The Wild Library: ecological learning

Save the Trees! In the 1600s

I’ve been looking back into the origins and roots of the word ‘sustainability’, from German forestry practices, dating back to 1713. Through this, I found myself reading a 1664 book, Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest Trees and the Propagation of Timber: Volumme 1 by John Evelyn which is alluded to be one of the publications that may have influenced German forestry at the time.

I found it astounding to realise that it was during the 1600s that recognition that the rate of using oak trees and other trees in England (especially for shipbuilding, including masts etc.. ) was already being observed as threatening the immediate future of forests. In my thinking, this would have been much later in industrialised development, which demonstrates quite an assumption on my part. John Emery was calling attention to this, and the need for intervention with reforestation (parks and forests) with trees an urgently finite human resource. As a landscape architect, he seems who seems to express an awareness or observation of the relationships and interactions of trees with humans and other species. This was first presented to London’s science society, at the time called The Royal Society of London from Improving Natural Knowledge (The Royal Society).

As well as interesting notes on the uses of specific families of trees (practical and medicinal) and propagation notes, as well a poetry and literature extracts, there are notes that seem to indicate observation of ecological interaction, such as this in the section about Elm trees , cautioning on the impact of the farming practice of collecting leaves for use on bees — or least, that is what I think the passage is saying:

 and finally, (which I must not omit) the use of the very leaves of this tree, especially of the female, is not to be despis’d; for being suffered to dry in the sun upon the branches, and the spray strip’d  off about the decrease in August (as also where the suckers and stolones are super-numerary, and hinder the thriving of their nurses) they will prove a great relief to cattel in winter, and scorching summers, when hay and fodder is dear they will eat them before oats, and thrive exceedingly well with them; remember only to lay your boughs up in some dry and sweet corner of your barn: It was for this the poet prais’d them, and the epithet was advis’d,

fruitful in leaves the elm.

In some parts of Herefordshire they gather them in sacks for their swine, and other cattel, according to this husbandry. But I hear an ill report of them for bees, that surfeiting of the blooming seeds, they are obnoxious to the lask, at their first going abroad in spring, which endangers whole stocks, if remedies be not timely adhibited; therefore ’tis said in great elm countries they do not thrive; but the truth of which I am yet to learn.

Emery, 1664, p. 74.