OAK by William Bryant Logan
Kirkus Star


The Frame of Civilization
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The biography of a tree that has been collectively embraced for its multifaceted grandeur.

The oak has never been taken for granted. It may not be the tallest of trees, nor the oldest or strongest, but it is common, flexible and generous in its many uses. In this superb and inviting profile, arborist/journalist Logan (Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, 1995) tells of how post-glacial humans followed the oak much as Basques followed cod, eating of their bounty—acorns in this case—on their way to new worlds, be they Kurd, Kashmiri or Korean. We get one savory oak tidbit after another. Early people used oak to make roads through fens, and employed oak cysts as coffins (“a suit of oak”). The trees were prized for their spiritual qualities—Druid comes from dru, meaning oak, and wid, meaning to see or know: “oak knowledge”—and for their sacred sites (or at least that’s what some of the sites appear to be, though their function is still guesswork), such as the great floating wooden island of Flag Fen, or the many henges that were more often made of wood than stone. And there’s much more to mull over, all of it handled with care and thought by Logan: the construction of northern longboats, the brilliance of the oaken barrel’s design, the superiority of gall ink (Leonardo’s favorite), the oaken ships that allowed for world trade. The author delves also into the tree’s physical make-up, from its clouds of roots to the mechanics of leaf making. Logan takes such joy in his subject that he can find humor even in the tanners’ toil: “When the bark came away, it made a noise like a quack, so a party of barkers sounded like a flock of ducks.”

The Royal Oak, the democratic oak, an oak for every season and purpose, all respectfully, admiringly and insightfully laid out for readers to marvel at. And marvel they will. (30 illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: June 1st, 2005
ISBN: 0-393-04773-3
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2005


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