Keith Pluymers. No Wood, No Kingdom: Political Ecology in the English Atlantic. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021. ISBN 9780812253078 Hardcover, $49.95 USD.
by Sara Rich
Reading No Wood, No Kingdom is a slow journey through a very dense, brambly forest. The book is tightly written, with nary a subheading to punctuate—or wayfind—lengthy chapters, but Pluymers demonstrates dedicated historical research throughout and manages to humanize historical figures while writing in the objective fashion of a responsible researcher. At times, it does seem that this objectivity gets in the way of making important, relevant points that bring the early- to mid-17th century into the here and now. For example, the year 1610 is often mentioned but never with reference to the well-known Orbis Spike marking the beginning of the Anthropocene.1 The book is clearly meant for specialists in Early Modern British history, but its lessons seem applicable beyond its intended audience.
Following a brief introduction, Pluymers leaps into the thicket in Chapter 1 to describe the conflicting claims of dangerous scarcity of English timber, especially for shipbuilding, despite an apparently consistent supply. For sure, there were competing demands for timber beyond the shipyard, including foundries and kilns, clearance for agriculture, and the maintenance of “coverts” to nurture forest animals until the hunt.
Most fascinating are the competing philosophies on how to regard forests given the new context of nascent capitalism: to what extent should treatment of forests take into account future generations? Extractionist models were concerned merely with the present and seemed to disregard posterity for the sake of profit (“luchre”). This all sounds so familiar to the 21st c. reader, as does the denial by elites that there were legitimate problems with availability and access to timber for all. Further resonance with today can be seen with the pro-colony rallying cries of Richard Hakluyt and Robert Gray, who argue that English timber can’t keep up with demand, and to maintain a growing population and our present lifestyle, we must colonize. This seems eerily reminiscent of current feverish attempts at extraterrestrial colonization of the moon and Mars. NASA’s Europa Clipper is a case in point.2
Chapter 2 brings us to the oft forgotten English colony of Ireland. Vast Irish woodlands were seen as a barrier to civilizing the island next door, so colonists were to settle these lands and by controlling the woods, control the Irish. Amidst the conflicting interests of the planters, there was a concern that the colonists would “turn Native” and start preserving trees for their sheer aesthetic—if not spiritual—value. This idea of Irish barbarism as an infectious disease, once locked inside the dark forests but wont to spread, is a precursor to Joseph Conrad’s similar anti-colonial rationale 250 years later: Europeans shouldn’t colonize because they might catch barbarism from the natives. Amidst the odd consistency of colonial anxieties, the English idea that woodlands had a higher purpose to fulfill (civilizing Irish, supplying ship timbers, turning a profit) seems precociously Hegelian. In the end, the desire for profit coupled with an almost libertarian resistance to regulation won out against any conservation interests, including those for the Crown. Thus the turn to Virginia and its endless bounty.
Chapter 3 takes us across the Atlantic. As settlements were planted across the mid-Atlantic American coast, Virginia was touted as an Edenic land of abundance, in contrast to the alleged scarcity of England and Ireland. Yet profiting from these woodlands proved difficult, even after their conversion for viniculture and sericulture. Ironworks seemed a promising venture until foiled by a Powhattan attack, which was retaliation for continued expansion into Powhattan territory, and for the abduction of Powhattan children for forced conversion to Christianity. As it turns out, forced conversion, whether of woods or children, was rarely without consequence. After the Powhattan attack, the forests were once again characterized as rebel hideouts, just substitute Irish for Powhattan. Forests were then systematically and strategically felled and converted into agricultural lands. In the end though, profits proved difficult, as the exact same impediments (privatization, royal control, conflicting interests, foreign competition, rebellious Natives, etc.) to wealth from timber in England and Ireland were simply imported to Virginia, and with the exact same result.
Chapter 4 brings some changes to the now-familiar story, as we move to Bermuda. The colonization of Bermuda brought no attempts to create an iron industry, but concentrated efforts to till land that had never seen agriculture. There were two main endemic trees: “cedars” (actually junipers) and palmettos. The former was desired as the raw material for luxury furniture, and worthy of transatlantic trade; however on islands, everything is in limited supply, so anxieties about scarcity developed some of the earliest “Orders” for conservation. Many trees needed to remain in place to form a barrier between heavy winds and storms and newly established dwellings and crops – yet finding a balance between profit and conservation always proved a problem, as it had in Ireland.
