This year’s NEA Big Read book is Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, and you’ve probably heard about all the local celebrations of this botanist’s memoir. The book drew me into Jahren’s joy of uncovering secrets and finding connections with plants. As a musician, this is a subject dear to my heart — Lab Girl underscores how the music world relies on the diversity of tree species.
I wouldn’t have a decent double bass if it weren’t for a bizarre array of woods and a history of people who discovered how to use them. The top of my instrument is of red spruce from the Fiemme Valley of the Italian Alps, a unique climate that produces timber that rings like a bell. The back, sides, and neck are made of Bosnian maple, prized for its strength-to-weight ratio and unique figuration. The wood for my fingerboard is Indian or African ebony, one of the only woods tough enough to withstand the constant abrasion of the metal strings. My bow is of Brazilian pernambuco, very strong and so dense that it would sink in water. Then there’s the special tree sap that’s refined into violin rosin - a simple thing, but we wouldn’t have orchestras without it. There are other essential tonewood species, like Honduran rosewood for xylophone bars and African Grenadilla for oboes, clarinets and piccolos.
Music: J.S. Bach, Partita #3 - Prelude (1720) (Nathan Milstein, 1975)
(You can really hear the wood. Nathan Milstein acquired the 1716 "Goldman" Stradivarius in 1945 which he used for the rest of his life.)
Most of these are rare, even endangered, and man-made substitutes can’t match their acoustic properties. Musical instruments are a history plant discovery, the kind of story that Lab Girl celebrates.
Listening list - songs about trees:
The Louvin Brothers, “In The Pines,” (1956). American country/gospel featuring mandolin and guitar
Jethro Tull, “Songs From The Wood,” Songs From The Wood (1977)
Stevie Wonder, “The First Garden,” Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants (1979). Very strange album, not well known, came out after Songs In The Key of Life, entirely devoted to plants.
Black Moth Super Rainbow, “Lost, Picking Flowers in the Woods,” Dandelion Gum (2007). Experimental music from deep in the woods of Pennsylvania. Released with a scratch-and-sniff cover. Band members include Tobacco, The Seven Fields of Aphelion, Pony Diver, Iffernaut and STV SLV.