Winter 2012–2013

Into the Woods

Dietrich Brandis and the birth of modern forestry

Dan Handel

“Brandis, so he told me, had traversed the woods of Pegu riding an elephant on such trails as there were, with four sticks in his left hand and a pocketknife in his right. Whenever he saw in the bamboo thickets a teak tree within two hundred feet of his trail, he cut a notch in stick number 1, 2, 3, or 4, denoting the diameter of the tree. It was impossible for European hands, dripping with moisture, to carry a notebook. At the end of the day, after traveling some twenty miles, Brandis had collected forest stand data for a sample plot four hundred feet wide and twenty miles long, containing some nineteen hundred acres. He continued his cruise for a number of months, sick with malaria in a hellish climate. Moreover, he underwent a trepanning operation, and for the rest of his life he carried a small hole filled with white cotton in the front of his skull. But he emerged from the cruise with the knowledge needed for his great enterprise.”[1]

Such is the tale of the birth of tropical forestry. Over the course of a heroic survey mission of a lone forester, new findings informed new conclusions; these, in turn, enshrined new principles for those engaged with forest growth and management. However, something else also emerged in the process: the figure of the international forest expert, acting as a liaison for governments and authorities while at the same time operating under the disinterested mantle of scientific research.

Wood sample sent by Brandis from Burma to the Kew Gardens, London. Courtesy Kew Gardens.

German forester Dietrich Brandis was the quintessential embodiment of this figure. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, he not only served in some of the most influential positions of forest management around the world, but was also the locus of a dense network of communication between field researchers, colonial bureaucrats, indigenous workers, and forestry students. This intense correspondence circumscribed a migration of ideas, evidence, and knowledge that transformed forestry from a relatively limited engagement with scientific and economic ramifications into a large-scale, global practice that controlled such immense territories that it created wholly new international markets. With that, power became a newly decisive factor in the work of the modern expert forester. 

• • •

Modern forestry developed as a distinct discipline in the eighteenth century. Forests, of course, had long been controlled and managed. The Greeks and the Romans both recognized the decline in the timber supply around the Mediterranean and each developed measures to control unrestricted cutting. Environmental historians point to the correlations made by acute observers of the period between overcutting and climatic change, which led to the adoption of certain habits and regulations that challenge the common view that natural resources were senselessly exploited in classical times.[2] However, modern forestry means more than local measures taken in response to specific observations. It can be described as a combination of an abstract system of scientific knowledge and an administrative system of management through which those abstractions are made concrete. In that sense, an impressive experiment in forest administration such as the one carried by the Venetian republic as early as the sixteenth century can only be considered proto-modern; while the republic developed complex management mechanisms that were responsible for the survival of public forests over centuries, it remained in essence ignorant with regard to the general, systemic principles of forest sites.[3]

Such general principles began to be formalized with the application of botanical principles to the realm of forest management. The highly influential work of Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who developed a new system of plant classification and nomenclature, informed similar attempts to classify and organize tree species. One extraordinary attempt belonged to Duhamel Du Monceau, who wrote, around 1750, the originary treatises for what would later be known as silviculture. Du Monceau epitomized in his interests and professional engagements the Enlightenment man: being a naval engineer, botanist, and physician, he produced a series of publications that not only defined the work of professional forestry, but delved deep into the physiognomy of trees, on the one hand, and the larger economic, social, and political contexts of forests, on the other.

Diagram from Du Monceau’s treatise on trees and forest systems Des semis et plantations des arbres, et de leur culture, 1760. Courtesy Canadian Centre for Architecture.

His books, written with awe-inspiring speed, took the standard format of technical manuals. They ranged from an overview of the trees grown in France to a treatise on shipbuilding fundamentals and the elements of naval architecture; from a study of the physical qualities of trees to an exposition of their commercial uses, to mention just a few.[4] Taken together, they present the world understood through a hyper-rationalized perspective. In his corpus, forests were completely demystified, and were instead analyzed and modeled according to their material and economic potential. With this track record, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Du Monceau contributed the entries on forestry to Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, and his perspective thus provided a crucial staging ground for the development of modern forestry in Europe—an intellectual and practical tradition which Brandis was to inherit, and then challenge and expand.

