Op-Ed: Wood – a big part of who and what we are

Op-Ed: Wood - a big part of who and what we are
Alex Chernenko / Unsplash

We on Vancouver Island respect the tree more than most people around the world. We rarely take it for granted. The tree is central to our landscape, to our economy, to life itself. They help us breathe. We fight battles over the tree, hike and bike in our forests and use its product in just about every endeavour – from building houses to sitting at tables for supper.

Wood is a huge part of our lives. Sure, we ride around in metal these days rather than on wooden stage-coaches, and for the past few decades we have been obsessed with all things plastic (to our planet’s peril) but wood is still, well, OK.

More than OK, if Roland Ennos has his way. He wants wood to get more respect around the world. His new book’s title explains it all: The Wood Age: How One Material Shaped The Whole of Human History.

Ennos is an expert on wood and a professor of biology at the University of Hull in Yorkshire, England. His premise is that we earthlings have honoured the Stone Age, The Bronze Age and the Iron Age, but have neglected the crucial part wood has played in the development of humanity.

It is, he says, the vein that has run through all human history. Our first ancestors millions of years ago lived in trees and their minds and bodies developed as tree dwellers, including the fingerprints on hands that allow us to hold onto wet wood.

We came out of the trees once we learned to build shelters out of wood and burn fires. We made wheels, windmills, Viking longships – then even larger ships that helped us explore the world – and we used wood to make violins and pianos and more elaborate homes and furniture and so on and so on.

And, of course, books. And then newspapers. Wood has been a technological marvel, but also crucial to our cultural and social and geographic development. And religion. Wood is there in the Bible – Jesus was a carpenter/and Noah made his ark out of wood. And it’s there on Haida Gwaii, where the longhouses and totems are testament to wood’s vital importance to communities past and present.

“I hope this book will show that for the vast majority of our time on this planet we have lived in an age dominated by this most versatile material,” Ennos writes. “and in many cases we still do.”

Wood, says Ennos, is still relevant today, but he talks of our now “strained relationship” with wood. Particularly in the Amazon rain forests and forest fires around the globe – and certainly here in British Columbia.

Wood has helped build and been the lifeblood of many communities on Vancouver Island. And it still is, though tourism, technology, manufacturing, agriculture, fishing and education mean a much more diversified economy. We, as an island, owe wood a huge debt as our economy and society evolves.

We may not use wood as much as we once did – newspapers and books and most other tactile media have gone online and wood-burning stoves have been replaced by gas-fire lookalikes. We have replaced the wood siding with Hardie board, a faux wood made of raw materials, cement, sand and wood fibre.

But wood – be it a tree or a piece of classic or modern furniture, or a clinker-built boat or a birch bark canoe or a mandolin or a salad bowl or a baseball bat or a log cabin or wood flooring or a beautiful new Moleskine notebook – is still a thing of beauty (not real moleskin– that would be cruel!).

And when you put the next log on a campfire on a cool evening in June, you sure do give thanks.

So, yes, it’s time we paid wood its due. Well, the rest of the world should. On Vancouver Island, we already have a Cathedral Grove. Wood here is also spiritual. More than just a home for birds. It’s part of our nature. And that’s a very good thing

Ian Haysom, the veteran journalist and writer, is a news consultant for CHEK.

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