Would it be possible to create a northern Thai wooden library?
A week ago I took my Swedish arborist students to the library at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Alnarp. The aim was to study the 200 years old wooden library.
Each of the 217 volumes was made from wood of a special tree species. You open a volume like a book, but it is in fact a wooden box containing dried leaves, fruits, seeds, roots, flowers, charcoal samples, bark, pollen and in some cases glass bottles believed to have contained sap. These volumes are not only artistically designed and skillfully made, but are also of great educational value for learning the woods of various tree species. I believe the reason why such wooden libraries no longer are manufactured is the cost as compared to printed books or internet pictures. Still, all 20 students agreed it would be fantastic if they had access to such a wooden library when they studied dendrology (although we booked a guided presentation we could only admire selected volumes behind glass; the bulk of the collection was kept inside a safe).
When I lived in Chiang Mai I investigated the possibilities numerous times to get hold of wood samples of various common indigenous species. Such wood samples would be of great educational value and could perhaps be sold as high quality souvenirs. Although Dokmai Garden is a neighbour of the most famous antique and carpenter street in Thailand, it was quite hard to get more than a dozen of properly identified wood samples. Teak (Tectona grandis, Lamiaceae) dominates the carpentry industry, and a handful of other domestic species are also used, such as Xylia xylocarpa (Fabaceae). It seems the great skills of past carpenters are largely lost today, a consequence of the extensive clear-cutting which in turn led to the logging ban in 1989, making native woods other than imported teak timber rare in the legal workshops.
Establishing Thai wooden libraries at Thai universities seems urgent due to the rapid loss of experienced craftsmen. The immense confusion caused by the inexact meaning of vernacular names, demands a carpenter walking together with a botanist to the forest to select suitable and properly identified trees.
Creating a complete northern Thai wooden library is almost impossible considering there are over 1100 native tree species just in northern Thailand. However, a summary of 200 representatives would still be most useful. The solution to the financial problem in Europe in the early 1800’s were subscriptions. A subscriber recieved a new volume when it was manufactured. An additional difficulty in the tropics is the threat of termites which may turn any wooden collection into powder, while the European collection we studied has stayed almost intact for 200 years.
In spite of the difficulties, I wish the Thai government could invest in a project to preserve, and display, the Thai carpenter’s knowledge about woods. A museum of woods and forests would be a unique and educational venue bridging flora with handicraft and biodiversity awareness.
Text & Photo: Eric Danell, book lover