Wood: A History, By Joachim Radkau

Barking up the wrong tree

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The Independent Culture

Martin Luther, writing in 1532, was certain of wood's divine nature.

"I marvel at how our God has given so many uses for wood for all men in the whole wide world: building timber, firewood, joiner's, cartwright's and shipbuilder's wood, wood for rooms, wood for wheelbarrows, paddles, gutters, barrels. In short, wood is one of the greatest things in the world." As the West industrialised, that primal bond grew weaker, and wood became a commodity like any other to be exploited. Today, though, wood is the comeback kid. It is the solution to rising CO2 levels; a sustainable building material whose imperfections and warmth lend it an authenticity that mass production can't match.

Joachim Radkau's Wood: A History takes the long view of human interaction with our most immediate material, from the discovery of 400,000-year-old spears to the ships that gave birth to empires and the height of the "Wood Age", when rational forestry management planted the seeds of industrial revolution.

The book's ambition is impressive; the delivery less so. The text is peppered with overexcited asides ("Wood, wood everywhere!") and the translation from the German is a little, well, German. ("A kind of scissors opened up between the ambition of landlords and the dwindling number of large trees".) There are also basic scientific errors. Potash, made from wood ashes and used in glass-making, is identified as calcium carbonate, which it isn't unless the tree is made of marble.

More fundamentally, the book's title invites comparison with one-word historical bestsellers such as Mark Kurlansky's Salt and Cod or Dava Sobel's Longitude that it can't live up to. Those books were exquisitely written monographs, rich with anecdotes that led the reader on a amiable stroll through history. This is a trudge through a dense forest: there's the occasional brightly lit clearing but too many paths that end in thick undergrowth.

The focus is odd, too. The period from the palaeolithic era to the Roman empire, when Radkau's "co-evolution of nature and culture" was surely at its most intimate, flies by in 15 pages, whereas 300 are devoted to – heaven preserve us – forest management and politics from the middle ages.

Wood is an old material with a great future. This book, despite its scholarship and enthusiasm, is not the vehicle to bring that vital message to a wider readership.

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