[ The Craft Of The Guitar Maker ]


Part 16. Seeing the wood from the trees

MAKING music is largely, to coin a phrase, an environmentally friendly activity. However, instrumentalists do not entirely escape the dilemmas of our age. To own an instrument, especially a guitar, often entails placing demand for scarce tropical hardwoods. It can be argued that the chain of events is consumer led, and that the act of buying a guitar is therefore a direct contribution towards global deforestation.

Makers have long been close to these ecological issues, being drawn to our craft by a love of and respect for timber, which, in turn usually implies a respect for living trees. Over the last 15 years or more, my enjoyment of such a wonderful material as timber has increasingly turned to a sense of dismay at the consequences of the timber trade. As a result, I have been forced to examine my conscience, and this article examines some of the ecological issues that affect us all, whether producer or consumer.

It has been suggested to me on occasion that makers should try to find a more 'environmentally friendly' substitute with which to work. While in some respects this may be a well-intentioned comment, upon reflection this is the path to utter global madness. Timber is just about the least damaging material of all in terms of inflicting harm on our environment. Timber is the automatic product of forests, and forests bring enormous benefits to our planet, not least of which are the recycling of greenhouse gases, and the creation of some of the richest habitats for flora and fauna on earth.

In recent years, we have been made very aware through the media of the issue of deforestation. We are inclined to think of it as a modern problem. Certainly the speed and scale of the damage in some areas is new, but mankind has followed much the same path for centuries. In the sixth century, a new kind of plough arrived in Europe. By the seventh century, it was possible to cultivate more difficult terrain than previously. The process of 'assarting' had begun in earnest: men set out for areas of forest to clear and colonise. Much of this was unknown territory to Europeans of their day, and they undertook such a voyage of discovery in fear of their lives. Much the same story was repeated about 1000 years later, in a country we now call America"

In Europe, in the Middle Ages, the main structural materials were wood and stone. Stone does not lend itself to many uses in engineering, so virtually all mechanical parts were made of wood. These included wind- and water-mills, clocks and carriages. Nearly all heat was provided by the burning of wood. Most parts of most houses were wooden too. The strain on the environment was enormous. By the 14th century, woodmen were lamenting the lack of good-quality timber and the loss of nearly all the great trees of old. In Tudor England, the decision was made that we needed a powerful navy for reasons of national security. Well, what is more important than that? The last of the great oak forests were turned into the 'wooden walls of England', as the galleons were known. Hundreds of them were built from the time of Henry VIII: each one required a small forest to provide enough timber, and the typical lifetime of such a ship was only about 25 years. It was enough to make Robin Hood turn in his grave! Even by this time, much timber was imported to cope with the demand, and Britain has never been self-sufficient in the supply of timber since.

The great forests of Europe were destroyed long before we were born, so we do not miss them. We do not often mourn the loss of wild boar and bears from our countryside: we have never known otherwise. We feel the loss of the rain forests because it happens on television, more or less in front of our eyes. It is only through drama like this that we suddenly appreciate the damage we are all doing to the environment.

To be fair, things have begun to change in certain areas. The catalogue of disasters has finally begun to sink in. In Germany, tough new legislation has combined with new technology to create the highest level of recycling of any car manufacturing industry anywhere in the world. New German cars are now designed to be highly recyclable, while old cars are imported from Holland so that the scrap can be re-used. Here, we often fail to appreciate such changes, since Britain has yet to take many of these issues seriously.

As far as forestry is concerned, we are not alone. By the admission of the world timber producers themselves, under 1 per cent of the world's forests are sustainably harvested. At a time when most organisations are concerned to give some image of environmental awareness, an admission like this is outrageous. Nor does it take much of a businessman to realise that any industry that bases its profits on totally irresponsible exploitation will rapidly come to grief. It has already begun. 30 years ago, many fine guitars had backs and sides of Rio rosewood. True Rio is now virtually unobtainable, and the province of Bahia in Brazil where the trees grew is now grassland, used for the grazing of cattle. The next substitute many makers turned to was East Indian rosewood. Twenty years ago, there were some fine sets on the market with beautiful, fine grain and delicate colouring. This is already a thing of the past. The quality of ebony fingerboards has fallen noticeably during my career as well. Even the quality of that special spruce that makers need for soundboards is beginning to come under threat - not from logging but from pollution. The exact cause is not yet known, but recent estimates of damage to Alpine forests suggest that as much as 80 per cent of these trees may be lost. It is the latest worrying trend.

Some of us take pride in making more than instruments: they are beautiful objects in their own rite using some of the most wonderful materials to be found anywhere in Nature. It is a source of great sorrow to see the impoverishment of the world's ecosystems. In small ways it affects anyone who has eyes to see.

Even if we could dramatically reduce the world demand for timber, deforestation would go on. Only a very small number of trees in a forest give usable timber at any one time. The destruction of areas of forest is usually a very complicated issue, and the goal is often something other than the production of commercial timber. Sometimes the decisions are as much political as economic. It can be a quick and superficial solution to problems arising from population explosion. Large areas of rain-forest are now burned where they stand, without any attempt to harvest timber: the land is the only important consideration. Where the decision economic, the product is often not timber at all, but mineral deposits such as gold ore or granite for use as a building material. The trees are just accidental casualties.

Strangely enough, the other side of the coin is equally untrue. The use of timber does not automatically imply the destruction of all the world's forests. We manage to farm crops like wheat and potatoes without major difficulty. We could do the same with timber. There are now some experiments underway in "strip-farming" trees. Each time you clear a strip of forest, you leave other forest around the strip. This can then re-grow while you clear a strip somewhere else. The short-term yield is lower, but the forest is totally self-sustaining. It can be done. To return to the original question posed by this article, no, I do not feel guilty that I use tropical hardwoods. I feel angry. Those in positions of political and industrial power have a responsibility to use that power wisely. As consumers we can suggest, and we can vote with our buying decisions, and we should do this as often as we can. But it is not enough. In the meantime, the richness and beauty of nature is being plundered before our eyes. We leave the next generation scraps of food on the floor from our banquet, and it just isn't good enough. That is the message from the piece of rosewood in your hands.

©1991 Trevor Semple

"Classical Guitar Magazine", December 1991

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