The chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade led a human chain to rescue sacred relics from Notre Dame Cathedral as it burned last week. France faces an equally challenging effort to replace the oak timbers destroyed in the fire.
“They’ll have to look far and wide for it,” University of Montana professor of wood science and technology Ed Burke said of the wooden vault made of an estimated 1,300 oak trees. “You’re not just going to roll your logging company out. They built the way they could in the 1100s. This is going to take a concerted effort to find those resources again.”
A review of the U.S. Forest Service’s EVALIDator forest database shows there may be just 34,000 white oak trees in the U.S. big enough to provide replacement beams for the 800-year-old structure. That’s about 2 percent of the nation’s oak inventory, meaning we’ll have to search a lot of forests to find the right trees.
“They tend to be scattered here and there,” said forest economist Bill Luppold of the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in Princeton, West Virginia. “You’re replacing a product grown in a medieval forest. Even in the United States, you’re not going to see a contiguous group of those.”
And you almost certainly won’t see one in western Europe. There’s a reason why Winnie the Pooh was restricted to the Hundred Acre Wood. Europeans were mighty hard on their forests in the past millennium.
"That’s why England didn’t like losing the American colonies,” Burke said. “They wanted our live oak forests in the Southeast. They spent the 1600s building their fleets, and that took care of their forests.”
France’s King Louis VII started building Notre Dame in 1163. It wasn’t finished until 1345. The wood came from a 52-acre grove near Paris. France in 1000 BC had about 79% of its usable land covered with forest, according to a 2009 Swiss study by Jed Kaplan et al.
By the time Christianity had spread through the old Roman Empire in 500 AD, that figure had fallen to 50%. When the Black Death plague period was sweeping Europe around 1350 AD, France’s forest cover was down to 16%. By 1850, just 6 percent of France’s old-growth forest remained.
Spain and other kingdoms started creating forest laws in the 13th Century as naval ships grew in importance. Two centuries later, with the acquisition of New World colonies and trans-Atlantic trade routes, those ship-building resources came under even more logging pressure.
By the mid-1500s, oak was becoming a sought-after commodity for ship-building. Its strength and durability made it ideal for hull timber, while spruce and pine trees went for masts and beech trees became oars. The government of Venice, a maritime power of the period, rearranged property laws to give itself access to any forest with significant oak stands, regardless of ownership. In some parts of Spain, forest management was a department of the Navy.
Spain had deep domestic supplies of oak on its northern coast, but its Central and South American colonies produced tropical wood that wasn’t suitable for its ship-building style. France and England, with their North American colonies, had much greater access to oak and pine forests for their ships.
“(E)stablishment of a stable and sophisticated government in England after the 11th Century Norman conquest led to deforestation on a large scale, which is recorded in the Domesday Book,” Kaplan’s study noted. Sherwood Forest (of Robin Hood fame) was estimated at more than 100,000 acres when it was established by the invading Norman French kings around 1200. Today it exists as a British National Nature Reserve of just over 1,000 acres. Butte Copper King W.A. Clark claimed to have paneling from Sherwood Forest in one room of his New York City mansion.
Of course, modern materials like glu-lam composite beams or steel girders could replace the historic oak.
The Bible doesn’t specify what species of tree went into the cross Jesus was crucified on. Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition holds it was a combination of cedar, pine and cypress (all of which are now in short supply on the hills of Lebanon and Israel). An English poem claims the cross was made of dogwood, which grows much differently around Jerusalem than the woody shrub seen in Montana. Reputed fragments of the “True Cross” have turned out to be oak, acacia and olive as well.
“That kind of heavy timber construction would not be economical in an engineering sense,” Burke said. “I could see this really being a project.”