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To scrutinize the whole of Nature: The Royal Society and its fellows 1660-1730

John Evelyn's Sylva

The Cawthorpe Oak in winter from John Evelyn's Sylva, 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 of October 1662 ... York: printed by T. Wilson and R. Spence, and sold by J. Mawman [et al.], 1801 [Early Science Collection FOL. QK477.Ev2]The Cawthorpe Oak in winter from John Evelyn's Sylva, 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 of October 1662 ... York: printed by T. Wilson and R. Spence, and sold by J. Mawman [et al.], 1801 [Early Science Collection FOL. QK477.Ev2]The diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) was a founder member of the Royal Society, who, unlike some of the figures more readily associated with it, envisaged it as a forum for broad humanistic enquiry and public service. He believed that the original intention of the Royal Society, which embraced the application of science to social and economic problems, should be realised. This was the mainspring of Sylva.

He withdrew from the Society as its attention turned more towards ‘pure’ science. Although his interest in silviculture stemmed from different sources than did Nehemiah Grew’s investigations concerning the structure of trees, in the third edition of Sylva in 1679 he acknowledged the microscopical researches of Grew and Hooke on the circulation of sap.

Sylva was at the time of its first publication in 1664 the first treatise in English devoted entirely to silviculture, and was written at the request of several Commissioners of the Navy. It was the first book to be published under the auspices of the Royal Society, and was aimed exclusively at the educated gentry and aristocracy, as its style, replete with classical allusions, indicates. It found enduring popularity among them.

Throughout the seventeenth century there were perennial and ungrounded fears regarding the shortage of timber and its consequences for economic and strategic power, particularly for the Navy. Evelyn’s book built on previous works on husbandry which publicised scientific methods of forestry.

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