The heft and feel of a well-worn handle,
The sight of shavings that curl from a blade;
The logs in the wood pile, the sentiment of huge beams in an old-fashioned house;
The smell of fresh cut timber and the pungent fragrance of burning leaves;
The crackle of kindling and the hiss of burning logs.
Abundant to all the needs of man, how poor the world would be
Without wood.

Everard Hinrichs, quoted by Eric Sloane in A Reverence for Wood


Monday, March 30, 2015

Kudzu in Paradise

I've been teaching a Forest Policy class this semester at Penn State, and the students and I have spent much of the semester looking not only at various policies, but the eventual, and sometimes unexpected, outcomes of those policies. One of those policies was the depression-era policy of recommending the kudzu plant, Puereria spp., to farmers for stopping the relentless soil erosion that led to the great dust bowl era of the 1930's. The kudzu is a fast-growing vine whose root systems stabilize the soil even while the numerous leaves shade the soil and slow desiccation that leads to erosion.

Well, it worked a little too well. And generations of folks in the US south have grown up used to the sight of kudzu monsters engulfing stands of pines and other species along the roadways where they were planted and continue to spread. And now, because of global warming, kudzu has spread as far north as southern Ontario, Canada.

Now, as a forestry student in East Texas, I learned intimately that kudzu was the enemy. Ever have to fight your way through a mountain of it on a timber cruise, and you'll think the same. But that last bit in the video above about goats and biofuels got me thinking that even to this scourge of the forest, there might be another side to the story.

And whaddya know...

Invasive species are rightly concerning. But I've come to consider the big picture that perhaps the native forests of today were just the invasive species of five hundred or a thousand years ago. Who knows...the filet mignon of tomorrow may very well come from a rotund, kudzu-fed goat with a kudzu jelly garnish...and you'll wash it down with a cold glass of kudzu-fed cow's milk.

And even more significantly, perhaps the Saharan desert will be reclaimed with kudzu or some other low-moisture invasive cousin. Never discount the value of the unexpected consequence.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Great Designs in Wood (63) - The Forest Sciences Centre at UBC

I had the opportunity a couple of weeks ago to travel out west to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. They had invited me out to participate in a review of their Wood Products Processing program, one of the degree programs available in their "Faculty of Forestry", as they call it. Based on the preliminary material I reviewed, I expected to see good things...but how good, I didn't even come close to imagining.

As I entered the building, a world of stunning timber construction opened up...and I felt right at home.

The Centre was built in 1998, I believe, a decade or so before our modern era of the wooden-framed tall buildings, so much of its structural core is traditional steel and concrete. However, with its engineered wood roof members and wooden cladding throughout, I have to believe that the building was the inspiration for much of the wooden building progress that has been at the forefront in British Columbia since.

The visit was not without its unique cultural memories. I had a couple of hours on the first day to stroll down to the beach opposite the dormitory in which I was staying. The place was called "Wreck Beach", and I'm guessing that in earlier times, shipwrecks on the point on which the beach sits were common. These days, the bay encircled by the beach is stock full of rafts of logs, awaiting delivery to local sawmills.

These logs give the beach a really unique character of its own, as many of them break free of the rafts and end up strewn along the beach, giving it a rough and tumble character.

But the biggest surprise to me was the "Naturalist" tradition of the beach, which I discovered only on the way down to the beach.

We're not in Pennsylvania any more, Toto!
So, these peaceful and fun-loving folks found thick fog, icy waters, boulders, and logs battering the beach, and thought...Nude Beach! A hardy breed, these Canucks.

I can't end this post without sharing my thoughts on the UBC Wood Products Processing program. What a great program it is. You can check out its curriculum here. The program is designed as a broad exposure to the critical components of wood products manufacturing, and with its optional minor in Commerce, students are ideally prepared for managerial positions in the forest industry the world over. The best component of the program is its optional "Co-op" program, in which students can take advantage of up to five different co-op opportunities with different companies, all coordinated with and monitored by the department. I witnessed first-hand the result of this interviews of current graduating students, I met the most mature, well-prepared, soon-to-be college graduates I've ever met. One of the department faculty members told me that the Co-op is a win, win...the faculty members are continually pushed to keep current with the techniques and technology that the students are experiencing in their time with the companies.

