Harvey Green: Finds wood, and woodworking, viscerally relevant to his discipline

Historians in the News

To give a sense of the history of trees in America, Harvey Green points to a picture of his property as it was in the mid-19th century, in an old copy of Frederic Kidder's History of New Ipswich, 1736-1852. The land belonged to Benjamin Hoar, and the Hoar house, as Mr. Green gleefully calls it, sits across a road from two tall maples, the only big trees in the picture. The hills around the house roll into the horizon. Early settlers shaved them down to the rocky soil to make way for grazing sheep.

Today the two old maples are still there, but the sheep are mostly gone, as is the Hoar house; it burned down in the 1970s. As for the contours of the hills, you cannot see them anymore. They are covered in oaks, birches, hemlocks, and pines — proof that woods will surely, if slowly, rise to recolonize land.

Mr. Green, a professor of history at Northeastern University, is a student of these trees. He is an amateur woodworker and a capable carpenter. He is also the author of a recent book about wood, called simply Wood: Craft, Culture, History (Viking).

"In some ways wood is both mundane and special, but so common that most people don't think much about it," Mr. Green says, sitting in his living room in a wooden chair, in front of a wood-burning stove. "This was an opportunity to write about something and make people see it in a new way."

Guitars and violins, baseball bats and hockey sticks, gunstocks, boats, barrels, boxes, and toothpicks — wood is more than just the stuff of shelter and fine furniture. Wood has provided fuel for heat since humans' earliest days, and that heat was eventually used to melt ore and create weapons.

The age of sail would never have happened without the huge trees that made up the masts and hulls of ships in Britain, France, and Spain. The coopers who built watertight barrels out of oak planks made global trade possible; wood barrels were the equivalent of the modern shipping container....
Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE)

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