Not to be provincial, but I would have expected more about the Wye Oak than the nod it gets in William Bryant Logan's Oak: The Frame of Civilization (Norton, $24.95). "Old oaks acquire such fame that when they fall, people go into mourning. . . .," he writes. "Maryland's Wye Oak was purchased by the state in 1939 and made the center of a park in its honor. It was 96 feet tall and probably more than 460 years old when it failed in a storm in 2002, but not before it had been perpetuated by cloning." Couldn't we have also been granted a panegyric to that stately Eastern Shore behemoth, with its colossal network of branches providing enough shade to cool off a regiment? But in Logan's defense, he has sawn off a big subject, the genus Quercus, and has limited himself to covering it in a relatively brief space: just over 300 pages of big-print text.

As the stuff of sailing ships, oak played a part in the evolution of the modern state. The bargain struck when the British throne was restored after the death of Oliver Cromwell was that the new king, Charles II, "would grant amnesty to all except the men who had actually killed his father, and that all his acts would have to be ratified by Parliament before they were considered valid." One such act, in 1677, was the king's request for funds to build 30 new warships. Parliament approved it but made clear that the vessels belonged to the nation, and insisted that the monies for them be kept separate. As Logan sees it, this series of maneuvers established the government, not the Crown, as the ultimate protector of British citizens. The amount of tax revenues raised to finance the ships that year -- "fully half the revenue brought in to the treasury" -- underscores what an impact this oak-related political innovation must have had.

-- Dennis Drabelle

The Cowthorpe Oak, the largest oak tree in England during the 19th century