By Jim Lee
While having coffee recently with my friend Don Criss, he casually mentioned the sad plight of the pernambuco tree. I instantly became alert, no small feat for a fellow with my attention span.
Don always gets my attention because I learn so much from him — and it’s an opportunity to rip off his idea for this column. I once had an original thought, but it scared me. So I just capitalize on Don’s knowledge, and I’m convinced the man never forgets anything.
What did I start off with? Oh yes, the pernambuco tree. Of course when Don first mentioned our arboreal friend to me, this exact topic had been on my mind for days, as it is with all of us. It is the rare person indeed who does not awaken each morning and fall asleep each night thinking of the pernambuco tree (Caesalpinia echinata).
An endangered species, the pernambuco is Brazil’s national tree and a state in the northeastern region of the country. The state of Pernambuco is in the coastal plain of Mata Atlantica (Atlantic rain forest), where Recife is the capital and largest city.
The tree is called Pao-Brazil in Portuguese and gave Brazil its name. It is also sometimes called Brazilwood, but that is more of a generic term for a group of tropical tree species. If people leave it alone, a pernambuco may grow to a height of 100 feet with a trunk so thick that three men can’t wrap their arms around it.
But land clearing and logging have taken their toll. The Mata Atlantica, home of the pernambuco, is now only 7 percent of the size it was when first settled by the Portuguese about 500 years ago — yet people continue the deforestation.
Saplings are being planted, but they do not keep up with the rate of loss, and it takes 20-30 years of growth for them to mature.
It seems obvious to simply harvest a non-endangered tree, but not every tree will satisfy the specific need. When the Portuguese settlers came to the area, they discovered that the pernambuco heartwood could be used to make dye for the robes of the nobility. The tree was used for that until synthetic dyes were invented.
About that time, Francois Xavier Tourte (1747-1835), a French archetier (maker of violin, viola, cello, and bass bows) discovered pernambuco makes the best bows because of its strength, flexibility, and responsiveness. Modern bows, still the design of Tourte to this day, are often made of carbon fiber or fiberglass, but the best are still pernambuco. They sell for up to $5,000, an original Tourte up to 10 times that amount (or even more).
The resulting supply and demand situation makes life hard for this national symbol and international resource. It is a heavy, dense wood with a surprising amount of elasticity.
The best pernambuco bows use only the red core of the wood. The process takes up to 30 pounds of wood for a two-pound board. That board is then carved down to an arced stick of about two ounces.
Not only is so much wood used up like this, the Mata Atlantica is shrinking. Little remains from a coastal rain forest that once extended inland over 100 miles and stretched from north of the Amazon River to the Argentine border.
What’s the point to all this? Many things are more important than wood for music bows, right? After all, it’s just a tree, right?
On the other hand, this grand tree may vanish forever. Should we care enough to relate this to the near extinction of our own national symbol? Can the pernambuco make a comeback like the bald eagle, or will the world fiddle away another endangered species?
Jim Lee is news director for KENW-FM radio. He also is an English instructor. He can be contacted at 359-2204. His e-mail: