7/13/12 - england was running out of wood

In today's excerpt - trees have shaped America more than most other nations. It has some of the most spectacular tree resources on the planet -- forests once covered a staggering 950 million acres. For Spain in the 1500s and 1600s, the New World meant gold. For the English, the more important treasure was wood. By then a century of deforestation had left England as a net importer of wood, leaving their vaunted sea power at risk and their poor freezing at night:

"North America, [English geographer Richard Haykuyt wrote in 1605], was 'infinitely full fraughte with sweet wooddes ... and divers other kindes of goodly trees.' Colonists could immediately be put to work 'settynge upp mylles to sawe them' and producing boards 'ready to be turned into goodly chests, cupboordes, stooles, tables, desks, etc.' ... Trees, Hakluyt assured, were the guarantee that the colonial venture would succeed financially. ...

"In truth, England was suffering from a severe timber crisis that, at the time of his writing, left the poor literally freezing to death in wintertime for want of firewood.

"Originally, the British island had been a woodland. Forests of oak and other hardwoods had filled the southern lands, while conifer stands populated the higher latitudes. Sheepherders over the centuries converted much of this to pastureland, but the domestic wood supply remained great enough to handle timber and firewood demands. Then, beginning in the 1540s, came new manufacturing industries that razed the forests for their fuel. This new wave of deforestation started with the iron industry, an early royal effort to boost manufacturing in accord with the trade-based economic theory -- the production of iron required immense amounts of heat and, initially, used charcoal (which is derived from wood) as fuel. ...

"The situation worsened during the long reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558- 1603). She promoted numerous other wood-fuel-driven manufacturing industries, including copper smelting, salt making, and glass production. ... One writer from this period commented, 'Never so much [oak] hath been spent in a hundred years before as is in 10 years of our time.' The price of firewood doubled between 1540 and 1570. This pushed some citizens out of the firewood market, and it became commonplace for the poor to shiver through the winters. The timber shortage had commoditized a product once freely available for the cutting.

"But fuel needs did not fully account for England's timber demand. Wood was also necessary in the construction of ships. And Queen Elizabeth, in addition to promoting domestic manufacturing, had championed shipbuilding, part of the Crowns long-term strategy to contest Spanish sea power and strengthen English commercial trade.

"Few industries in history have depended on wood quite like shipbuilding (at least before the conversion to iron and steel hulls in the mid-nineteenth century). A large naval warship, known as a ship of the line and constructed almost entirely from wood, weighed over one hundred tons in Hakluyt's day. The bodies of such vessels required about two thousand mature oaks, which meant at least fifty acres of forest had to be stripped. While oak supplied the timber for much of the ship, it was too inflexible and heavy for ship masts, the poles that supported the canvas sails. Instead, these required lighter and more shock-resistant softwoods, such as pines and firs. The largest masts were more than three feet wide at their base and over one hundred feet tall -- roughly one yard in height per inch in width. ...

"The twin demands of shipbuilding and wood-fuel-hungry manufacturing had turned England into a net wood importer. In particular, the country had to trade for masts and naval stores, since it had no suitably commercial conifer forests. The preferred mast trees, called Riga firs or Scotch pines, came from an Eastern European region around the city of Riga (in present-day Latvia), but several northern countries had giant spruce forests that were also exploited for naval stores. The trade centered on ports in Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea -- the latter, which included Riga, was accessible only through narrow straits between Denmark and Sweden. Rulers who controlled the various ports and access to the straits knew that England's sea power depended on forest products and, consequently, kept duties, taxes, and shipping fees high. The Danish, for example, collected tolls for each crossing. If England ever lost access to these ports, it would cripple the entire shipping industry, and with it the Royal Navy.

"Hakluyt saw the solution to this potential dilemma in the woods of North America ... If his travel narratives agreed on anything, they 'agreed that the New World was an inexhaustible source of naval supplies.' "


Eric Rutkow


American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and Making of a Nation


Scribner Publishing


Copyright 2012 by Eric Rutkow


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