whole. "Oak" (the book) would be better if the same could be said for it.

Adelle Waldman writes for The Wall Street Journal Online in New York City.

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