Yes, more trees – but this time not my trees but Jonathan Drori’s trees – or at least 80 of his favourites. A trustee or past trustee of the Eden Project, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the Woodland Trust and a documentary film maker, Jonathan Drori is above all a lover of trees. Trees in their infinite variety, their intricate relationships with other organisms, the clever tricks they play on other forest inhabitants to get their seeds dispersed, and the ways that they interact with humans.
He has chosen just 80 of the 60,000 different species of trees and has written short essay about each. From the alder whose water-loving trunks have supported the city of Venice for hundreds of years; the cork oak whose cork’s thermal insulation is so good that it has been used to shield the fuel tanks on the NASA space shuttle; the argan tree, its branches festooned with tree climbing goats harvesting the trees’ fruits – to the horse chestnut obligingly changing the colour of its candelabra once their nectar has been harvested so that bees do not waste their efforts on nectarless flowers.
I am still only half way through his 80 so who know what nuggets of delight await me but for now, my favourite is the Norway Spruce – what we know as a Christmas tree. I quote at some length only because I found it so fascinating. And read on – the first paragraph may seem irrelevant but it is crucial:
All sounds we hear are movements of air, but the vibrations on a single string is barely audible because it slices through the air, setting only a tiny volume in motion. To make a (musical) instrument we need a soundboard to transfer the energy from the plucked or bowed string to a large movement of air and thence to our ears. Stiff materials make the best soundboards because they can transmit vibration efficiently from molecule to molecule; in a more elastic material, energy is squandered as the sound waves travel through it. A soundboard should not be too dense either or too much energy would go towards setting its molecules in motion, damping the sound. Many other factors affect the timbre and individual character of an instrument: the direction of the grain, the size of the cell walls, even the varnish.
Norway spruce is not a very heavy wood but for its light weight it has extraordinary stiffness. This highly unusual combination means that a 2 or 3 millimetre (1/10th inch) thick panel of Norway spruce can radiate sound more consistently and intensely than any other wood. Not all Norwegian spruce is the same however. When altitude, poor soil and low temperature conspire to make it grow particularly slowly, the wood is even stiffer giving a violin a more sonorous and pleasing tone. The most special guitars, violins and cellos – exceptional instruments that delight audiences for their incomparable quality of sound – all have soundboards of slow grown Alpine spruce.
When luthiers Stradivari and Guarneri needed tonewood for their exquisite violins, they used Norway spruce from the Italian Alps, a day trip from their workshops in Cremona. One reason why these seventeenth and eighteenth century instruments are so special is that they were made using wood that had grown during the ‘little ice age’ that began around the fifteenth century and lasted for several hundred years. This was a period of low solar activity when unusually cold weather caused even the unhurried alpine trees to slow their growth even further. They laid down exceptionally narrow annual rings, leading to a very stiff and consistent tonewood: the foundation of the golden age of violin making.
With nuggets like these awaiting one on almost every page – who can resist such a book? Certainly not me – and I hope not you either…. Especially when they are accompanied by the most delightful illustrations by Lucille Clerc.
Around the World in 80 Trees by Jonathan Drori is published by Laurence King Publishing (in hardback or paper back). I bought the latter and is cost me £12.99