In the 18th century, Britain’s security and prosperity depended on ships; the Navy for security, and shipping trade for prosperity. Continuance of the fleets of shipping depended on adequate timber supply, and most especially, oak.
The English Oak had long been a symbol of rural strength and solidity, but now it was taking on a patriotic tinge as well. Taking 150 years to reach maturity, capable of living for a thousand years, towering to 125 feet, and providing shade and shelter under its widespread branches, the oak was a well-known and loved species. It was also a vital one. A new ship could consume 2000 trees.
The natural widespread growth of the oak not being particularly conducive to ship timber, there was a need to shape the growth of the trees for straightness and height. To the rescue in 1747 came James Wheeler, Gent, of Higham in Suffolk with “The Modern Druid, containing instructions founded on physical reasons, confirmed by long practice, and evidenced by precedents, for the much better culture of Young Oaks more particularly, than what they have been subject to by any late discipline: with various reflections interspersed on the occasion.” He addressed his book “To the nobility and the gentry of Great Britain, Proprietors of Woods, Chaces, Wasts, Parks, or Pastures, or any kindly Soils Productive of the OAK”
Wheeler waxed loquacious, even by eighteenth-century standards. Here is one sample sentence, from the opening of Chapter III:
The state and also intended manner of my proceeding being before intimated, it will not be improper to mention an experiment, to corroborate a very material article advanced in the foregoing Chapter: That I may leave no scruples behind unobviated; which otherwise may be brought in evidence of my weakness—instead of my displaying the wisdom of nature—Wherefore I attempted to make proof statically, whether those very Oaks last mentioned, by means of having had their bark-slit on bough debarking; did grow the more in their circumference, and latitudinal girt than otherwise they would have done.
It is a curious book, a mixture of careful and specific advice, philosophical ruminations, excessive disquisition on the subject of oak sap, and a paean to the oak as a way for landowners to preserve the value of their holdings. His main argument is that lopping off lower branches to encourage straight growth does terrible damage to a tree (at least in the case of the oak) and recommends bark-cutting (stripping off a couple of inches of bark from a branch to let it die off slowly) and bark slitting (cutting vertical slits in the bark of the trunk to relieve the excess sap).
I know almost nothing about Wheeler. In the book, he mentions his poor health, and, although he did not die until 1763, his will was written a full ten years earlier, and makes much of his maidservant for nursing him through his “several illnesses”. He left the bulk of his property to his “kinswoman” Elizabeth, wife of Thomas Doyly of Dedham in Essex, and makes particular note of the disposition of his woods and timber. Presumably he had no children of his own.
The text of the book is largely unrelieved by ornamentation, but it does have a fine frontispiece showing the oak as “The Glory and Protection of Britain”. The plate was engraved by James Mynde from a picture by Joshua Kirby.