Cities are human constructs, but trees and other natural features play an important role in regulating the city environment. The urban forest provides many services, and the wood from trees that have to be removed can also be very useful – and make excellent guitars.
Prelude: The pallet guitar
There are many stories to be told in later posts about Taylor Guitar’s activities in relation to sustainability and environmentally-conscious guitar-making. Bob Taylor has, for a long time, been interested in both sustainable sourcing of traditional guitar woods and the use of alternative woods. In 1995, he decided to show that a good guitar could be made from virtually any wood, and made one using recycled pallet wood. He wanted to shift the focus away from the influence of the wood used and instead to highlight the importance of the skills of the guitar maker.
Using some form of pallet or platform to move goods around has a long history, but the current form proliferated with the development of the fork-lift truck in the mid 20th century. Pallets are made from a variety of materials, but wooden pallets are probably the most common, and huge numbers are in use for shipping and storing virtually everything.
Pallets can be re-used, but have limited lifespans due to wear and tear. A surprising amount of new timber goes into manufacturing pallets every year – it’s estimated that over 20% of annual new timber production in the US goes to pallet production and repair. Fortunately, relatively few used pallets appear to end up as landfill, with those that are not re-used being processed for uses such as landscaping mulch or wood fuel.
Bob Taylor’s pallet guitar had oak from a used pallet for the back and sides and unidentified softwood packing material for the top. The manufacture of the guitar is described in Michael Simmons’ 2005 book “Taylor Guitars: 30 Years of a New American Classic”. Although made from used packing materials, the guitar was designed to make a statement and hence was well made and sported a fancy fretboard inlay depicting a fork-lift truck, designed by Larry Breedlove. And instead of filling in the nail holes in the back and sides, they were inlaid with platinum dots to resemble the nail heads that would have been there when the wood was part of the pallet.
Like the Fylde guitar made from used oak barrels described in an earlier post, the Taylor pallet guitar used wood from an unusual source and turned it into something pretty magical.
The pallet guitar caused quite a stir. Taylor went on to build 25 guitars using pallet wood for the new millennium NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show in 2000. These guitars have turned into collector’s pieces and go for extraordinary amounts of money. One was recently advertised at a whopping US$26000.
There’s been discussion in the usual chat groups about whether a guitar made from essentially scrap wood is really worth that amount of money. But as some folks point out, it’s going to be worth what someone is prepared to pay for it – and those guitars are both rare and iconic. The question of how the guitar sounds has also been raised often – the general consensus is that it’s probably not as good as some other guitars that Taylor have made. But, again, it’s still pretty damned good, and certainly makes the point that Bob Taylor was aiming to make back then. And the relative importance of all the various elements that go into making a guitar is something we’ll return to in subsequent posts.
The idea that guitar woods can come from unlikely sources has stuck with Bob Taylor. Indeed, the quest for alternatives to traditional woods has become part of the Taylor modus operandi. In a recent article, Taylor’s Director of Natural Resource Sustainability, Scott Paul said “When it comes to sourcing tonewoods, I’ll always remember Bob Taylor saying that during the course of his career, he feels like he has stepped through the doorway from how it’s always been to how it has to be”.
One place that doorway takes us to is what has become known as the urban forest.
The urban forest? What on earth is that? Back to Scott Paul:
“What is the urban forest canopy? Think about any city, town or suburb with high population density and infrastructure. If you live in such an area, think of the trees on your street, in your backyard, along the highway, at schools or shopping centers, in parks, and in small wooded areas. The urban canopy is made up of all the trees within it. It might be hard to see a forest for these individual trees, but if you zoom out, they form a canopy, the true value of which is rapidly coming into focus.”
The term “urban forest” is relatively new, but has received increasing attention from scientists, planners and conservationists. It encapsulates the idea that cities are not – and probably cannot be – places that only humans inhabit and only human-built structures are present. Given that cities are getting bigger and more people now live in cities than in rural areas, understanding the ecology and function of the city environment is a pressing concern.
Another relatively new term allied with urban forests is “green infrastructure”. Infrastructure can be thought of as fundamental facilities and systems that allow households, industry, cities, regions and countries to function. Traditionally, that has meant physical structures such as roads, bridges, drains, sewers and so on, and the systems and institutions set up to maintain these structures as well as keeping societies healthy, fed and secure.
When I think of “infrastructure”, I think of what you see when a workman opens a manhole cover in the street – down there are all sorts of pipes, conduits and other stuff that bring stuff like electricity, water, gas and the internet to your house and whisk away what we flush down the toilet and other wastewater.
And I’m always reminded of the scene in the 1985 movie Brazil where rogue heating engineer Harry Tuttle comes to fix a faulty air conditioner and opens a service hatch to reveal a heaving mass of pipes and wires.
The infrastructure mass that Harry Tuttle reveals appears almost alive. The idea of green infrastructure suggests that living things can actually contribute greatly to human infrastructure needs. It moves away from the idea that humans in cities are separate from nature elsewhere.
