A book made us reconsider our relationship with trees

by Ned Barnard & Pauline Gray
Posted 3/26/21

Every once and a while book comes along that changes your outlook on life. This just happened to me recently when I read The Age of Wood by Roland Ennos.

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A book made us reconsider our relationship with trees


Every once and a while book comes along that changes your outlook on life. This just happened to me recently when I read The Age of Wood by Roland Ennos. This book traces our long dependence on trees and on wood. Of course, I knew how trees created Homo sapiens. In my book Central Park Trees and Landscapes, I wrote: “There was a time, just yesterday geologically speaking, when our relationship with trees was a matter of life and death, and we knew them intimately. They nurtured us in our infancy and gave rise to our opposable thumbs, clever fingers, and binocular vision. They fed us, sheltered us, and hid us from our enemies.”

But until I read Ennos’s book I didn’t realize how long and complex our relationship with trees has been.

Our sojourn in the African rainforest canopy marks the all-important genesis of our tree connection, the hundreds of millennia during which we grew from small rat-like creatures into apes with arboreal adaptations. Ennos explains that during this period we not only became adept at swinging from limb to limb; we also learned, as we grew larger, to walk upright on big limbs.

We only came down from the canopy to become fully terrestrial when we learned how to sharpen branches into digging tools and hunting spears and when we also discovered how to use fire to protect ourselves from predators and warm ourselves during cool savannah nights. Around our nighttime campfires we could socialize, expand our social skills, and, most importantly, cook food. It was cooking, Ennos and other scientists argue, that “enabled hominins to radically change their digestive apparatus and behavior.” Cooked food provided more energy than raw food.

Our becoming fully terrestrial, Ennos argues, was the result of wood’s useful qualities—it could be worked into tools and it could provide light and heat. And heat not only led to cooking and the transformation of our digestive tract; it also resulted in our losing much of our body hair. Hunting for large savannah-browsing mammals was a hot, exhausting business but provided us with meat to eat and skins to warm us. By losing much of our hair and relying more on sweating to cool us under the daytime tropical sun, we were better able chase prey animals long distances, wearing them down, and then killing them with wooden spears and bows and arrows.

Loss of hair ironically also resulted in our migrations into cooler climates. Using crude stone tools to work wood, we built crude huts to shelter us at night on the savannah. As we migrated north out of Africa, we built increasingly roomier and more sophisticated structures to protect us from the weather. Improved tools allowed the cutting of trees and the development of agriculture, opening up a whole new way of life. Eventually we used wood to smelt metal ores, first copper, then copper and tin to create bronze, and finally iron. We also used wood and charcoal to fire pottery, porcelain, and glass. With metallic tools we were able to fashion wood into planks and create plank-hulled ships, giving rise to a vast global trading network.

Ennos’s book is the story of how our relationship with wood has created us, how it has allowed us to come down from the trees, colonize the continents, monopolize the land, and transform the planet. Now what we have accomplished with woods may not be sustainable. Ennos argues that though we can’t hope to reforest the planet “each of us can make a difference, first of all by learning more about trees and woodland, and allowing our children to do the same.”