The Legacy of John Evelyn’s “Sylva”

Note: Here’s my latest “Leading Thoughts” article from the new edition of TREE Press, the monthly newsletter of TREE Fund, of which I am President and CEO.

Before coming to TREE Fund, I served as Executive Director of the Salisbury House Foundation, which owns and operates an amazing historic house museum in Des Moines, Iowa. Salisbury House was built in the 1920s within a glorious 12-acre oak forest, and its owners – cosmetics magnate Carl Weeks and his wife Edith – worked diligently to protect the grand old trees around their 42-room manor home, most of which still provide shade to the house and gardens.

Carl Weeks was an extraordinary collector of rare books and documents, and one of the great delights in my work at Salisbury House was being able to study, work with, and teach from his 3,500-book library. One of items in the collection was an early edition of John Evelyn’s Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesty’s Dominions (c. 1664-1670), arguably the first great treatise in the English language on the science, care and importance of trees. It was a massive success then, and has remained in print for over 350 years.

While Evelyn appreciated the beauty of trees, his underlying call to action was an economic one: trees provided fuel, building supplies, food, defense, and a litany of other crucial day-to-day needs in pre-industrial England, and the island’s forests were being denuded in the aftermath of the English Civil War. “We had better be without gold than without timber,” Evelyn wrote, encouraging land owners to plant trees as a matter of patriotic obligation. His countrymen heard him, and many old English forests today are home to trees planted by Sylva’s earliest devotees.

On April 27, 2018, millions of people across our own country will honor National Arbor Day by planting trees, providing innumerable benefits, some that John Evelyn understood in the 1660s — but many others of which are known to us now only through the types of modern scientific research empowered by TREE Fund. You can further this ongoing scientific legacy by making a gift to TREE Fund’s Arbor Day Appeal. We’re proud to work on behalf of our trees and the people who care for them, and take pride in being a link in a chain of inquiry that spans centuries – and will benefit those who follow us for centuries to come.

Click on “Sylva” to make your own contribution on behalf of our urban and community forests, and the professionals who study and care for them.

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