On the shelf
A Forest Journey: The Role of Trees in the Destiny of Civilization (Revised)
By John Perlin
Patagonia: 520 pages, $38
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385 million years ago, trees allowed life to spread on earth. With the advent of Archaeoptreis, one of the earliest modern trees, our carbon-covered planet has been transformed into a hospitable environment for other life forms, including vertebrates and ultimately humans, to evolve and thrive. It almost goes without saying that we won’t repay the favor.
The rich history of forests, from the distant past to our present climate chaos, and the underappreciated role of wood products in the development of human civilizations is the life’s work of author John Perlin. In 1989, the Los Angeles native published A Forest Journey: From Mesopotamia to North America. Now, 34 years later, the book embarks on a new journey with the help of two influential contributors.
An updated third edition of “A forest trip‘ will be out next week from a new publisher, Patagonia. Yes, The Patagonia. The company, which began manufacturing climbing hooks in 1973 and has grown into a global outdoor clothing giant, launched its own publishing program in 2007.
Perlin, now 78, is also the author of three books on solar energy and a visiting scholar on the Physics Department at UC Santa Barbara. Little did he know until 2018 that Patagonia co-founders Malinda and Yvon Chouinard were devoted fans who for years had recommended the book to anyone who would listen. That year, he received an email from publisher Karla Olson, stating that the Chouinards first read A Forest Journey 25 years ago and had never forgotten the book’s message.
Patagonia’s book program began after Yvon Chouinard published his business memoir, Let My People Go Surfing, in 2005. The first book his company published was “Yosemite in the Sixties” by Glen Denny, a collection of black and white rock climbing photographs in Yosemite Valley. Patagonia quickly grew to between five and eight titles a year, including adventure stories, memoirs by athletes and explorers, and books by pioneering environmental scientists.
Last year, the Chouinards transferred their family’s ownership of the private company to a purpose-built trust and non-profit organization committed to environmental sustainability, though they remain heavily involved throughout Patagonia — including the books department.
Perlin’s book fits the masthead perfectly, and it couldn’t be more timely as it focuses on mitigating climate change by renewing our symbiotic relationship with the trees that have sustained us. “A Forest Journey” is an approachable, accessible monograph with an impressively broad spectrum. From construction to fuel to weapons, Perlin shows that wood can be mankind’s most important material.
When A Forest Journey was first published, the intertwined history of humans and trees was an underexplored topic. The book was recognized as a Harvard Classic in Science and World History and listed as one of the university’s hundred great books. David Graeber, an anthropologist who went on to write best-selling historical narratives, likened it to “some Greek epic spanning 4,000 years of civilization” in a review for The Times.
However, until 2017, finding a copy was difficult; The “inevitably tragic” book, as Graeber had put it, waned in popularity with readers who were probably more used to faster tales of resources like cod or salt. But for the Chouinards, “A Forest Journey” remains a foundational conservation story that helps contextualize the current climate crisis. And so they asked to re-release it.
“Oh, you could say it was the dream of my life,” Perlin said via video from his Santa Barbara home of how it felt to receive her invite.
Patagonia not only offered to revive the relatively obscure title, but also offered the insatiably curious scholar the opportunity to add new research to his edition.
“I kept coming up with ideas, and even for the last 30 years as a fellow, I’ve had all this wonderful material and nobody wanted it,” he said. “And then suddenly my angels come flying out of Ventura.”
The new, expanded edition, subtitled The Role of Trees in the Fate of Civilization, was originally scheduled for release in 2020 but was delayed when Patagonia paused its books during the COVID-19 pandemic. The silver lining: it gave Perlin more time to add new material, including a section on forests and human health. Olson described Perlin as “incredibly scholarly,” and this is evident on the site.
New research has shown that deforestation is increasing the spread of diseases like Lyme disease in the Northeastern United States, and a 2018 article in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology theorized that bats and coronaviruses are linked to human encroachment on natural habitats in connection. It was a prescient statement that Perlin felt compelled to add timely evidence of the critical relationship between trees and human health to A Forest Journey.
Patagonia uses 100% post-consumer recycled paper in line with its sustainability and environmental protection mission. “A Forest Journey” contained extensive endnotes, spanning 80 pages; To reduce paper usage, these have been replaced with online resources to include footnotes and interactive maps, as well as a forthcoming teacher guide. Another hallmark of the books is the prominent use of images alongside the text. The book is peppered with stunning color photographs and graphics, creating an immersive landscape that acidifies the dense text.
“We’re a small, tiny piece of the publishing industry, but we try to challenge it [publishers] rethinking the way they do some things, including printing on virgin paper,” Olson said.
Perlin wants people to understand that trees are the reason for the development of culture, including books. “Wood is indeed the unsung hero of the technological revolution that has taken us from the stone-and-bone culture to our present day,” he writes.
What Perlin jokingly calls his “woodwork” was inspired by a story from southern Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago recorded on a clay tablet as “The Epic of Gilgamesh.”
“I will cut down the great forest,” cried the legendary Sumerian hero. Perlin believes this has become the society’s mantra ever since Gilgamesh and his men sacked the great jungle. From the Fertile Crescent to ancient Chinese and Indian empires to the more recent arrival of European colonists in North America, Perlin reveals a repeating pattern of people who can’t see the woods for the trees.
“Unfortunately, the current attack on our forests is part of the same cycle that began thousands of years ago,” he writes. “Every Old World begins as virgin land attractive to human habitation. Subsequent exploitation by humans depletes the land, forcing them to move to their nearest New World. This search for new frontiers, which many thought was inherent in the American experience, is repeated over and over again.”
Olson is interested in Perlin’s 30,000-foot range. “It’s so diverse, both temporally and culturally, and it’s a really interesting perspective that I think will surprise people,” she said.
Archaeoptreis provided much of life, and unless the current cycle of land degradation is broken, the absence of trees will mean the absence of almost everything else. Three decades of progressive warming since The Forest Journey was first published, the new edition reveals how we can protect ancient forests, which are natural receptacles for carbon sequestration. Cities like New York and Seattle are now recognizing the value of preserving trees to maintain the integrity of freshwater supplies and are investing in conservation efforts to protect forests and watersheds – a new glimmer of hope at the end of Perlin’s story.
“I tried using 1,000 voices from the past,” Perlin said of his storytelling method. From the many voices he gathered while writing A Forest Journey, the author wonders if we will continue to emulate Gilgamesh’s battle cry that ultimately cursed him, or if we could train our voices to ensure our own survival .
Doherty is a writer, opinion columnist, and book critic living in Kalispell, Montana.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2023-02-10/forgotten-classic-a-forest-journey-by-john-perlin-reissued-by-patagonia John Perlin’s classic “A Forest Journey” remastered by Patagonia