Q: What links harbour buoys, the seats of Windsor chairs, wheel hubs, water pipes, the bottom boards of a lugger, coffins?
A: They are all best made of common elm, Ulmus procera, because they all exploit elm’s resistance to splitting and tolerance of saturation with water.
Thus if the key structure of a buoy is a ring of elm, it can ride the knocks without splintering and it will remain immune to fungal attack as long as it is not left to dry out at low tide. Or again, the oldest water pipes in the world are made of elm. If durability is the criterion then elm beats everything except perhaps pipes made of specialist steels at unimaginable cost.
Equivalent lists could be written for most of our trees. This is common knowledge, tacit, built up over hundreds, even thousands of years, unwritten but well understood. And it points to the extraordinary treasure trove that exists within nature, ready to be exploited without the cost, financial, operational and climatological, of conventional industrial R&D operations
If the 20th century was prime time for the physical sciences, in the 21st there is little doubt it’s the turn of biology. With the current explosion in knowledge of living systems and structure at the cellular level there is an extraordinary opportunity to harness the natural world precisely, efficiently, & with light feet.
I’m talking about trees because I know a bit about them. But truly I know nothing. The amazing intricacy of development and adaptation that has occurred over the ages stands before us at a pivotal time in our history. We are on the edge of chaos and collapse and could well fall into the abyss, but with our eyes on the horizon there is a hint of new dawn. May the good guys win.