Forestry

Sylviculture(French)  selvicultura(Italian)  silvicultura(Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Corsican, Romanian).   It is a good example for students of how seldom-used words do not widely change.

When a contemporary was reading Forestry at Oxford, I was imagining it to be an ancient course of study, cherished over the centuries. This was far from the truth. The course was instituted in 1905, and England was apparently the last country in Europe to begin awarding a forestry degree.

It remained for less than a century. The resources of the Department are preserved but dispersed into various locations and the study of forestry itself has now been subsumed into the Department of Plant Sciences.

Foresters are talked of in English as early as 1297. But forestry, in the sense of ‘the science and art’, is not recorded by the OED until 1859.

There is a shortage of books—certainly in English—about the history of forestry, but it is both a science and an art, of the kind that is transmitted primarily at an immediate and personal level; and it has ancient pedigree. Its knowledge and skills have always been needed, and still are, but they were vital in the centuries before the industrial revolution, when so much of the created environment and its tools was dependent on the woods from a multiplicity of different trees.

It is a science that does not seem to have been lost even in the supposed Dark Ages, so necessary was it. And when Alan of Walsingham built the Octagon, the great lantern tower in Ely Cathedral, in the 1320s, he was able to find the eight tall straight oak trees he needed in one priory woodland in Bedfordshire. Foresters had long been at work.

Even a quick look at the second Georgic reveals how refined then in Italy was the knowledge of trees and the skills of planting, grafting, budding, cultivating—and using.  And Vergil seems to have written the second book with especial feeling: it contains some of his most memorable lines as well as his remarkable passage about the unique beauty of Italy.