The New Sylva - a celebration of Britain's trees

| 30th May 2014
Horse chestnut leaves and fruits in autumn. A drawing for The New Sylva by Sarah Simblet.
Horse chestnut leaves and fruits in autumn. A drawing for The New Sylva by Sarah Simblet.
The New Sylva is a worthy successor to John Evelyn's original of 1644, writes Colin Tudge, with superb line drawings and a text that looks more to the future of Britain's trees, than their past. A book for ladies, gentlemen, 'meer woodsmen' and 'ordinary rusticks' alike.
Hemery's eminently readable text and Simblet's brilliant drawings show why we should love and respect the world's trees, and how deep is our debt to them.

In 1664 the Royal Society of London, founded only four years earlier, published its first ever book.

This was Sylva, one of the earliest (though not quite the very first) practical manuals of silviculture - the care and management of trees and woods.

Its author was one of the Society's co-founders, John Evelyn, who among much else was a fine and famous gardener and also, together with Samuel Pepys, was one of the 17th century's most assiduous and informative diarists.

In truth, Evelyn probably wasn't Sylva's sole author but his was the only name to be credited, for he demoted his fellow toilers to "divers gentlemen".

But then he was, so Pepys somewhat ruefully remarked, rather aware of his own superiority - although Pepys warmed to him later.

Updating Evelyn's pioneering effort

Sylva was a magnificent work with much that is still pertinent. It's amazing how much they knew in those days about grafting and pruning and so on.

Gabriel Hemery has written The New Sylva partly to update Evelyn's pioneer effort and partly as a tribute, to mark its 350th anniversary. The New Sylva too is magnificent ("sumptuous", is the publisher's term).

Unlike the original, the new version is illustrated - with scores of some of the best botanical drawings I have seen, by Sarah Simblet. Some are of groves and landscapes although most are of details - flowers, leaves, fruits, with a few pestilential insects (which, among trees, are legion; beetles and moths and bugs and goodness knows what).

Simblet teaches at the National Gallery, and at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford - fittingly so, for she surely is Ruskin's spiritual protégée.

Conserving the past, and managing for the future

Hemery co-founded the Sylva Foundation in 2006 and is still its chief executive. In 2011 and 2012 he campaigned to save England's public forests - and some of the individual trees the modern campaigners had in their sights were already mature and sometimes ancient in Evelyn's day, including many of the oaks which were Evelyn's chief concern.

But, as Hemery emphasizes, the task is not primarily to conserve the past but to manage our trees and forests for the present and far into the future, to keep them vibrant so they pull their weight ecologically and socially. As Evelyn would have agreed, conservation and judicious utilization must march hand in hand.

Trees take a long time to grow so foresters must always be thinking ahead: pines generally take around 30 years to reach commercial size while oaks reach their optimum at around 80 to 100.

But the forester must also judge society's future needs and for this they must be futurologists - which, even now, is largely an exercize in crystal-gazing. Modern technologies can make good use of trees that are little more than saplings or even less, but traditional builders and shipbuilders needed big timbers.

Hemery's eminently readable text and Simblet's brilliant drawings show why we should love and respect the world's trees, and how deep is our debt to them.

Hearts of Oak

Evelyn cared most about oaks because ships were made of them and the English ships galore to beat off the ever-threatening navies of the Dutch, Spanish, and French.

It took vast numbers of oaks even to build a single ship. In the early 16th century the ill-fated Mary Rose swallowed up around 1,200 of them, the output of 75 acres (30 hectares), plus three great chunks of elm for the keel - yet the Mary Rose wasn't particularly big.

The threat of invasion continued through the 18th century, mainly from the French, and so it was that in 1776 Dr Alexander Hunter FRS, recalling the Seven Years War of 1756-1763, wrote that:

" ... many of our ships which in the last war have carried laws to the whole world, were constructed from Oaks planted in [John Evelyn's] time. The present age must reflect upon this with gratitude; and it is to be hoped that we shall be ambitious to receive from posterity the same acknowledgements that we at this moment pay to the memory of our virtuous Ancestors."

By the late 18th and early 19th century Napoleon posed as great and hideous a threat as Hitler did in the 1940s, and Britain planted more and more oaks accordingly.

From ships to pit props, garden fences

But as the 19th century wore on the British navy opted for iron-clads, at first with timber frames but later, all-steel. Suddenly the nation's need for oaks, which for centuries had been so obvious and so pressing, waned.

Indeed it waned so much that forestry in general declined and by World War I - thanks to the naval blockade of timber imported from the colonies, on which we had come to rely - we were running out of timber altogether. This left the nation short of, in particular, pit props for coal mines, then a strategic necessity.

This led the government in 1919 to establish the Forestry Commission: not to grow oaks but fast-growing conifers, including the Germanic (literally - the method came from Germany) ranks of Sitka spruce that took over such vast areas of moorland, particularly in the north.

But the perceived national need changed once more and many of these highly unpopular intruders were grubbed out again after 20 years or less, and essentially junked. At least the more successful conifer plantings are finding a worthy use in paper mills, and as fence posts and panels in suburban gardens.

Sawdust - the new gold?

So where do we go from here? The apparently fashionable notion that high tech can solve all our problems warrants extreme caution (and the folly of it is particularly clear in agriculture), but for foresters it may be largely justified.

In particular, small fragments of wood can now be united to make huge beams of uniform quality and prodigious strength that have opened whole new vistas in architecture. Indeed, timber may now be reduced to nano-particles - the ultimate deconstruction - and as Hemery says:

"Nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC) is heralded as a new wonder material [with] eight times the strength to weight ratio of steel, and has been said to turn even twigs and sawdust into 'gold'."

Lovely hardwoods will always have a role as veneers. With such combinations we could be building all-timber cities and most of the machines within them - elegant, eminently functional, endlessly renewable (if we don't do too much at once), and a huge carbon sink: tying up enough carbon to make a significant impact on global warming.

Already we have 10-storey all-timber buildings and some architects dream of 30 storeys. It all looks like win-win-win. This, rather than the spurious GMOs, is perhaps what 'biotechnology' ought to mean.

'Meer foresters and woodmen'

For all his qualities Evelyn was a shocking elitist and, he said, he wrote the original Sylva "not altogether ... for the sake of our ordinary rusticks, meer foresters and woodmen, but for the benefit and diversion of Gentlemen and persons of quality ... "

I reckon myself that the rusticks are a far more useful group of people - and The New Sylva is written for us all, and is altogether excellent. It is properly hard-nosed where this is appropriate with good and modern science, and packed with practical information on how to grow and care for trees.

But it is also lyrical, showing through Hemery's eminently readable text and Simblet's brilliant drawings why we should love and respect the world's trees, and how deep is our debt to them - in the past and, if we treat them right, far into the future.



The book: 'The New Sylva - A discourse of forest & orchard trees for the twenty-first century' is written by Gabriel Hemery and Sarah Simblet, and published by Bloomsbury, London, 2014.

Colin Tudge is the author of 'The Secret Life of Trees' and many books on food and agriculture including 'Good Food for Everyone Forever'. His latest book is 'Why Genes are Not Selfish and People are Nice'. 



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