John Evelyn was a dry old stick - and here that metaphor has an almost literal force, since his first and greatest love was for trees. In Fumifugium (1661) he argued that smoky workshops should be banished from London, and that the environs of the city should be planted with 'such Shrubs, as yield the most fragrant and odoriferous Flowers' to sweeten its stench. Sylva, printed in 1664 under the auspices of the Royal Society, was described by its author as 'dry sticks' which might afford readers 'some sap'. It lovingly describes how to plant, tend and ultimately harvest all kinds of tree, from the solid English oak to the Frenchified acacia with roots 'which insinuate and run like loquorize under ground'. In his gardens at Sayes Court, on the edge of the naval dockyards at Deptford, he laid out complex arrangements of the most exotic trees and plants. Like his Norfolk contemporary Sir Thomas Browne, he admired the fact that a tree could 'generate its like without violation of Virginity'. But he was no Swampy or tree-hugger. His plans for giant plantations of trees had a military and industrial purpose: they were eventually to be felled to provide the raw material for ships, or a cleaner fuel for manufacturing than the sulphurous Newcastle coal which befouled the London air throughout the 17th century.
LRB 6 March 2003 | PDF Download