There were no Natives to contend with, and the only rebellions were small scale and made by the lower classes when allegedly drunk on palmetto wine, and rebellions were only against the strict moral – and racializing, sexualizing – codes of conduct. The unjust differences in expectations of behavior between upper and lower classes, free and enslaved, men and women, seems to have been taken out on the palmettos, whose destruction was encouraged to eliminate the source of debauchery and open more land to profitable agriculture, even if it was at the expense of the quality of soil and the prevention of crop destruction by ocean storms. Consistent throughout this chapter is the reminder that the colonial enterprise by the mid-17th century was a capitalist enterprise. While concerns of morality and governance were perennial, the primary concern was profit.
Chapter 5 takes us south to Barbados. This is the chapter that would be most useful in an environmental history course, as it is the most overtly political of the political ecologies offered in this book. It addresses Anthropocene ecocide and its roots in extractive, colonial agricultural practices, and takes an unflinching look at African and South American Indian enslavement on sugar plantations. All the while, it retains the careful nuance that Pluymers extends to all chapters.
The case of Barbados also offers a fresh relief from the incessant capitalist demands on island ecologies exemplified by Bermuda. On the one hand, the scanty historical records do indicate significant clearcutting for sugar plantations, but on the other, Barbudan woods also inspired wonder in at least one colonial writer. Richard Ligon, natural philosopher and sugar plantation owner, marveled at the diverse trees of the island, each with seemingly its own gift to offer Barbados’ inhabitants. In stark contrast to the view of Virginian and Irish woods as symbols of civilization’s nemesis, Ligon’s attitude may well have represented a minority view, but it was a documented alternative nonetheless. We may never know how many Barbudans agreed with Ligon’s love of trees, but he indicates on a map he drew that the unfarmed, wildly wooded areas encircling the island’s coastlines may have beckoned escaped slaves and provided a safe haven for them: “Even as colonists constructed a landscape of cultivation, discipline, and control, enslaved people forged alternative geographies enabling resistance” (p. 191). The story of Barbados seems to be riddled with alternatives (positions and geographies), even though, in the end, sugar cane would win out against the woods.
The sixth and final chapter moves chronologically into the mid-17th c. and argues for an Atlantic imperial ecology, as colonies forged their own economic path, apart from England, a trend exacerbated by the English Civil War. One can start to see the seeds of American Independence starting to sprout, as trade with other colonies becomes of greater economic importance than trade with England. Despite the rhetoric of scarcity of English timbers for shipbuilding, the Forest of Dean continued to supply enough for the navy, and apparently, some for export too. English anxieties of wood scarcity were fueled by a nationalistic desire to be independent of timber imports from elsewhere in Europe – hence, the colonies – but at the same time, anxieties that colonial woodlands harbored rebels and other criminals continued to make the argument for the woods’ civilization through aggressive management and agricultural clearing.
At a time when concerns of widespread deforestation are not just politicized anxieties but very real and pressing issues, and at a time when the US and Europe are trying to free themselves from dependency on fossil fuels, at all, and especially fossil fuels imported from tyrannical governments, the concerns expressed by Early Modern writers seem prescient, even if, as Pluymers labors to explain, concern over trees was very rarely a concern over the trees themselves but, rather, how they might be transformed into something profitable.
No reader can accuse Pluymers of painting with a broad brush, as his attention to detail can be disorienting at times. This book is not for the faint of heart, but it is an admirably nuanced work of political ecology and environmental history, written with integrity rather than foregone conclusions.
Sara Rich is Assistant Professor of Honors at Coastal Carolina University. She is a maritime archaeologist, art historian, artist, and author. Recent works include Shipwreck Hauntography: Underwater Ruins and the Uncanny (Amsterdam University Press, 2021), Closer to Dust (Punctum, 2021), Shipwrecks and Provenance: In-Situ Timber Sampling Protocols, with an Emphasis on the Iberian Shipbuilding Tradition (Archaeopress, 2018), and Cedar Forests Cedar Ships: Allure, Lore, and Metaphor in the Mediterranean Near East (Archaeopress, 2017). Forthcoming books include Mushroom (in series Object Lessons; Bloomsbury, 2022) and Contemporary Philosophy for Maritime Archaeology (co-edited with Peter Campbell; Sidestone, 2023). She tweets at @wracksandruins.
- Lewis, Simon A. and Mark A. Maslin, “Defining the Anthropocene,” Nature 519 (2015): 171-180; accessed 27 June 2022 at https://www.nature.com/articles/nature14258.
- NASA, “NASA Mission Named ‘Europa Clipper’,” 9 March 2017; accessed 27 June 2022 at https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/nasa-mission-named-europa-clipper.