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Britain’s first great environmentalist used a civil war as an excuse to plant more trees

John Evelyn. Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1687

Planting trees is often suggested as at least a partial solution to the climate crisis. But campaigns to put roots down across the countryside have a long and storied past, and today’s environmentalists could learn much from the persuasive methods pioneered by a 17-century gentleman, John Evelyn (1620-1706).

Now recognised as one of the founding fathers of English environmentalism, Evelyn is best known for his 1664 work, Sylva, Or a Discourse of Forest-Trees, and the Propagation of Timber. The first book published under the auspices of the newly-formed Royal Society – now the world’s oldest national scientific institution – Sylva was expanded and reissued three times during Evelyn’s lifetime.

The 1670 second edition of Sylva. John Evelyn

Its passionate advocacy of tree plantation has been credited with inspiring the 18th-century trend for landscape gardening, including the work of “England’s greatest gardener” Capability Brown. It is a powerful historic example of academic publishing with real-world consequences.

Born into a landowning family with royalist sympathies, at a time of mounting tension between king and parliament, the young Evelyn spent the early 1640s travelling in France and Italy before settling in Kent, England, in 1647. His concern for environmental issues was first evident in his 1661 publication, Fumifugium, which condemned “aer and smoak” pollution from coal fires in London and argued for the mass plantation of trees, shrubs and herbs as a means of improving the city’s air quality.

Three years later he published his magnum opus, Sylva, which provided readers with an encyclopaedic study of trees and tree cultivation in Britain and Ireland. Starting with practicalities such as the choice of seed and the best conditions for successful germination, Sylva provided chapter-length studies of individual tree species from the oak and sycamore to the willow and holly. It also offered advice on such issues as tree diseases, pruning, and how to chop down trees and season the timber.

War was a good excuse for trees

Evelyn himself claimed to have written Sylva for purely practical reasons. The recent Civil War between supporters of the king and parliament had led to extensive deforestation, as trees were either felled for military purposes or sold off for ready cash, so fresh supplies of timber were urgently needed for shipbuilding. On the title page, Evelyn represented his work as responding to “Certain Queries” propounded by “The Principal Officers, and Commissioners of the Navy”.

The Royal Navy in action, 1678. Willem van de Velde/National Maritime Museum, London

Yet as he admitted in Sylva, many of the trees he described in such loving detail would never have been suitable as shipbuilding materials. Evelyn, it seems, genuinely loved trees and wanted to communicate his enthusiasm for tree planting to his contemporaries.

Both the wealth of knowledge evident in Sylva and the care that Evelyn devoted to revising and improving his text over four decades suggest that tree planting for its own sake, rather than the needs of the navy, was his principal motivation.

Evelyn knew he had to appeal to the emotions

Evelyn was clearly canny enough to know that simply bombarding people with information was not enough to persuade them into action. His portrayal of tree planting as an act of service to the nation was just one of several strategies for appealing to the emotions of his readers.

For instance the many quotations from classical authors – including Virgil, Horace, Cicero and Pliny – which litter the pages of Sylva, would have had powerful cultural resonance for Evelyn’s gentlemanly first readers, many of whom would have been well educated in classical literature as schoolboys. The fact that so many Latin authors had advocated the planting of trees would have carried considerable emotional weight, and would also have counteracted any snobbish assumption that it was beneath the dignity of gentlemen.

An oak tree, from the 1776 edition of Sylva. John Evelyn

Evelyn’s other persuasive methods included his attention to practical details, which must surely have done much to make tree plantation seem manageable even to novice gardeners. He also name dropped several well-respected contemporaries – including the King, a “Lady in Northamptonshire”, and his own father and brothers – as committed tree planters.

Above all, and on almost every page of Sylva, he offered himself to his readers as his own best model of a Restoration tree grower, as experienced in the day-to-day challenges of tree cultivation as he was knowledgeable about tree science, history and literature. Sylva was no mere abstract recommendation: Evelyn aimed to lead by example.

Evelyn’s situation, needless to say, was very different from our own. While he only had to address a narrow elite, modern campaigners have to reach out to a much wider range of readers, and our diverse and increasingly sceptical society has no equivalent to the shared cultural and political values that a 17th-century author could rely on. But many of Evelyn’s methods still make good psychological sense, such as making tree plantation seem practical and easy, or leading by personal example, and are as likely to be effective now as then.

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