• • •

Around 1800, the condition of German forests was known to be pitiable. Centuries of exploitation had resulted in the depletion of most of the original species, and their replacement with faster-growing trees, such as birch, willow, or alder, was meant to address the constant timber famine. These local initiatives were gradually taken over by more systematic operations, aiming at establishing productive forests as quickly as possible.[5] The extensive planting of these artificial forests was informed by the work of the forest scientists who, influenced by the liberal economic theories of Adam Smith, had devised the “soil rent theory.” This held that forests, understood as the combination of land value, timber capital, and silvicultural expense, should yield an annual interest.[6] As a result, German forestry developed a highly rational approach in which all these elements were meticulously calculated to maximize profitability. This approach was eventually termed “scientific forestry” and put German forestry at the forefront of the profession.

Dietrich Brandis was raised and trained in this context; born in 1824, he was educated in botany and plant chemistry in Copenhagen, Göttingen, and Bonn, where he took on a position as lecturer in 1849. This somewhat standard career path took a turn after Brandis married Rachel Marshman, an Englishwoman who was the sister-in-law of one Henry Havelock.[7] Havelock was an influential and well-educated army general who was stationed at the time in India, having served in the first Anglo-Burmese, Afghan, and Sikh wars. Through him, Brandis got acquainted with the governor-general of India, Lord Dalhousie, who offered him the position of superintendent of teak forests in the Pegu region of east Burma, which at the time was the eastern province of British India. While Brandis was initially more interested in a botanical excursion to the region, he decided to accept the job.[8] He left for India in 1855.

Dalhousie’s offer should be understood in the context of his attempts to modernize India and bring it under government authority. His tenure marked the transition of rulership from the British East India Company to the British Raj, in which the Crown assumed control over the subcontinent.[9] On the ground, Dalhousie’s ambitious efforts took the form of large-scale infrastructural operations such as railway or telegraph lines, as well as the relentless annexation of new territories.[10] Pegu was the most recent of these acquisitions, stretching the boundary of the British Empire to the Far East and forcing Dalhousie to consider new ways to finance his imperialist ambitions. Recruiting Brandis was the result of his growing conviction that proper forest management would be vital in this effort. Receiving advice on the matter from Joseph Dalton Hooker, the director of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, Dalhousie was transformed into a forestry enthusiast, his new zeal for preserving forests coinciding neatly with his desire to bring them under British control.[11]

A large-scale forest plan for Burma from the 1870s, one of the earliest such plans ever devised. Courtesy Botany Libraries, Harvard University Herbaria.

In 1855, these attempts culminated in his issuing the Indian Forest Charter. The charter made all teak the property of the state, regulated its trade, and initiated a new approach to forest management in which the private interests of both the British and Indians were made secondary to the rights of the state over “nature.” To some contemporary historians, this moment marked the beginning of environmentalism, entangled from its naissance with the interests of empire. Even as this remains a controversial argument, one cannot ignore its grain of truth; the administrative systems developed in colonial India did include many environmentalist principles common today, such as the “multiuse” paradigm, which proposed a set of interrelationships between social groups, political realities, revenue generation, and climate theory.[12] Brandis, then, arrived in Pegu at a critical moment in which the future of forests was subject to the effects of big investments in infrastructural development, the political ambition to seize and maintain new territories, and the ideological convictions of a governor-general who was ready and able to turn his ideas into reality.

• • •

British Burma, in which Pegu was located, was a territory that was acquired over the course of three Anglo-Burmese wars. Pegu was annexed after the second war of 1852 and contained the bulk of the teak forests in the country, located between two major river systems. Burmese teak had been previously identified as a species of high commercial value for both military use and shipbuilding, and as such attracted the attention of the British. However, the new government decided that the system of private leases through which it controlled the forests in other parts of Burma should not be repeated. The sheer quantity and quality of resources, as well as a series of reports on the problematic nature of implementing scientific management in the context of a program of decentralized concessions, led to a preliminary declaration that all forests in Pegu were to be administered as state forests. Additionally, teak was declared a reserved species and its felling had to be approved by the newly appointed superintendent of forests, John McClelland. An army doctor and naturalist with a keen interest in botany, McClelland was sent by Dalhousie to survey the newly acquired teak forests. His report served as an important reference for Brandis in its detailed wood anatomical studies and acute observations, which highlighted the potential of existing rivers for transporting timber from the forests. The report concluded with a provisional framework for yield regulation. However, more than anything else, his report stressed the urgency of implementing scientific forest management in order to avoid the premature felling of young trees. “A forest,” he wrote, “may be regarded as a growing capital, the resources of which are the young trees, and unless these are preserved and guarded to maturity, it is obvious the forest must necessarily degenerate from the nature of an improving capital to that of a sinking fund.” Dalhousie was apparently impressed by these words.[13] His response included the drafting of the Forest Charter and the decision to invite Brandis to become the first professional forester to work in British India.