And as for the onsite education...the college has its own Centre for Advanced Wood Processing, which is right next door to the Forest Sciences Centre and filled with the latest in wood processing equipment, donated from their many industry partners. And best of all, the Centre was filled with students actually working at the many machine centers, a positive sign that students are getting the perfect mix of hands-on experience to go with all the theory they're learning.

Finally, the professors I interviewed were all highly professional, courteous, and open to any new ideas they could glean. They reminded me, to a person, of the best engineering and management professors I've met in my career. They were intense, but in a comfortable, confident way that inspires the same confidence in their students.

I came away from the visit thinking...if any child or grandchild of mine is someday interested in forestry or wood products, the University of British Columbia is the place I'm sending them.


Monday, March 23, 2015

Great Designs in Wood (62) - The Violin...and the Secrets of Stradivari

A couple of years ago now we looked at the violin, and its magnificent design, in GDiW (39) and GDiW (43). In those posts, we naturally enough focused on the wood component of the violin, and how the species and wood specimens used impact the tone of the instrument.

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of speaking at the annual Penn State Private Forest Landowners Conference, and my presentation topic was "The Wonderful World of Wood". In it, I skimmed very lightly some of the most popular wonders of wood from around the world, and one of those topics was the marvelous design of the great Italian violins. However, I was limited to only a few minutes on the topic, as always, and predictably, I could tell the audience would have liked to know much more about these great violins.

So, for those folks, and for the rest of you Go Wood readers who love the topic, I have found a lecture by violinist Rose Mary Harbison and Professor William Fry given in 2009 at the Boston Museum of Science. Professor Fry does an excellent job of describing the physics of the violin, and how they are achieved, in a way that we non-physicists can easily understand, sort of...and Mrs. Harbison illustrates the principles as Dr. Fry explains them on several great violins.

This video is about an hour and a half long...and it seems like half that. We learn that the selection of the wood was not the only key to the violins, and perhaps not even a significant one...but that the secrets lie in the scientific artistry of the construction techniques. So, for the rest of the story, watch...

Unfortunately, Dr. Fry left us in 2011, but his legacy as a great researcher and teacher is cemented in history in this video. And what a legacy he left. From his obituary...
"During World War II he was a commissioned naval officer, stationed at the Naval Research Laboratories in Washington, D.C., where he led the research on jamming devices for guided missiles. Then on to the White Sands, New Mexico rocket site, where he was in charge of researching German V-2 rockets. Dr. Fry was Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin from 1952 to 1998. He was an experimental high energy physicist at the University and pioneered the astrophysics program. He also established physics programs at the University of Padova and Milan University in Italy in 1957. He was a Guggenheim Scholar and Fulbright Lecturer and served as a consultant to the International Atomic Energy Commission. He spent over four decades in violin acoustical research, uncovering the secrets of Stradivarius. His accomplishments in violin research are recognized in books and film, and are detailed in a scientific video book he completed last year. Jack was an avid historian who collected Italian manuscripts from the 12th century through the Fascist period during his extensive travels in Italy. He donated over 40,000 books and documents to the University of Wisconsin library, making the largest collection of Italian Fascist-era documents available to scholars worldwide. He was a man with an astonishing range of interests and passionate curiosity, and his many accomplishments too numerous to mention here. Jack always remained modest to a fault, and was a dignified, generous, and fine friend to all who knew him."
Thank you, Mrs. Harbison, and to the Boston Museum of Science for introducing us to the wonderful work of Dr. William (Jack) Fry, and to the Secret of the Stradivarius.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Make Wood, Not War

Recently, I was granted permission by the Board of Directors of the International Wood Collectors Society to re-publish in a blog format the best articles from the pre-2000 issues of their Journal, World of Wood. In late January I started that blog with the minutes of the first meeting of the Society in 1947. It's a very interesting piece of history for everyone who has ever picked up an unusual piece of wood and taken it home, just for the sake of having it or using it in some wood-working project.

