Falling Leaves

October 8, 2017

Though we enjoyed summer-like weather this October weekend, the leaves are beginning to pile up around Madison, calling attention to differential patterns of leaf fall from one kind of tree to the next. Since John Evelyn’s Sylva, or, A discourse of forest-trees, and the propagation of timber in His Majesties dominions was first “deliver’d in the Royal Society the XVth of October” in 1662, it seemed apt this week to consult various of our editions of this “exhortation of a lover of trees” (as Colette Avignon described the work in the Dictionary of scientific biography).

Chester Thordarson collected many of the works of Evelyn, including the first edition of the Sylva (1664), the first book published by the Royal Society of London. Among the editions of the Sylva in the  Thordarson Collection is that of 1776, with full title Silva [sic]: or, A discourse of forest-trees, and the propagation of timber in His Majesty’s dominions As it was delivered in the Royal Society on the 15th day of October, 1662, upon occasion of certain quæries propounded to that illustrious assembly, by the honourable the principal officers and commissioners of the navy. Together with an historical account of the sacredness and use of standing groves. This “handsome edition,” enhanced by additional plates and notes by Alexander Hunter, “gave the work renewed popularity” (Douglas D. C. Chambers in the Oxford dictionary of national biography). Here is the hand-colored plate for the oak from the edition of 1776:

The Oak Tree. Publish’d Jan. 1st 1776 by A. Hunter. Call number: Thordarson T 1034 oversize.

Hunter’s version of Evelyn’s work itself enjoyed multiple editions. Compare the depiction of oak leaves in the “fifth edition, with the editor’s last corrections” (London: Henry Colburn … , 1825), also in the Thordarson Collection, the plate browned with age:

From the edition of 1825. Call number: 2 vols., Thordarson T 1035-1036 oversize.

By contrast, lime (or linden) trees in Madison generally drop their leaves in autumn well before our oaks (I know this from evidence in my front yard):

Also from the edition of 1825.

For more on the abiding appeal and influence of Evelyn’s call for the “propagation of timber,” see the BBC report on “A personal and national legacy of Evelyn’s Sylva.”