Thursday, 19 March 2015

The Naval Timber Controversies

In 1826, William Withers Jun. of Holt, Norfolk, published A Memoir on the Planting and Rearing of Forest-Trees. Therein he proposed that the same care should be given to forest trees as to other cultivated plants. In particular, he advocated the trenching and manuring the ground before planting and keeping the ground free from weeds for the first years, until the trees were large enough to maintain themselves. He argued that the returns would by far outweigh the expenses for this care, because the alternative was often a complete loss of the lower expenses for "merely digging holes and putting in the trees, and then  leaving them to their fate" amongst weeds and other plants.
"THE principal object of the present memoir is, to communicate to the Society [for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture, and Commerce] the results of several experiments on manuring land for forest-trees; to demonstrate the absolute necessity of deeply ploughing or trenching it previous to planting; and of keeping it clean, and free from weeds, for some time afterwards." (Withers 1826, p. 5)
Withers (1826, p. 11) thought that the weeds rob the ground of a portion of food that would otherwise serve the tree saplings. He recounted the following cautionary tale of a neighboring Admiral Windham's misfortune:
"Some Scotchmen persuaded him that neither trenching, ploughing, nor cleaning was necessary: that just to raise a flag, by making a triangular incision, and putting in a seedling plant, and pressing it down with the foot, was quite sufficient to raise in quick time a flourishing and valuable plantation; and that, as to the grass and weeds, they would keep the trees warm and also keep out the drought—they would in fact be a source both of heat and moisture: and all this was to be done for three pounds ten shillings an acre. Most gentlemen are disposed to listen to any proposal for doing work cheaply: accordingly the Scotchmen were employed, and planted the forty acres. But the plantation is a total failure. The trees (that is, such of them as are alive) are almost entirely choked up with grass and weeds,a nd are literally worth nothing. The sum of three pounds ten shillings an acre, amounting altogether to one hundred and forty pounds, is therefore as completely thrown away, as if it had been cast into the sea." (Withers 1826, p. 22)
Later, Withers seems to have called this the Scotch system or pitting system, which irked many Scotch planters, as opposed to his system or the trenching system.

The following year Sir Walter Scott published an essay On Planting Waste Lands (Quarterly Review of October 1827) that was only formally a review of Mr. Monteath's The Forester's Guide and Profitable Planter. In truth, it stood on its own legs and mentioned Monteath only rarely. One does not get much of an idea of Monteath's book, but a very good idea of Scott's opinions.
     Whereas Withers mainly had the returns on investment of individual proprietors in mind, Scott took a very large scale point of view. He was concerned with the fate of the nation, its sources for naval timber also, and started by reviewing why a lot of land that was now wasteland had lost its forests. He made out several causes. For example, land had become marshy because trees that had fallen into streams, which would otherwise drain the land, had not been removed. Likewise, goats and sheep were left to graze on the wasteland. His remedies were equally large-scale, meant to be extensive and bring the forests back to these wastelands at the lowest possible expenses. In this context, he thought that it would not be necessary to prepare the ground intensively, except for draining and fencing, in order to let nature bring the forest back on its own. We'd now probably think of it as providing the circumstances for a natural succession towards forest to occur.
"We may now be expected to say something of the preparation of the soil, by cropping, fallowing, and burning, or otherwise, as is recommended in most books on the subject of planting. There can be no doubt that all or any of these modes, may be, according to circumstances, used with the utmost advantage, especially so far as concerns the early growth of wood. Every plantation, therefore, which the proprietor desires to see rush up with unusual rapidity, ought to be prepared by one of these methods, or, which is best of all, by deep trenching with the spade. But the expense attending this most effectual mode limits it to the park and pleasure-ground, and even the other coarser modes of preparation cannot be thought of, when the object is to plant as extensively and at as little expense as possible. It may be some comfort to know that, as far as we have observed, the difference betwixt the growth of plantations, where the ground has been prepared, or otherwise, supposing the soil alike, and plants put in with equal case, seems to disappear within the first ten or twenty years. It is only in its earlier days that the plant enjoys the benefit of of having its roots placed amongst earth which has been rendered loose and penetrable: at a certain period the fibres reach the sub-soil which the spade or plough has not disturbed, and thus the final growth of the tree which has enjoyed this advantage is often not greater than that of its neighbour, upon which no such indulgences were ever bestowed." (see p. 30 in this collection of Scott's Prose)
Again one year later, Withers answered with A Letter to Sir Walter Scott, bart., exposing certain fundamental errors in his late Essay on planting, and containing observations on the pruning and thinning of woods, and maxims for profitable planting (London: J. Shalders, 1828). Unfortunately, I did not get hold of it yet. Withers probably pointed out that the trees would still fail and be choked by weeds, no matter what drainage and fencing may effect, and that he had shown by experiment that the effects of his treatment were by no means as temporary as Sir Scott supposed. 

This letter irked Sir Henry Steuart. He perceived a lack of courtesy in it and took the opportunity of the 2nd edition of his Planter's Guide (1828) to criticise Withers in turn. The main criticisms of Steuart were: firstly, simply digging a hole and putting a sapling in was not a Scotch invention and that Withers 'system' was old—ancient even—and not his invention; secondly, bringing back the forest on the large-scale required more extensive (less intensive) means; and, thirdly, quickly grown wood was not hard enough for naval timber.  

Withers promptly answered with A letter to Sir Henry Steuart, bart., On the improvement in the quality of timber, to be effected by the high cultivation and quick growth of forest-trees (Holt: J. Shalders, 1829). He started by pointing out an inconsistency between Sir Scott, who thought that the effect of prepared vs. unprepared ground on trees would vanish within a few years and Sir Steuart, who claimed that the wood of the trees in manured ground would be of no use to the navy because of their fast growth. Surprisingly, Withers does not seem to catch the idea that fast grown wood is of less density and therefore not as hard as slow grown wood. Likewise, Steuart misses the argument that helping tree saplings past the critical age is better than letting them perish and thus wasting money, where a bit extra investment could reap huge returns. Thus the controversy quickly degraded into scholars beating opposite strawmen, talking at cross-purpose and mud slinging ad hominem.

Add to this controversy about the effects of trenching, manuring, and weeding on trees, and its suitability for large-scale foresting, the further ones about pruning etc and you will get a hunch of the veritably mess that arboriculture was in during the first half of the 19th century.

At this point, Patrick Matthew (1831) entered the fray with his On Naval Timber and Arboriculture. The biggest part of Matthew's book, however, is the part where he discussed/criticised the doctrines of these scholars as well as others (e.g., Monteath, Billington, Withers, Scot, Steuart; Loudon).

I think that the naval timber controversies, as I have called them, must be thoroughly understood before solid conclusions about Matthew's anticipation of natural selection and the origin of species can be drawn.