The Age of Wood - West Wind Hardwood

Our Most Useful Material And the Construction of Civilization

An Essay on the book By Roland Ennos

Roland Ennos is a visiting professor of biological sciences at the University of Hull, England. With his broad scientific knowledge and ability to make connections across disciplines, he is devoted to explaining how the world works for a general audience. He is the author of successful textbooks on plants, biomechanics, and statistics, and his popular book Trees, published by the Natural History Museum, is now in its second edition. Among other things, he is an expert on the mechanics of wood and trees.

Barn Raising – Ontario 1886

He has investigated how our fingers are modified for gripping.  He has studied how early humans used spear-throwers to increase projectile range, and how they designed better axes to cut down trees.  He has lectured on how humans have managed and altered forests and has had a life-long fascination for architecture and engineering.

Mid-Vancouver Island – Englewood Railway Line
Culturally Modified Tree – The Broughton Archipelago

Ennos has written over 120 scientific publications and promoted his research through appearances on national and international radio shows including BBC’s ‘Open Country’ and PBS’s ‘Science Friday’.  He has made numerous appearances on local television and gives talks on trees to natural history and gardening societies throughout the United Kingdom.

Lee Polevoi, Highbrown Magazine’s chief book critic says Enno’s new, comprehensive book, The Age of Wood, attempts to disprove the prevailing conventional wisdom that wood “is little more than an obsolete relic from our distant past.  Towards that end, he ranges far and wide, calling upon findings from archeology, geography, geology, and biomechanics, as well as the long history of human culture.” 

“A groundbreaking examination of the role that wood and trees have played in our global ecosystem—including human evolution and the rise and fall of empires—in the bestselling tradition of Yuval Harari’s Sapiens and Mark Kurlansky’s Salt.  As the dominant species on Earth, humans have made astonishing progress since our ancestors came down from the trees.  But how did the descendants of small primates manage to walk upright, become top predators, and populate the world?  How were humans able to develop civilizations and produce a globalized economy?  Now, in The Age of Wood, Roland Ennos shows for the first time that the key to our success has been our relationship with wood.  Brilliantly synthesizing recent research with existing knowledge in fields as wide-ranging as primatology, anthropology, archaeology, history, architecture, engineering, and carpentry, Ennos reinterprets human history and shows how our ability to exploit wood’s unique properties has profoundly shaped our bodies and minds, societies, and lives.  He takes us on a sweeping ten-million-year journey from Southeast Asia and West Africa where great apes swing among the trees, builds nests, and fashion tools; to East Africa where hunter-gatherers collected their food; to the structural design of wooden temples in China and Japan; and to Northern England, where archaeologists trace how coal enabled humans to build an industrial world.

Addressing the effects of industrialization—including the use of fossil fuels and other energy-intensive materials to replace timber— The Age of Wood not only shows the essential role that trees play in the history and evolution of human existence, but also argues that for the benefit of our planet we must return to more traditional ways of growing, using, and understanding trees.  A winning blend of history and science, this is a fascinating and authoritative work for anyone interested in nature, the environment, and the making of the world as we know it.”
Ennos, R. (2020).  The Age of Wood. Scribner.  Retrieved from Highbrow Magazine (Original work published 2020)

Here are some interesting facts about wood:

  • Wood is lighter than water.
  • Weight for weight, wood is comparable to steel in strength and toughness.
  • Wood can be employed to hold up houses, “yet can be cut up into tools as small as a toothpick.”

Ian Haysom, a veteran journalist and writer, is a news consultant for CHEK TV (Victoria, BC) recently wrote, “we came out of the trees once we learned to build shelters out of wood and burn fires.  We made wheels, windmills, Viking longships — then even larger ships that helped us explore the world — and we used wood to make violins and pianos and more elaborate homes and furniture and so on and so on.

Chairs at the Musée d’Orsay – When photos were allowed

And, of course, books.  And then newspapers.  Wood has been a technological marvel, but also crucial to our cultural and social and geographic development.  And religion.  Wood is there in the Bible – Jesus was a carpenter/and Noah made his ark out of wood.  And it’s there on Haida Gwaii, where the longhouses and totems are testaments to wood’s vital importance to communities past and present.”

In Chapter 15, Ennos talks about our strained relationship with wood;

“how it allowed us to come down from the trees and become a top predator, how it’s allowed us to colonize all the continents bar Antarctica; and ultimately how it enabled us to monopolize the land for ourselves.  In doing so we have transformed the planet; we have cleared vast areas of forest and altered the composition of the remaining woodland, but until the last few hundred years we did this in ways that were essentially sustainable.  It’s obvious, though that nowadays this is no longer the case”.

– Ennos, R. (2020). The Age of Wood. Scribner.

There are few places on earth that can match the diversity of Canada’s vast forests.  In particular, the province of BC is home to 40 different tree species and biogeoclimatic zones.

British Columbia (BC) is one of the world’s largest exporters of wood products.

Our forestry sector has attractive opportunities in mills, forestry operations, the manufacturing of high-quality forest products and value-added wood products, as well as biofuels.

From planting forests to manufacturing products, the forest sector in BC is a sophisticated and interconnected network involving sustainable forest management, wood processing and hundreds of communities that live, work, and play in these forests. 

Forestry is an important driving force in the Vancouver Island economy, particularly in rural communities.  We respect the tree.  We rarely take it for granted.  The tree is central to our landscape, to our economy, to life itself.  They help us breathe.

Bowren Lake Circuit – Near Caribou Falls

We fight battles over the tree, hike and bike in our forests and use its product in just about every endeavour – from building houses to sitting at our table for dinner.

TJ Watt is a bit of a modern Lorax.  He is co-founder, campaigner, and photographer with the Ancient Forest Alliance.  TJ was named National Geographic Explorer and Royal Canadian Geographical Society Explorer this recent October and received a Trebek Initiative grant.

He uses his camera to protect old-growth trees in British Columbia, capturing the ancient giants before — and after — they’ve been cut down.  It’s all in the hopes of raising enough public pressure that the B.C. The government will end old-growth logging.  But why are these ancient trees being logged in the first place?  And what’s going to happen next?

Listen to CBC’s Podcast of The Doc Project – Big Tree Hunt – Aired November 28.  It is highly informative and thought-provoking: Follow producer, Brad Badelt as he speaks to people from all sides of this complicated issue, from logging supporters to ecological activists; forestry experts to policymakers and joins TJ Watt and his camera on their bushwhacking hunt for the next Big Tree.

And next time you sit around a campfire, take a breath and give thanks. 
Reflect on just how far…or not…we’ve stepped away from our forest canopies.

“God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.”

– John Muir

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