Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

John Evelyn: The Forestry of Imagination

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

John Evelyn: The Forestry of Imagination

Article excerpt

John Evelyn (1620-1706) was the son of a wealthy landowner in the county of Surrey, England. He was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and the Middle Temple, London. Starting at age ten, and continuing for the next fifty years, he kept a personal diary (Darley 8). First published in 1818, Evelyn's Diary provides a fascinating record of people, places, and events that he witnessed during a turbulent period of English history. Evelyn also published over thirty books on fine arts, forestry, numismatics, and religion.

In his political outlook, Evelyn was a staunch Royalist. However, he decided not to join the Royalist cause during the English Civil War, choosing instead to travel extensively through France and Italy. In 1647, during a sojourn in Paris, he married Mary Browne, the daughter of Sir Richard Browne, Charles I's ambassador to France. Evelyn returned to England in 1652, acquiring his father-in-law's estate at Sayes Court (on the Thames east of London), and settling into the life of a country gentleman. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Evelyn played a more active role in public affairs, serving on several royal commissions (Darley 192).

Evelyn was appointed as a founding member of the Royal Society in 1662, and in this capacity he published Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest-Trees, and the Propagation of Timber (1664). Evelyn's Sylva foreshadows the development of a conservationist ethic in the management of forests and wild-lands throughout the English-speaking world. In this treatise, Evelyn advocates the replanting of woodlands that had been devastated during the English Civil War as a means of restoring the nation's defenses, particularly its navy and merchant marine. The book describes the various kinds of trees, their cultivation, and the best use for each kind of timber. Foremost among all English tree species is the oak, which Evelyn regards as producing the most elegant and useful of kind of wood, almost magical in its properties:

  The land and the sea do sufficiently speak for the improvement of
  this excellent material; houses and ships, cities and
  navies are built with it; and there is a kind of [oak] so tough,
  and extreamly compact, that our sharpest tools will hardly enter
  it, and scarcely the very fire itself, in which it consumes but
  slowly, as seeming to partake of a ferruginous and metallin
  shining nature, proper for sundry robust uses. It is doubtless of
  all timber hitherto known, the most universally useful and strong,
  (i.52)

Although it is mainly utilitarian in its purposes, Sylva also presents a philosophical and aesthetic justification for the reforestation of Britain, particularly in its fourth and final book, entitled Dendrologia: An Historical Account of the Sacredness and Use of Standing Groves, which first appeared in the second edition of 1670 and was greatly expanded in the subsequent editions of 1679 and 1706. In its final form, Dendrologia delves deeply into the ancient traditions of sacred groves, and it provides a classic argument for the creation of large open estates with park-like groves and tree-lined scenic vistas. Sylva provided a crucial impetus for the eighteenth-century shift in British taste away from walled formal gardens and toward a more open style of landscape design that involved the extensive planting of trees. Almost single-handedly, Evelyn's popular treatise created a vogue for forestry among the British gentry (Harrison 100). It advocated a new way of seeing forests: not merely as game-hunting preserves, or as sources of raw timber, but as having intangible aesthetic value and an intrinsic sacred character worthy of nurturance and preservation. In this way, Sylva marks the birth of forestry as a mode of imaginative dendrology, through which such diverse writers as Evelyn and Walter Scott sought to discover the vital roots of their own national identity.

Although he never traveled to Scotland, Evelyn was fascinated by what he had heard of its wild and remote character, and intrigued by the vanished abundance of the aboriginal Caedonian forest. …

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