Wood and Forest Culture

A-19: Wood and forest culture: merging the past with the present

Building A "Ca' da Mont" of Planezzo. Credit: Frattari
Building A “Ca’ da Mont” of Planezzo. Credit: Frattari

Wood has played a substantial role in the development of civilization, providing humans with building materials and fuel for thousands of years.  Session A-1 Wood and forest culture: merging the past with the present, examined the historical, religious, artistic, and other social values of wood, focusing on the economic, environmental, and scientific impacts of this fibrous structural tissue found in the stems and roots of trees and other woody plants.

The long history of wood utilization dates back to 400 000 years ago – the age of the oldest carbon dated wood spear, found in Germany. Other man-made artifacts that have been dated to outstanding ages include a 3 000 year old staircase, a 1 300 year old building in Japan, and a 1 200 year old Viking canoe. Victoria Asensi Amoros, Xylodata SARL, conducts research on very specific artifacts: Egyptian wood coffins from the 3rd Intermediate period (1069–664 BC). She works on the Vatican Coffin Project, which was started by the Vatican Museum and now includes the Louvre Museum in Paris and the Turin Museum in Italy. So far, 15 coffins from the Vatican museum and 6 coffins from the Louvre museum have been sampled with standard wood identification techniques, as determined by the International Association of Wood Anatomists (IAWA). Very small samples were collected to preserve the integrity of the objects, and microscope analysis served to identify the structure of the cells in various planes of wood (transversal, tangential, and radial).

The predominant indigenous species were found to be Acacia sp., Ficus sycomorus, and Tamarix sp., indicating how the popularity of certain species for coffin making is closely linked to the significance of the trees. For instance, Acacia sp. is sacred in many places; Ficus sycomorus produces figs several times a year, and is therefore a symbol for fertility – resting in a coffin is like sleeping in the arms of the fertility goddess; Tamarix sp. have extensive root systems that create small mounds around the tree, connected with Osiris. The only imported species found in the coffins was Cedrus sp., which is well scented, deters insects, and acts as a symbol of eternal life.

The research has been used to complement university teachings in Egypt, as well as to generate knowledge for wood carvers about the old and lost art of wood usage in coffin making. Additionally, this has proven beneficial in restoration efforts when deciding which wood to use in the process, and to promote the planting of species that are no longer used but had special significance for their durability for ancient civilizations.  This is just the beginning, and according to Asensi the information will be key for dendrochronology studies, for mapping the provenance of wood, cross-referencing with carbon dating of objects, and be able to draw conclusions of historical significance, such as trade routes of ancient civilizations.

With similar methods, Michael Grabner and Andrea Klein, from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, set out to investigate how the use of different wood species has changed over time in Austria, where the oldest wood construction is 700 years old. The team analyzed the inventory of five different museums, totaling 8 960 wooden parts. They found that 49 different species were used in the past, as compared to the ~24 species used today. The species were predominantly Picea sp. and Fagus sp.; 38% softwood and 62% hardwoods (which contrasts to the actual composition of Austrian forest). The usage of shrubs was also interesting: based on the number of samples, 95% were trees and 5% shrubs; based on the number of species, 57% were trees and 43% were shrubs. Nowadays, the use of shrubs for wood has disappeared almost completely.

Remarkably, most wood species was selected for their very particular properties – something that has been lost in contemporary wood utilization. For instance, a tool used to mount the steel band on barrels was found to contain six different species, every one of them with distinct mechanical and aesthetic properties e.g. fruit bearing tree species with high resistance against abrasion and good natural lubricity. Similarly, all teeth of rakes were made out of Berberis vulgaris (“specialist species”). Other species, such as Fagus sylvatica, were used throughout (“all rounder species”).

Why is it important to rediscover this knowledge on wood species selection? According to Glabner and Klein, even if the utilization of forgotten and rarely used species might never reach an industrial scale, their use for niche products could increase forest biodiversity and the sustainable utilization of forests.

In another corner of Europe, Antonio Frattari, from the University of Trento in Italy, is also exploring the fascinating field of wood utilization in traditional wooden architecture in the high elevation valleys  (1 200 – 1 600 m above sea level) of the Alpine region between France, Italy, Switzerland, and Austria. These buildings are entirely made of wood and initially used as barns for animals. Nowadays, they have have been abandoned in their majority, despite there being about 6 000 of them left in the Trentino region alone. The ongoing restoration for making them suitable for human living requires a deep change in functional and constructive typologies, such as the addition of windows. The introduction of new construction techniques and materials such as rocks, concrete, steel, aluminum and plastic, results in a loss of the traditional look and feel of these buildings.

According to Frattari, in order to preserve the wooden architectural heritage in the Alpine region for future generations, the knowledge and practice of wooden traditional carpentry should be improved. Through the establishment of Open Air Museums to preserve meaningful examples of traditional wooden architecture, as well as a detailed classification of the various traditional construction typologies of these buildings, he hopes to increase the consciousness of architects dealing with the restoration of the buildings of vernacular architecture for living purposes, so that they take on the utilization of vernacular techniques. Another important contribution Frattari and his team have developed is a code of practice for architects and carpenters, which includes descriptions of the various elements in buildings, a discussion of good and bad practices, a section on the possibilities for rebuilding and restoring elements, and the exact techniques for sustainable reconstruction. This has been a very useful resource for complementing the training of young carpenters through the reconstruction of traditional buildings.

The wood identification techniques that are so useful in Egypt and Europe for cultural and historical research purposes have also proven to be part of the solution to combat illegal logging in the Amazon rainforest. Mario Tomazello, Luiz Santini, and Sandra Florsheim work for the Program São Paulo Friends of Amazonia to protect the Amazon tropical forests for the future.

The Amazon rainforest is 5 million km2, the largest rainforest in the world and home to around 2500 tree species. The states with the highest rates of deforestation are Pará, Rondônia, and Mato Grosso. São Paulo is the largest Brazilian consumer, receiving about 25% of all illegal timber extracted from the Amazon. Besides reducing the demand for native wood in construction, AIMS works to increase the control of illegal wood at the points of entry. Some strategies that have been implemented to intensify the control of the trade of native wood includes the training of federal officers and other staff in wood analysis, particularly endangered species. This entails macroscopic identification for quick assessment of wood and charcoal (using sensory properties such as colour, texture, grain, presence of growth rings, identity of the various planes) as well as microscopic identification with portable digital microscopes (e.g. Dino-lites).

The program has trained hundreds of federal and environmental offices to act in combating illegal trade of Amazonian woods. It has resulted in several successful seizures of illegal logging, and has reinforced the importance of wood anatomy as an auxiliary tool in inspection actions and regulation of the timber trade. However, it is important to note it is still necessary to raise awareness amongst Brazilians of the importance of consuming certified timber, as well as consolidate international laws to deter the illegal trade of tropical timbers for markets in North America, Europe, and Asia.

The session on wood culture for the future was continued in the evening with a side event that showcased additional lectures, panelists, and live performances.

Written by: Olivia Sanchez Badini

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