Review of Rowan Reid's book Heartwood, by Sarah Coles
“Progress is not about going down the same path; it is about changing paths.” – Rowan Reid.
This book is unbelievable. Sometimes books written by experts aren’t much chop–the author being an expert in an area, like the Ebola epidemic or the assassination of Bhutto say, but useless when it comes to words. Heartwood is a page-turner.
Reid is dedicated teaching people about trees. He won the 2001 Australian Eureka Prize for Excellence in Environmental Education for his farmer course, The Australian Master TreeGrower, which he teaches in Australia and internationally. He is a Senior Fellow of the University of Melbourne and the managing director of the Australian Agroforestry Foundation. He has written several books, and he is a farmer and tree grower at Bambra Agrofestry Farm, in the Otway Ranges of southern Victoria, Australia.
Reid’s nuanced position during the introduction, ‘The Third Wave’, hooked me in—Reid delivers a skillful analogy about a surfbreak where there seems to only be two options, yet it turns out a lesser known third wave exists upon which Reid chooses to surf. Having surfed at my own strange options over the years (the beach break to the right of Sunderland anyone?) his example resonates with me. Reid then draws down on the surfing analogy to point out that forestry suffers from the same binary blindspot.
“I am a forester, or should I say a forest scientist. Not the the clarification will reassure some. Everyone knows forests are either for conservation or production, to be saved or plundered. This polarity helps people, whatever their ecological understanding, make sense of the complexity that is inherent in the natural world and in our own relationship with it. they can take a side, feel part of a tribe, and express a collective opinion with confidence. For some the dichotomy goes deeper than just an opinion, it becomes an identity—‘I am a conservationist’—making it almost impossible to challenge their views without offending the person” – Rowan Reid
Heartwood is divided into 15 chapters, each taking the name of a species of tree. The book has a depth to it that goes beyond explaining tree species—it is the memoir of a man who spent his entire life trying to understand trees, without being sucked into tree-hugger or a capitalist vantages. His ‘third wave’ is an unpopular viewpoint at times. Outsiders like Reid make for good books, I suspect, because as a sometimes outsider he probably spent a lot of time honing his argument. Being a forester for farmers doesn’t come with a ready made set of bumper stickers or ideological positions—it is complex.
Interspersed throughout are ‘Science and Practice’ sections explaining concepts like shrinkage, shelterbelt design, how to grow tall trees, phototropic growth, tree foliage for supplementary stock fodder, wood density, hardwood sawing patterns for a horizontal bandsaw, stem pruning, and my favorite section ‘Growing Shiitake mushrooms on logs.’
Two things set Heartwood apart—the depth and breadth of what is covered, and the beautiful writing. Chapter 9 ‘Sydney Blue Gums Eucalyptus saligna’ teaches a great deal about fire; ‘What David taught me that day changed forever the criteria I use for selecting eucalypts for wood production. Fast growth is good but being able to survive a wildfire is better.’ Chapter 11, ‘Black Walnut Juglans nigra’ exhibits Reid’s ability to tell a story just with the opening line alone, ‘In 1939, an agricultural teacher named Andy Dixon climbed a nineteen-year-old tree growing on his farm in Ontario, Canada.’
How much this guy knows about trees! As I read this book I wondered if Reid had been keeping a notebook the whole time. ‘By the late sixteenth century Persian Walnut had established itself as the most desirable furniture timber amongst European nobility and was becoming difficult to source.’ Heartwood has changed the way I view the world forever (in the same way Alision Pouliot’s fungi courses changed my relationship to mycology). I can’t look at the pine outside my window without being reminded of something brilliant from the pages of this book. (I want to commend whoever edited it too. Not a single mistake!)
As I write, the man next-door is building the frame of a McMansion with what is most likely pine fresh from the old growth forests of Russia. The future tenants won’t know that they are complicit in the extinction of Siberian tigers, and it will probably fetch high rent because of the hardwood floorboards throughout. Farm forestry is a far better option than the often illegally harvested timber available at the hardware store. Forestry for conservation is a far better option than a state government owned sawmill churning through Victoria’s Mountain Ash water catchment. I wish they sold Heartwood on the counter at Bunnings. Reid writes:
“As the light faded I sat down to take a moment to enjoy the view. The sheep seemed content; grazing under the parkland of widely spaced trees that seemed to mimic the River Red Gum that were once scattered across the landscape. It was a beautiful picture, one that hinted that the future of Western Districts of Victoria might not lie with the restoration of an ancient Red Gum woodland but with the creation of something new.
How I know this book is good is I started reading it a few days after going through a relationship break-up with a former agroforester. There should have been a point where I threw Heartwood across the room screeching, ‘Aiiii it’s too painful. The bloody Eucalypts remind me of him too much!’ but instead my broken heart took a backseat to Reid’s brilliant and practical philosophical treatise.
Sarah Coles is a journalist and editor. This book review was published on 9th July 2018 in Plimsoll Line – Sarah Coles: Words and Radio. Heartwood is available for purchase from permaculture principles.