Arriving in Calcutta in early 1856, Brandis presented to the governor-general a preliminary plan for the management of Pegu’s forests. This must have been a very general document, as he had neither the required empirical data nor the familiarity with the specific species such a plan would have required. Meeting with several officials, he began to get a better idea of his mission and the problems he would be facing. After his arrival in Pegu, Brandis began a series of excursions into the forests placed under his authority. These exhaustive tours made him realize the complexity of the task with which he been entrusted: the total area of Pegu was more than eight million hectares, 90 percent of which was covered with forests. This meant that Brandis was put in charge of an area larger than all the forests in Germany. While German foresters benefitted from the aggregated knowledge of their predecessors, Burmese forests were hardly surveyed. As a result, there was not enough data available to provide an overall picture or even begin to discuss proper management.

In was then that Brandis’s ingenuity came into play. Facing a completely uncharted context and lacking knowledge of tropical forests, he decided to start off by developing a basic system through which he could sample the territory. His linear valuation survey, conducted with sticks in one hand and a pocketknife in the other, allowed him to gather preliminary information on teak trees in individual forest tracts. From the laborious collection of these samples—which covered about 0.4% of the forested areas in the territory—he was able to deduce an estimate of the total teak inventory of Pegu. The data on different tree diameters, inventoried with his sticks and knife, played an important role in this system as it allowed for an estimate of stock for both immediate and future yield. Using his meticulous process, Brandis arrived at a figure of 584,960 exploitable trees, a figure that was more than thirteen times the estimate made by McClelland.[14] Brandis then aggregated information on the growth rates of teak trees from different sources in order to estimate how many years it would take a tree to reach full growth. With that, he was able to conclude how many trees could be felled each year so as to avoid deforestation over the long term.

Once the inventory was completed, Brandis began to draw up a working plan, in which he had to provide a basis for his intuition, and Dalhousie’s will, that the government should be directly involved in all forest operations, from cutting to transport to sales. River transportation presented the most complicated challenge, as dense teak logs must be treated in order to float, and climatic and geographical conditions posed additional complications. Brandis had to see to it personally that transport operations were carried out according to plan, that depots were secured for the storage of wood in Rangoon, and that workers extracted the correct trees. Though enormously demanding, these responsibilities allowed him to acquire more detailed information on different parts of the territory, which enabled him to continuously modify his preliminary working plan, with the hope that detailed plans could be made for the different districts in the near future.

Brandis in his forest field camp, Burma, ca. 1857.

These achievements, remarkable as they were, nevertheless comported with the procedures of European forestry of the time, following its accepted protocols of surveys, detailed stock calculations, and plans for sustained yield. However, Pegu proved to be more than a large-scale experiment in available forestry methods. Through his work, Brandis was faced with two fundamental challenges to scientific forestry as he knew it. The first was the confrontation with the tropical context, which challenged some of the basic assumptions underlying forest management in Europe: the drastically different climatic conditions between the two contexts—the tropical forests did not have the familiar four seasons, for instance—led to recalculations of the cycles of extraction. Additionally, the many unfamiliar species demanded study and classification, which, combined with the diversity of Burmese forests, called for different management schemes favoring natural regeneration over plantations. Brandis was quick to understand the relationships between teak and other forest plants; bamboo cover, for example, was consumed by forest fires during the dry season and cleared the way for tree seedlings to shoot up. Based on this process, he diverged from the European forestry traditions and offered a system of teak planting in bamboo areas that can be described as proto-ecological in its understanding of the forest as an environment.[15]