“Green infrastructure is the natural vegetation, soils, water and bioengineered solutions that collectively provide society with a broad array of products and services for healthy living. Natural areas such as forests, wetlands and floodplains, and engineered systems like bioswales and rain gardens conserve natural resources and mitigate negative environmental effects, benefiting both people and wildlife.”
The great transition to a heavily urbanised industrial society in the 19th and 20th centuries was, in part, based on the idea that human ingenuity could essentially detach human society from natural processes. Cities gained more concrete, iron and steel and lost trees and natural areas. Streams and rivers were dammed, straightened and regulated and wetlands were drained.
Of course, this technocratic mindset ignores the realities of cities being embedded in broader landscapes and dependent on natural processes – from local to regional and global scales – to maintain equable and relatively stable living conditions. These realities are increasingly obvious to city dwellers in many parts of the world, through increasing floods, droughts, heatwaves and disruptions in supplies of essential goods and services. The issue of climate change has featured many times in posts in the Nature of Music, and cities, like everywhere else, are increasingly being impacted. Indeed, many are experiencing more extreme conditions that render them less and less “liveable”.
Trees are cool, man…
The increase in interest in green infrastructure and urban forests belatedly recognises the importance of trees, natural waterways and so on in making cities more sustainable and more pleasant to live in – and keeping them that way in the face of ongoing changes in climate.
Just focusing on one aspect of the value of having trees in the urban landscape, a key benefit lies in their cooling effects. Cities are often warmer than the surrounding landscape – known as the “heat island effect”, because of the increased heating of bare surfaces of buildings and roads and a consequent build-up of heat. This effect is only going to get worse with ongoing warming climates.
Increasing numbers of studies are showing the profound cooling effects of trees in urban environments – particularly in hot climate areas. Local temperatures in places with trees can be markedly lower than in places without trees, particularly those covered in concrete or tarmac.
A recent news article from Australia highlights this – the surface temperatures around a hospital in Darwin can reach 60C, and hospital staff have started a greening program around the hospital to cool the buildings and surrounding environment.
While individual trees are useful in this regard, the effects are compounded when trees become more abundant across the urban landscape. An article from the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests:
“The shade of a single tree can provide welcome relief from the hot summer sun. But when that single tree is part of a small forest, it creates a profound cooling effect. Trees play a big role in keeping our towns and cities cool.”
The shrinking urban forest
So, having lots of trees in urban areas seems like a no-brainer. And yet, in many parts of the world, there is an ongoing net loss of trees in the city environment. There can be many reasons for this, but a primary one remains the tension between making money from developing land and making or leaving space for trees and other natural elements.
Here in Australia, two parallel trends lead to less, rather than more, trees in the urban environment. The first is the development of new outer suburban subdivisions that involve the initial clearance of all vegetation from the area (making it easier to build on). This is coupled with the building of dwellings that take up most of the available space, leaving little room for gardens and trees. This, plus the lack of municipal plantings creates an instant desert – one that is subsequently difficult to re-green in any comprehensive way.
The second trend is the subdivision larger inner-city properties in traditionally more “leafy” areas. These established suburbs often have blocks consisting of a single-family dwelling sitting within a reasonable area of garden, often with mature trees. These areas are a stark contrast to the newer outer-suburbs. However, there is a trend for these larger urban blocks to be subdivided such that, where there used to only be one house, there might now be multiple dwellings. And these additional dwellings of course come at the expense of greenspace and trees.
Growing the urban forest
Fortunately, the adverse impacts of these trends are slowly being realised, and many urban areas are now the scene of proactive tree protection and replacement – both by local authorities and private citizens.
And, indeed, lots of similar efforts are underway in many parts of the world to increase the number of trees and more generally improve the green infrastructure of the city. The Nature Conservancy has called this “redesigning cities to function like forests”.
These can be small-scale efforts such as establishing native street verges, encouraging the use of native species in gardens and retaining existing vegetation in areas being developed.
Or they can be huge projects that completely re-design parts of cities. Perhaps the most stunning example of this I have experienced is in Seoul, South Korea.
In 2003, the city took the radical decision to remove a large section of freeway running through the centre of the city and reinstate a stream that had been covered over by the freeway. The reappearance (or daylighting) of the Cheonggyecheon Stream in 2005 and the accompanying reclamation and re-greening work has resulted in a dramatically altered cityscape. Although controversial, the project has resulted in multiple environmental and social benefits, and contributed to a major revitilization of central Seoul.
The Cheonggyecheon Stream Restoration Project shows that it is possible to prioritize green infrastructure over built infrastructure, and indicates the potential for cities to develop a better balance between the built and the natural environment.
If a tree dies in the urban forest…
Trees in the urban forest do the same sorts of things that trees in a natural forest do, albeit in very different circumstances. They start off as seeds that germinate into seedlings that then grow. They may thrive or they may be affected by poor soil conditions, adverse air quality, pests and diseases. In cities, the placement of trees is largely down to human choice and action. The magnificent avenues of trees along Paris boulevards are there because someone decided to plant them there hundreds of years ago – and they’ve survived and grown well because people subsequently decided to look after them.
