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Saving the Music Tree

Artists and instrument makers have banded together to rescue Brazil's imperiled pernambuco, the source of bows for violins, violas and cellos

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Tourte didn’t have to go to those extremes, though he conducted quite a search to find the perfect wood. It is said he combined his fishing trips along the Seine with visits to the wharves, where he scavenged slats from New World packing crates and the staves of sugar barrels with which to experiment. Only pernambuco displayed the proper range of beneficial properties: in addition to its springiness, density and strength, it was workable, readily adopting a curve when heated and holding the curve seemingly forever.

The wood does have its drawbacks. It can be thorny and twisted, and is often too light or otherwise unsuitable for the manufacture of good bows. Substitutes have long been sought. An all-steel bow stick was tried in the mid-19th century, and, more recently, composite fiber bows have been produced to passable reviews, though they have yet to rival pernambuco in quality or popularity. Pernambuco’s unreliability also made it expensive: one 19th-century expert maintained that one could go through eight to ten tons of pau-brasil to find the wood for a single, fine, 70- to 80-gram bow. Though that ratio has been improved dramatically by modern techniques, there still remains a lot of waste. Only a portion of even the best trees are suitable for fine bows, and woodcutters in the forests, unheedful of conservation and unschooled in craftspeople’s needs, have been known to fell tree after tree before finding one containing usable wood.

Fortunately for bow makers of Tourte’s time, the wood was readily available in Europe whenever a war wasn’t disrupting maritime commerce. Its importation was owed to a red pigment that suffuses its grain (“pau-brasil” means “furnace-red wood” in Portuguese), which was extracted for dyeing the robes of nobility. The dye trade made pernambuco the main export from the Portuguese colony of Brazil in its early years, a distinction memorialized in nomenclature. Pau-brasil was not named after the colony; Brazil was named after the wood. In Tourte’s time, 168 acres of central Paris were piled head-high with pau-brasil logs.

The trade in the wood collapsed after the invention of aniline dyes in the mid-1800s, leaving bow making the only international industry still reliant on the pau-brasil tree. That reliance was small compared with the volumes of wood that had been needed to produce dyes, but it was big enough to confer an inescapable responsibility on bow makers. Even if they used relatively little wood, the wood they were using was rapidly disappearing.

“It’s like the Georges Bank fishing grounds,” says Espey. “Georges Bank has been fished out by industry for hundreds of years. But if grandpa takes grandson and some fishing poles down some weekend and catches the very last scrod, who exterminated the species? Grandpa did.”

Contemporary bow makers are determined not to become villains in a similar extinction drama. Soon after IPCI began deliberating over a response to the pernambuco crisis, its members turned their attention to more basic matters than the effect of a CITES listing on their careers. They began worrying about the fate of the tree itself.

Pau-brasil grows in a particular Brazilian habitat known as the Mata Atlantica, the forests of the coastal plain. Those forests were once lush, with dozens of species of trees, and seemingly endless, stretching uninterrupted southward from the mouth of the Amazon to the Argentine border. Today the forests exist only in tiny isolated fragments. They were plundered in the 16th century to supply world markets with woods like mahogany and pernambuco, and portions were leveled for sugar cane plantations, but the destruction has vastly accelerated since World War II with the building of highways and the intensification of development. The trees are burned for charcoal to supply the country’s steel mills, and cut down by farmers clearing fields for beans and by big farming conglomerates creating pastures for beef cattle. In the states of Espírito Santo and southern Bahia, square mile after square mile of forest has been replaced with regimental rows of fastgrowing eucalyptus to feed a giant pulp mill at Aracruz.

The more intrepid of the world’s 200 bow makers have long paid visits to the Mata Atlantica, with a single purpose: shopping. The quest for wood often brought them to Guarana, the home of the late Horst John, a German expatriate wood dealer who founded his own bow-manufacturing company in 1976, the first such in Brazil. The visitors arrived from the United States or Europe with a camera and a bathing suit, but left, more often than not, with a suitcase full of sticks. “There’s a saying in the trade,” says Yung Chin, 48, a bow maker who has a shop near Manhattan’s Carnegie Hall: “ ‘Abow maker never vacations in Brazil.’ ”

They still are not vacationing there, but they are coming more frequently, and with a grander mission. Slowly, IPCI is building a hard-fought success on the ground. The group began, in 2001, by digging wells and installing irrigation systems to help save 100,000 pernambuco seedlings threatened by drought in a Recife nursery, and inviting such authorities as Haroldo Calvacante de Lima, director of the Rio de JaneiroBotanical Garden, to Paris to consult with IPCI on growing pau-brasil. The trees’ needs are little understood. Despite pernambuco’s status as Brazil’s official national tree, and despite its long commercial history, its growing habits and preferred habitats are still mysterious. There is not even a scientific consensus on how many varieties and species of pau-brasil exist.

To fill this knowledge gap, IPCI sought out the cacao farmer’s research concern and began to shape with it a program that includes population inventories and taxonomic studies. If all goes as planned, the studies, paid for by contributions from bow makers around the world, will culminate in the replanting of pau-brasil in the cacao habitats of Bahia state. Cacao, the source of chocolate, is a shade-loving plant; by coupling a pernambuco overstory with the welfare of the cacao crop beneath it, the cacao research center’s botanists hope to provide farmers with an economic incentive for keeping the trees standing during the 30 years or so needed to produce usable wood.

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