Remembering the wood old days! Author says we need ‘small-scale circular economies’



by Roland Ennos (William Collins £20, 336 pp)

If your surname is Cooper, Carpenter, Wheelwright, Wainwright, Shipwright, Bowyer, Fletcher, Turner, Bowler, Sawyer or Forester, then one of your ancestors worked with hand tools and wood.

One thing this wonderful book reminds you of is the resourcefulness of our forebears, who grew their own food, made their own clothes, provided their own fuel . . . (I write this feelingly, having just spent a helpless hour on the phone trying to find someone to come and fix the fridge).

The names of the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age denote the most advanced materials used at the time. The Wood Age, however, has been with us since the start — and still is. Not many people use a flint hand-axe any more, but most of us still prefer a good ash shaft on our garden rake, or a stout hickory handle on an axe.

Academic Roland Ennos has written a detailed and quirky portrait of our debt to the trees (file image)

Academic Roland Ennos has written a detailed and quirky portrait of our debt to the trees, which is incalculable. As a structural material, he says, wood is ‘unmatched’, lighter than water yet strong and able to last for centuries. Trees oxygenate our atmosphere, give us shade in the day and warmth at night; wood fires started us cooking instead of eating raw foods.

Thanks to cooking, says Ennos, modern hunter-gatherers only have to chew for an hour a day, while chimpanzees have to chew for five to six hours. ‘This frees up plenty of time for other tasks.’

He also gives us a theory about Stonehenge that I had never encountered before. The stones may just be the internal support pillars for a vast wooden structure, a circular temple, given that there are huge wooden post holes further out. What an amazing image this conjures: maybe the largest wooden roundhouse ever built.

Wood’s lighter-than-water properties gave us boats, and so access to the sea, fishing, exploration and travel. Wood also gave us the first wheels, leading to wagons, chariots and the humble but brilliant wheelbarrow.

THE WOOD AGE by Roland Ennos (William Collins £20, 336 pp)

THE WOOD AGE by Roland Ennos (William Collins £20, 336 pp)

It also gave us the Stradivarius violin, whose sublime sound can never be replicated by any modern violin-maker, it seems, because the Little Ice Age when Stradivarius was alive (1644-1737) meant the Alpine spruce trees he used were particularly slow-growing, and, therefore, produced the brightest, most resonant sound.

Wood also gave us charcoal — by a sad irony, the combustible material that enabled us to produce sharper and sharper tools to cut them down.

Now, says Ennos, we live dependent lives, feebly reliant on ever-more stretched supply chains delivering an abundance that is unsustainable. It doesn’t seem to make people terribly happy either. We need to return to more ‘small-scale circular economies’, he says, with timber as a key material: if we manage our forests correctly, wood is an infinitely renewable resource, unlike fossil fuels.

The best thing we can do in this country is to protect our few ancient woodlands — though HS2 would destroy or damage 108 of them. The next best thing is to plant trees, like the wonderful Northern Forest initiative, stretching from the Mersey to the Humber.

For our own physical and psychological health, says Ennos, ‘we need to return to the Wood Age’.