The father of British forestry, John Evelyn, was born 400 years ago today, on 31st October 1620 at Wotton in Surrey. Among those of us with a passion for trees and forestry, Evelyn is known to us as the author of Sylva: or, a Discourse of Forest-trees, and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesties dominions.
Evelyn was a tireless public servant and a true polymath. He was also a fastidious diarist, and although overshadowed by Samuel Pepys, he documented life more comprehensively than Pepys and for a longer period. He commented in one entry recounting his early childhood in 1625:
‘This was the year in which the pestilence was so epidemical, that there died in London five thousand a week, and I well remember the strict watchers and examinations upon the ways as we passed; and I was shortly after so dangerously sick a fever, that (as I have heard) the physicians despaired of me.’John Evelyn
All of us reading this in 2020 may appreciate such sentiments so much more than we would have done less than a year ago.
The Future Sylva
I have contributed a paper to a special online publication co-ordinated by the Australian and New Zealand Environmental History Network (ANZEHN). Edited by John Dargavel and Ben Wilkie the freely available publication Restoring Forests in Times of Contagion features 12 papers saluting John Evelyn on his 400th Birthday.
In 1664 London, even while copies of John Evelyn’s magisterial book Sylva were rolling off the presses under the auspices of the Royal Society, news of another major plague outbreak on mainland Europe reached the city. Evelyn’s mission for King Charles II was to inspire a revival of interest in silviculture, including more afforestation in Britain. His work was driven by a strategic need for timber to aid recovery from the civil war and to support Britain’s growing ambitions on the world stage. Fast forward 356 years, the world is facing a new pandemic in the form of Covid-19. Britain remains one of the least-wooded countries in Europe and has one of the lowest tree counts per citizen anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, our knowledge of forest ecosystems and understanding of the complexity of the natural world, such as the microbiome, is helping us care for our forests with increasing competence. Advances in bioengineering are bringing ever more efficient applications for woody biomass and cellulose that might help us mitigate and adapt; to live more sustainably. Yet, the world teeters on the threshold of a climate emergency while globally an area of natural forest seven times larger than Britain is deliberately deforested every year and millions more hectares degraded by wildfires. This paper explores the notion that is not silvicultural knowledge that impedes sustainable development but human culture. As the saying goes, forestry is more about people than trees.
Papers in the publication are:
- John Dargavel – A Salute to John Evelyn
- Gabriel Hemery – The Future Sylva
- Michael Roche – John Evelyn’s Sylva in New Zealand
- Sybil Jack – Evelyn’s Garden of Paradise
- André Brett – ‘Some of the Choicest Specimens of Plant Life’: Tree-Planting by Government Railways in Australasia pre-WWI
- Alison Miller – Death of a Tree, Life of a Tree
- Ben Wilkie – The Deforestation and Reforestation of Victorian Volcanoes
- David Freudenberger and Ian Rayner – Replanting Woodlands in Australia – A Volunteer Rich Process
- Libby Robin – On the Verge of Isolation
- Fiona Firth – Trees on Farms: Tree-planters in the Bega Valley
- John Taylor and Jane Lennon – Sylva Anew: A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber in the Bottle Creek Estate
- Anton Sveding – ‘Plant trees and grow money’: Promoting Farm Forestry in New Zealand in the 1920s
- John Dargavel – Are Plantations the Answer?
The New Sylva
I celebrated the life and sylvan writings of John Evelyn in my 2014 book The New Sylva: A Discourse of Forest and Orchard Trees for the Twenty-First Century by Gabriel Hemery and Sarah Simblet. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN978-1408835449
Books are available from all good bookshops, while signed copies are available with all proceeds to the charity from: www.sylva.org.uk/shop