This week, I shared an interesting re-print of an article entitled "My Conception of an Ideal Wood Collection", by a member named Dr. Wolfgang Mautz. Coincidentally, the speech by Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to our U.S. congress this week gave me an interesting perspective on Dr. Mautz' contribution to the early Wood Collectors Society membership. Allow me to explain the connection in my mind of these two completely non-related events given sixty-five years apart.

Dr. Mautz' article was published, in 1949, in the newsletter of a fledgling organization that had one-hundred and seven members at the time, seventy-nine of whom were Americans, twelve British, with the small remainder from the rest of the world. Two were Dutch. None at the time were Germans or from any of the countries allied with Germany in World War II. And yet, the German Dr. Mautz was invited to share his passion for wood collecting with this group of folks who, in entirety, would have considered him "the enemy" only four short years before.

As I read Dr. Mautz' article, it brought back fond memories of another German wood scientist, one that had a profound impact on my career. I met Werner in my first year in the wood industry. He was the company's residing "technical expert" on all things wood, and I and my buddies in Temple-Inland's Product Development Center soaked up as much of Werner's expertise as we could. In addition, we got some great stories about his experiences serving first on the frozen Russian front of the war, and then later waiting on the French coast for the inevitable invasion of the Allies. He had been in university, studying wood science, when he was conscripted into the German army. He ended the war sitting in an American prisoner-of-war camp, which he said was the best thing that ever happened to him, considering the alternatives. Werner completed his studies after the war, and moved to America, to begin his wood industry experience at a fiberboard plant in International Falls, Minnesota, if I remember correctly. By the time I knew him, Werner had more knowledge about wood and wood products in his pinky finger than the rest of us put together. We knew it, and respected him for it.

I was re-publishing Dr. Mautz' article the day after Mr. Netanyahu's speech to Congress. Thanks to the miracle of the internet, I was able to watch the speech live in my office. If you're not familiar with the contents of the speech, it was primarily a warning to our government that the current nuclear negotiations we are having with the government of Iran were, to the best of his knowledge, not well considered, to put it mildly. The objective of his giving the speech was to let our leaders know that Israel considered the logical outcome of the negotiations to be a direct nuclear threat to the existence of the state of Israel...and he made a pretty strong case for that conclusion. The most memorable line in the speech was, that, "in the case of ISIS and Iran, the enemy of your enemy, is your enemy."

And in this case which he is so close to, Mr. Netanyahu is probably correct. Nevertheless, as I typed Mr. Mautz' article into the computer the next day, I found myself considering the concept of the enemy. Dr. Mautz had been an enemy of the other wood collectors in 1945; by 1949 he was taken as a colleague in wood. The love of wood, in a period of time shorter than President Obama has been in office, had overcome the hatred of war, and turned an enemy into a friend.

And here I was, re-creating a wood article from a German wood scientist in 1949 on the internet, that both my Israeli and Iranian wood science colleagues, as well as most everyone else in the world, can read in their own language, thanks to the Google Translate widget on the site. I've received emails relating to wood science questions from all three countries, and hope to receive many more in the future. And I suspect that none of these folks care any more about the political agenda of their leaders than Werner did when Herr Hitler drafted him to fight for Nazism's evil cause. I know I don't.

Thus my plea in the title of today's blog. Make wood, not war. Focus on the business of living, speak out against the rhetoric of violence and destruction, and actively resist those who would lead you into hating another enemy of their making. Making bombs and launching missiles is the easy path to conflict resolution, but not the best by far. For as Dr. Mautz and Werner both stood for, at our core, we're all really interested in the same to Go Wood, and get along.