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  • Wood: A History by Joachim Radkau
  • Sybil Jack
Radkau, Joachim, Wood: A History, trans. Patrick Camiller, Cambridge, Polity, 2011; pp. 352; 66 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. US$30.00, £25.00; ISBN 9780745646886.

This undistinguished translation of Joachim Radkau’s 2007 book makes available to non-German readers an important contribution to the history of the forest. Radkau has been the leading forest historian in Germany for a generation and his work has significantly influenced German ideas about ecology and the environment. It is not a book for the beginner as it assumes an understanding of the way woodlands develop and are maintained in different climate and soil conditions. The translation should persuade forest historians from other traditions to reconsider some of their assumptions about the role of this vital but often neglected part of the world’s economy. It is likely to stimulate further controversy about the future of woods on the planet even if Radkau does not insist on the idea that they were the ‘foundation of human existence’ and ‘the secret key to the rise and fall of great powers’ (p. 1). The title is a little misleading as Radkau’s central interest is not wood as such – he deals only cursorily with the endlessly variable forms in which it is found and most of the purposes for which it is used – but its role in human society and the way in which different cultural approaches may affect its treatment and its preservation.

Wood, and trees, although generally recognized as critical elements in human life, have not always received the attention they deserve and Radkau provides a useful summary of attitudes to trees and their more mythic aspects, the role of wood as a commodity in various forms, and the effects of changes in technological management of wood as a primary product and a critical part of economic life.

Crucial to his argument is the position of wood and forests as legal entities disputed between people with different powers and positions, especially rulers and peasants. Radkau’s thesis is that much of the written material historians have relied on is really propaganda, not based on fact but on the political and economic needs of the government at the time. [End Page 270]

Although he starts with the Stone Age, Radkau’s principal interest is in the period from the Enlightenment onwards and what until recently was seen as modern forestry that originated in Germany in the eighteenth century. Despite his claims to a global approach the focus is sharply Germanic. His comparisons of the detailed studies of the many small states inside the Holy Roman Empire with those of other cultures such as the Japanese, enlightening as they are, are heavily dependent for their information on one or two other scholars such as Conrad Totman. This raises some questions about the authority of his judgements and, at times, his accuracy.

British historians will be surprised at the small attention paid to the history of wood in Britain, which is mostly confined to references to the needs of naval shipbuilding. The bibliography contains no reference to the canonical works of T. C. Smout on Scotland and refers only to early and small-scale works of Oliver Rackham. This means that their wider and important recent insights have not been considered in his presentation.

Australian readers may also feel uncomfortable with his treatment of eucalypts in the overall argument as it appears to be based on limited understanding of the species. As presented, one might assume that Eucalyptus haemostoma (commonly known as the scribbly gum) is the generic name of the whole species and, the reader might be led to presume, the form of eucalypt that was enthusiastically adopted in European and Mediterranean plantations (pp. 320–21). Eucalyptus haemostoma, however, is largely confined to the Sydney region and has characteristics that do not suit it to other areas. Different gums have been selected for different needs in areas outside Australia. This makes it difficult to aggregate their behaviour.

Radkau provides a defence of the interaction with and use of woodland by the unnamed and unsung ordinary residents of the land whose rights were destroyed and...


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pp. 270-272
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