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  • Writer's pictureWes Hazard

Everywhere, Yet Invisible

It's time again for one of my favorite kinds of WesRecs items: the book review of a book I have not read but want to. This is a sweet write up for a book about the history of wood and its integral role in the development of human civilization. The book is both a history and a paean to wood and it makes the case that we should be paying more attention as a material well suited to help us navigate the massive changes we need to make in order to combat climate change. In the 21st century when we think of construction and building and urbanization we probably think of steel and glass and concrete (and silicon), but wood is still all around us, even if most of us (myself most definitely included) can't distinguish a pine plank from one made of birch or cedar or oak). Our species came down from the trees, the same trees which allow us to breathe, the same trees that allowed us to write, the same trees that are likely holding up your abode if you live in a house (even if you've slapped a bunch of vinyl siding on top of it.) Wood still has much to teach us and it just may save us if we're wise enough. Can't wait to read this when I have a chance. [P.S. I took a stroll through The Internet Archive and looked at more vintage lumber catalogs than I can say, some interesting stuff there...]

In a world where wood is, if not absent, increasingly out of sight, British biologist Roland Ennos suggests we may not be paying enough attention to its importance. He contends that wood is not merely useful but central to human history. “It is the one material,” Ennos writes in “The Age of Wood,” “that has provided continuity in our long evolutionary and cultural story, from apes moving about the forest, through spear-throwing hunter-gatherers and ax-wielding farmers to roof-building carpenters and paper-reading scholars.” ... Wood’s countless varieties have diverse, useful properties. It grows naturally in sizes large enough for building construction. Yet it splits into slivers thin and strong enough to clean between our teeth. It carries loads as well as concrete and can outperform steel for supporting spans between pillars. Wood can be turned, planed, finely carved, bent and woven. It burns as well, competing against fossil fuels for home heat. It transmutes into charcoal when burned in the absence of oxygen and is a fuel still used by millions around the world for cooking and feeding the fires of some iron smelters.

Ennos offers ideas for slowing deforestation and making more use of wood’s superior properties to combat climate change. For instance, new laminating techniques make stronger beams in shapes and sizes never possible before. And they can be constructed from small pieces that might otherwise be wasted. In 2019, Norway built the world’s tallest building made of wood, an 18-story low-rise, using these light laminate beams. It weighs only one-fifth of an equivalent building of steel and concrete and required only half as much energy in its construction.

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