Some tree planting decisions do not end up so well – trees are often planted in the wrong places, or without enough soil or space to grow in, or without sufficient water to keep them alive. As in natural forests, individual trees can get damaged or sick. Or they can grow too big for the space they are in, or their roots can start damaging underground pipes or buckling sidewalks. They can pose problems when bits start falling off during storms. They can also, unfortunately, find themselves in the way of a proposed development. Many perfectly healthy trees are lost in cities because of public and private construction projects. And, of course, trees can simply die.
In a natural forest, a dead tree is still an important component of the forest. It can remain standing for a long time, providing habitat for birds and other animals. Or it can fall over and slowly decompose, providing an important resource for a myriad of creatures and microorganisms, eventually adding carbon and nutrients to the forest soil. But in a city, a dead tree poses all sorts of risks to life and property, and it generally has to be removed.
So, the removal of dead trees – as well as sick, damaged and potentially hazardous trees – is an important part of the overall management of the urban forest. It’s a skilled job, done by arborists who often have to emulate the lumberjacks of old, scaling tall trees to gradually fell the top sections and then carefully bring the main trunk down.
The resulting wood and debris has usually been regarded as a waste product – often it is fed into a chipper on site and carted away. However, following the analogy of the natural forest, the material from the tree is actually a potentially valuable resource. The most basic form of this is using the chipped wood to make mulch or some sort of fuel material. But there is also the potential to use the larger bits of timber for higher grade products.
Back to Taylor
And that brings us back to Taylor Guitars and the quest to seek out alternative sources of guitar tonewoods. Recent blogs by Scott Paul and Jim Kirlin tell the story of how Taylor linked up with a local arborist company in Southern California to seek out potential new tonewoods amongst timber salvaged from urban tree removal operations.
West Coast Arborists is a company that started about the same time as Taylor Guitars, not far from where the Taylor factory is. Over the years, their business has grown and developed, and they now run a well-organised operation that includes salvaging timber that looks like it might have value beyond just woodchips.
When the guys from Taylor visited, they selected some likely species and tried them out as potential tonewoods. Master builder Andy Powers (who has recently taken over as head of the company) chose one wood in particular to focus on – a species known as Shamel Ash.
According to Andy Powers, its tonal properties rival those of high-quality Honduran mahogany.
To quote Jim Kirlin:
It’s a wood Bob Taylor has fondly taken to calling the golden retriever of tonewoods. “This ash just wants to please you,” he says. “It dries easily, cuts easily, bends easily, sands easily, machines easily, and performs really well musically,” he says. “Everything about it is perfect.”
Shamel Ash, Fraxinus uhdei, is native in Mexico and Central America, and is also known as tropical ash.
It was brought to Southern California during the mid 1900s because it looked as if it would be well suited for the Southern Californian climate. It did, indeed, grow well when planted, but also spread quite happily on its own over quite a wide area, often growing very large. In fact, it became viewed as a bit of a problem plant: an article from 1995 described the trees as “100-foot monsters that break curbs and sidewalks and disperse seeds over a vast area, resulting in ‘arboreal weed’ growth and creating a horticultural nightmare.”
We have seen in other posts that some tree species can evoke mixed reactions, seen as beneficial by some folks and as problems by others – but also that even problem tree species can be turned into very nice guitars.
The Shamel Ash that Taylor homed in on is now used in a range of their guitars, and is called “Urban Ash” to reflect its unusual origins. In another article on the Urban Ash story, Scott Paul highlighted the steps needed to turn an aspiration to use “waste” urban wood into a reliable source of tonewood.
Although it may seem pretty straightforward to identify a source of useful timber and then use it to make guitars, the actual logistics of doing this are actually quite complex. The trees are scattered across a wide area spanning multiple municipalities, and the need to remove trees may ebb and wane – all leading to a potentially unpredictable supply. Fortunately, West Coast Arborists had already short-circuited some of these issues and could, it appeared, guarantee a steady supply of good timber.
You can now find Taylor Urban Ash guitars in your local guitar store. I have to confess that my GT Urban Ash, pictured below, is perhaps my favourite out of all the Taylor guitars I’ve played over the years. Certainly, the use of an alternative wood from an unlikely source has not diminished the quality of the resulting instrument one bit.
Others agree with me – have a listen to musician and artist Beatie Wolfe as she considers the urban ash story and how it fits with her activist perspectives on climate change.
My Urban Ash guitar is made from wood salvaged from street trees that need, for one reason or another, to be removed. That, on the face of it, seems a pretty weird way of highlighting the challenges facing humanity because of ongoing environmental changes. But when you think about it a bit, it’s actually a useful vehicle for pushing the conversation about how we need to adapt our activities as the future rolls over us. And it’s a great window into the amazing world of urban forests – which are themselves part of the solution to maintaining and increasing the liveability of our human habitat.
Let’s hear a bit more from Beatie Wolfe…
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