The second challenge, which was perhaps more important, was anchored in the fact that the scale, demographics, and political circumstances of British Burma required a rethinking of the roles that local populations could play in the life of the forest. Early on in his survey trips, Brandis became aware of a traditional mode of shifting cultivation practiced by the local inhabitants of Pegu, the Karens. In this method, the forest is cleared of all vegetation, which is left to dry in the sun. Afterward, it is burned and the ash is mixed with the soil, which is planted with crops before the first rains. The crops, mostly rice and vegetables, are harvested in the following dry season, and the cycle begins again on a fresh part of the forest until, about two decades later, the first site is replanted and the process begins again. In Burma, the clearings created by this method were called taungya. Brandis decided it would be possible to introduce slight modifications to the existing method in order to grow teak in the region. With this system, he was in fact utilizing a method that destroyed teak in order to produce teak.[16] In his mind, if the Karens could be convinced to plant teak together with their crops, the taungya system would grow teak with the additional benefit that the agricultural crops would protect the saplings in their early life. Once the trees grew, agriculture was moved to a new site. Brandis, sensitive to both the social and the political implications of his operations, knew that the Karens, many of whom were hostile to British rule, would have to willingly participate in this experiment in order for it to take hold. To that end, he employed several army officers stationed in Rangoon who were able to persuade the Karens to plant the teak, offering in return a fixed payment for each acre bearing a certain number of one-year-old saplings. In effect, the local population had been co-opted into the colonial modernization enterprise, which did not go unnoticed, as records of local resistance demonstrate.[17]

However, this perspective, tends to oversimplify the realities of Brandis’s work. Despite the colonial ends to which it was put, his version of the taungya system can also be regarded as introducing an early innovative model of agroforestry, one which linked existing agricultural practices, local participation, the provision of incentives to communities, and the use of complex biological interactions in novel ways. In other words, a nineteenth-century prototype of what is today called a sustainable environmental initiative. 

• • •

All of this had happened in one year. The incredible pace at which Brandis transformed his discipline and defined Indian forestry launched his career as a leading international expert. By 1857, he was in charge of all forests in Burma. The same year saw the Indian Rebellion, which marked a watershed in the administration of Indian forests, as the military interests of the new British Raj required a continuous supply of wood for the construction of a complete railway system.[18] Five years later, Brandis was called on to reorganize the forest administration in other Indian provinces, and then appointed the first inspector general of forests for India in 1864. During his nineteen years in office, the first Indian Forest Act was passed, and the first forestry school in India was established. He also managed to document local forms of forest cultivation and collect botanical information on thousands of species for what would eventually become his monumental work, Indian Trees.[19]

Wood samples sent by Brandis from Burma to the Kew Gardens, London. Courtesy Kew Gardens.

After returning to Europe, he was involved, directly or indirectly, in practically every major forestry operation in the world. Teaching in Britain’s first forestry department—which was modeled, curiously enough, on Indian rather than European programs—and at leading schools in Germany, he employed an experimental approach that included many laborious surveys of sample plots. His best students became his protégés, a class of experts that spread the gospel of his forestry ideas.

One of these was Gifford Pinchot, an American who during a year in Europe visited Germany’s forests with Brandis as a guide.[20] Upon his return to the United States, Pinchot, inspired by the encounter, made it his mission to introduce scientific forestry there. In his position at George Washington Vanderbilt III’s Biltmore estate in North Carolina—where he introduced the first scientifically managed forest in America—as well as in his later role as the first chief of the United States Forest Service, Pinchot consulted his mentor on every significant decision regarding the management, administration, and implementation of his plans. Brandis was also in contact with Carl Schenck, who succeeded Pinchot at Biltmore, where he founded the first American forestry school; with Charles Sprague Sargent, the director of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum; with Frederick E. Olmsted, later the president of the Society of American Foresters; and Overton Price and E. M. Griffith, Schenck’s apprentices at Biltmore and later Pinchot’s close colleagues in the Forest Service, among others. Through this intricate web of communication, which included scientific reports, draft survey maps, policy documents, and personal letters, Brandis, who never set foot in the United States, shaped the formation of its continental-scale forest administration. In doing so, he took a central part, once again, in the redefinition of professional forestry; however, for him, it remained a mission and an obsession that operated through, but always transcended, power.

