National Geographic : 1951 Jul
Versatile Wood Waits on Man BY ANDREW H. BROWN HIGH in Oregon's Cascade Range I watched two fallers set their saw to the base of a proud Douglas fir. Roots in shadow, crown in sun, the great tree thrust up straight and true, a mirror copy of hundreds of its kind crowding that verdant valley. "Ever see a tall tree felled?" asked the logging boss who stood at my side. "Well, it's kinda sad, in a way. But, what with de fense an' all, everybody's beggin' for wood." Who wouldn't feel a pang or two, indeed, watching one of these 300-year-old patriarchs cut off in its prime! The fallers kept up their rhythmic strokes as the steel teeth steadily undermined the brown column. Suddenly overstrained tree sinews snapped. The saw's "siss-ss, siss-ss" stopped short. Came the warning cry, "Tim-ber-rr!" Far up in the sky the green spire tilted, dropping faster every second. "Five, six, seven .. ." I counted. The fallers had fled from the stump. "Eight, nine, ten!" An earth-shaking thud, a quiver of branches, and the superb tree, spanning 200 feet of forest floor, lay still. As I watched the dust settle, questions came to mind. What would happen to that log? What would happen to the millions of trees felled that year, and next year, and the next? Seek ing the answers proved a fascinating quest. Falling Is Wood's Birth to New Life Felling and hauling are only the preface to bewildering magic whereby industry trans forms Nature's biggest living things into a fabulous array of things for larger living. (page 110). Fabricators and technicians now make from wood not just boards, beds, barns, and book cases, but chemicals, clothing, and plastics; paper and paperboard cartons; structural and insulation panels; fillers, films, and fibers. No wonder that in his lifetime the average American uses the substance of 400 trees! All of us can reach out almost any time and touch something made from wood. One morn ing I picked up my telephone in Washington, D. C., and called the Western Electric Com pany in New York. "Is there any wood in telephone equip ment?" I asked Mr. C. L. Stong, information manager. "The telephone instrument you're holding in your hand is half wood," Mr. Stong re plied, "It's made of a phenol plastic 'filled' with approximately 50 percent pine wood flour. Every year we buy about five million pounds of this compound for molding hand sets and other parts." He further advised: "Go look at the tele phone switchboard in your office. The switch board itself is made of wood. Even the little bases of the switchboard lamps are wood." "Anything else?" I asked. "Yes, indeed!" Mr. Stong declared. "Tele phone booths, poles, and crossarms used by the Bell System swallow enormous amounts of wood. Wood pulp and wood-fiber paper in sulate the 140,000,000 conductor-miles of wire in telephone cables spanning the country. Paper also goes into our electrical condensers." Plays "Straight" and "Character" Roles Since Dawn man first reached for a club to tame his mate, wood never has faltered in men's service. Wood, as Shakespeare said of man, plays many parts. Some are "straight" roles: furni ture, fuel, and construction lumber; butcher blocks, toothpicks, tool handles, and rolling pins. But wood also stars in "character" parts, so disguised you'd never guess its forest origin. Turn up the label on your silky necktie or on your summer dress or suit. There's a good chance it says "Rayon." Rayon is made pri marily from wood cellulose (page 137). The phrase "steaks from sawdust" overleaps the steps to achieve that transformation. Yet sawdust can be processed to yield molasses for supplementary cattle feed. This forest-born diet, though successful, so far is experimental in the United States. Wood is a silent partner, I learned, in mak ing products that contain no wood at all. Hamilton Watch Company craftsmen use ten kinds of wood to turn out a precision prod uct made of precious metals, alloys, and jew els! Hamilton puts to work boxwood, orange wood, beech, balsa, applewood, cypress, maple, pine, mahogany, and walnut. Their workers use them to polish tiny screw heads, open jewel holes, buff pinion teeth, and for other delicate operations. One southern brickmaker casts wood in a "ghost" role. He mixes pine shavings and sawdust with clay in making firebricks. In the lava-hot kilns the pine waste burns out. This brick is lighter, and has heat-insulating properties not found in bricks of solid clay. My wife reminded me of an illustrious wooden man.