About John Perlin

How I came to write A Forest Journey

In 1983, the classics department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, hired me to work with a professor on a new book, and I thought I’d be sailing into a financially smooth future—something unknown to me as a writer. The professor and I had done a pioneering paper on solar house heating in antiquity that we presented at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, and while researching material for my first book, also on solar architecture, I had noticed a singular theme. The change to solar energy for house heating always occurred when people ran short of their supplies of wood—the principal fuel and building material of almost every society from at least the Bronze Age to the 19th century and beyond, for some. Through the voices of the past, in multiple languages, I learned how the abundance and scarcity of wood shaped, in large part, the culture, demographics, foreign affairs, economy, politics and technology of civilizations. I knew such a story had to be written.

Near his home in Santa Barbara, California, the author sits aglow among the old-growth oaks in the area. Perlin is both a father of a human son and the granddaddy of knowledge when it comes to civilization’s dynamic with trees. Conversations with him are like reading a complex text that spits more information at your brain than it can store. But you leave in awe of how beautiful it is when a human brain commits to the trees.
– Ingrid Bostrom 

Chopped Wood

A lumberyard full of Douglas fir outside of Clarkston, Washington. (Garrett Grove)

Three or four months into the new position found me busy in the library, while my collaborator always remained in his office, seemingly immersed in oversized scholarly tomes. One day, I caught him by surprise in his office as he had left his door partially opened. When I walked in, I discovered he was actually reading a comic book stealthily tucked between the giant pages, instead of researching new material for our work. Not long after that, I had no job, no money, nor a place to work or sleep. A friend said I could live in his backyard so I could continue working.

The money situation got worse. Some homeless people taught me how to dumpster dive. And I continued the research that had briefly stalled at the comic mishap. At the library, I learned the words for wood, tree, oak, pine and fir in Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Latin and Mesopotamian-and how to reference them in lexicons and find passages about wood and trees in ancient and original texts. A sympathetic professor in Semitic languages translated the cuneiform I was working with. Lieselotte Fajardo, who used to be a reference librarian at UCSB, was also an invaluable resource. After her exile from Hitler’s Germany, she eventually made her way to California with a few new languages she’d picked up in her forced wanderings. We struck up a friendship, and she helped translate clues from scholarly texts in French, Dutch and German that led me to other sources while I cooked her dinner.

An artist’s depiction of chopping up the logs after felling a tree. (Artist: Constant Troyon)

When it rained, I took shelter under the overhang of a camper shell on blocks in the yard where I slept. Another angel, convinced of the importance of my work, set up a desk and computer in her laundry room, allowing me to word process the manuscript day or night.

Less convinced were the publishers.

Rejection notes piled up. One day at a friend’s house, I found a Worldwatch Institute paper on solar energy. I opened it up to find the first citation was from my earlier book, A Golden Thread. Worldwatch, I must explain, had been one of the world’s most influential environmental think tanks in the late 20th century. Its founder and president, Lester Brown, was also as renowned as his organization. A desperate, wild idea came to my head. I would call Lester Brown the next morning and he would sponsor the publishing for my new book, A Forest Journey. Success seemed at hand. When I rang, his administrative assistant answered. “Lester Brown is a very busy man,” she told me. “He might call you back in two or three months.” All hope vanished. I was plunged into despair.

An oak is backlit by the sun in Ashdown Forest, East Sussex, United Kingdom. (James Warwick / Getty Images)

Five minutes later the phone rang. I mechanically picked up the receiver. It was Lester Brown on the other line. Brown’s publisher, W.W. Norton, eventually published my book.

The Tongass National Forest in Alaska is the largest of the United States’ remaining forests. How long will it stay that way? (Matthias Breiter / Minden Pictures)

After the soft cover went on its merry way, I took a five- year hiatus from writing to raise a child. Let’s face it, caring for an infant and trying to work don’t mix. About the time my kid went off to kindergarten, he was also enrolled in an after-school program at nearby UCSB. As part of the program, the university sent out orange vans to pick up the kids when school let out and take them to the university where they could stay until six in the evening. There they had the run of the campus-visiting touch tanks at the marine biology lab where they got to hold sea urchins, sea slugs, sea cucumbers, crabs and most anything that lived in tide pools on the Pacific Coast; hanging out by the lagoon to watch the sea birds; rappeling down the rock-climbing wall at the gym; or doing a million other things that kids love to do. At a quarter to six, I stopped my work, picked up my kid and went to the bus stop to catch the freeway flyer back to town

We were quite a sight—a little boy always immersed in conversation with his burly bearded dad, as the bus barreled down the freeway. A certain professor also regularly took the same bus. One day, he sat right next to where we were standing. He took notice of us. We began talking about solar cells and their potential. Another day, he asked me what I did that made me so knowledgeable. I told him I wrote and researched two books on the subject, and then remembered I had in my backpack multiple copies of this marvelous review of A Forest Journey from the British Broadcasting Corporation. I gave the professor a copy. Three weeks later he invited me to lunch, where he told me he had purchased A Forest Journey and regarded it as “one of the five best books I have ever read in my lifetime.” Then my boy and I became regular houseguests.

Perlin named his book A Forest Journey after the pivotal episode in the first piece of literature preserved, “The Epic of Gilgamesh.” It tells of Gilgamesh and his men, our ancestors, and the earliest entrance into and destruction of the forest primeval, an act that has repeated itself time and time again-and continues without end.
Heritage Image Partnership Ltd | Alamy

Two years later, the same professor won the Nobel Prize in physics. And then he asked me to put on a colloquium about climate change for the science departments of the university. The next year, he had the university hire me to research and write the screenplay for a film on the evolution of the scientific ideas of light and its relationship to solar cells. Eventually, one of the producers of Carl Sagan’s television series Cosmos came on board, and John Cleese of Monty Python fame did the narration. To think all this happened to a kid raised in downtown Los Angeles because he wrote a book about trees.

All Books

A Forest Journey
The Role of Trees in the Fate of Civilization
Let It Shine
The 6,000-Year Story of Solar Energy
From Space to Earth
The Story of Solar Electricity
A Golden Thread
2,500 Years of Solar Architecture and Technology

Awards

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Harvard University Press

Classic in Science and World History, 
100 Books for Every Reader’s Bookshelf, 
100 Great Books

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London Times Book Review

Editor’s Interesting Hardbacks,
1990: A Forest Journey

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The Geographic Society of Chicago

Publication of the Year,
1990: A Forest Journey

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