  1. Carl Alwin Schenck, Birth of Forestry in America: Biltmore Forest School (Santa Cruz, California: Forest History Society, 1955), p. 9.
  2. Certain nineteenth-century environmentalists promoted the notion of the link between cultural and environmental degradation. Henry David Thoreau, for one, argued that “the civilized nations … have been sustained by the primitive forests which anciently rotted where they stand. They survive as long as the soil is not exhausted.” For a fascinating overview of the many measures used in antiquity to prevent deforestation, see Hughes J. Donald and J. V. Thirgood, “Deforestation, Erosion, and Forest Management in Ancient Greece and Rome,” Journal of Forest History, vol. 26, no. 2 (April 1982), pp. 60–75.
  3. For an enlightening environmental and economic history of Venice and its forests, see Karl Appuhn, A Forest on the Sea: Environmental Expertise in Renaissance Venice (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).
  4. For some of these, see Duhamel Du Monceau, Éléments de l’Architecture Navale: Ou, Traité Pratique de la Construction des Vaisseaux (Paris: C. A. Jombert, Libraire du Roi pour l’Artillerie & le Genie, 1752); Traité de la Conservation des Grains (Paris: H. L. Guerin & L. F. Delatour, 1753); La Physique des Arbres (Paris: H. L. Guerin & L. F. Delatour, 1758); Des Semis et Plantations des Arbres (Paris: H. L. Guerin & L. F. Delatour, 1760); De l’Exploitation des Bois (Paris: H. L. Guerin & L. F. Delatour, 1764); and Traité des Arbres Fruitiers (Paris: Saillant, 1768).
  5. Indra Munshi Saldanha, “Colonialism and Professionalism: A German Forester in India,” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 31, no. 21 (25 May 1996), p. 1267.
  6. See David A. Perry, “The Scientific Basis of Forestry,” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, vol. 29 (1998), pp. 435–466.
  7. Marshman was linked to India in several ways, being the daughter of Joshua Marshman, an English missionary in India who, among other things, translated the Bible into several Indian languages.
  8. Herbert Hesmer, Leben Und Werk Von Dietrich Brandis (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1975).
  9. This transformation was also related to the Indian rebellion of 1857, which broke out only a short time after Dalhousie left India.
  10. The annexation Dalhousie pushed for under what he termed the “doctrine of lapse,” in which the British took over territories that did not have an obvious ruler, not only led to resentment from local populations, but proved very controversial back in Britain.
  11. See Richard Grove, Green Imperialism (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 454. The growing awareness on behalf of the government of the destruction of Indian forests was probably also informed by the works of Hugh Cleghorn, a Scottish physician and botanist who had worked in India since the 1840s.
  12. See Greg Barton, Empire Forestry and the Origins of Environmentalism (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
  13. For a detailed account of this correspondence and its consequences, see Barton, Empire Forestry, p. 55.
  14. See Sharad Singh Negi, Sir Dietrich Brandis: Father of Tropical Forestry (Dehra Dun: Bishen Singh Mahendra Pal Singh, 1991), p. 14.
  15. This system would be implemented with considerable success by Brandis’s successor, Berthold Ribbentrop.
  16. Saldanha, “Colonialism and Professionalism,” p. 1267.
  17. For an overview, written from a post-colonial perspective, on the discourse of colonial forestry and its self-identification with the idea of progress, and on how resistance played a part in challenging that pairing, see Raymond L. Bryant, “Romancing Colonial Forestry: The Discourse of ‘Forestry as Progress’ in British Burma,” The Geographical Journal, vol. 162, no. 2 (July 1996), pp. 169–178.
  18. This fact had to do with the military stepping in after the mutiny following the dissolution of British East India Company rule in the subcontinent.
  19. Dietrich Brandis, Indian Trees: An Account of Trees, Shrubs, Woody Climbers, Bamboos, and Palms Indigenous or Commonly Cultivated in the British Indian Empire (London: A. Constable & Co., Ltd., 1906).
  20. Pinchot would later write in his autobiography: “It had become my chief ambition, timid at first but determined later on, to tread in the footsteps of Dr. Brandis.”

Dan Handel is a Tel-Aviv based architect and the 2011 Young Curator at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, for which he developed the exhibition “First, the Forests.” He is the editor of Aircraft Carrier (Hajte Cantz, 2012), and of Manifest, an upcoming journal of American architecture and urbanism.

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