Being With Bamboo
by Milo Clark

Bamboo is mostly vitality and paradox wrapped into what appears to be a plant of many personalities and still more personas. It is possibility and potential. It is warp and woof of a carefully interwoven nature.

For the ancient Chinese for whom Tao, Buddha and Confucius formed the boundaries of actuality, a measured, meaningful life was defined and created by the relationship with bamboo. The Chinese said, believed and knew that it, meaning quality of life, began with bamboo and ended with bamboo. The study of anything meaningful in life began with familiarity and ended with mastery. To study bamboo and to master its many modes, its many utilities, its aesthetic dimensions defined a lifetime well lived.

The treasures of those times are wistful paintings of misty mountains framed with leaves of bamboo, given dimension by bamboo defining the forespace of a celestial unity.

Beyond our imagining, from times with no iron and steel, with no ways to move other than one step at a time, bamboo gave form to life, beauty to eye, pleasure to ear, roof to home, trough to guide water, basket to carry; wall and bed and floor and food. Still in China and in many Asian and island nations bamboo grows profusely and millions of people depend on bamboo.

It is more than a plant. It is more than a possible member of the grass family. It is, in some ways, stronger than steel; more likely to survive than automobiles and trucks, ever ready to be of service, to offer contemplative beauty. The fury of atomic energy unleashed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki only set the bamboo back little. It was among the first of plants to reappear. The Japanese have a special place in their hearts for this hardy survivor of the worst that 20th century humankind can create to end creation.

The Hawaiians were skilled in many bamboo crafts. In Hawaii, bamboo is known as 'ohe. How and when bamboos arrived in the islands is a mystery from beyond time. The intricate designs of the delicate tapa stamps are carved from the inside of split bamboo culms. In a society with no wheels, bamboo provided stout shafts for carrying the baskets woven, in part, from bamboo fibers.

In the high forest back of Tantalus on Oahu, one of the most peaceful places in all Hawaii is an expansive grove of tall culms with a clean understory, full of birds, filtered light, wispy leaves and quiet, marvelous quiet.

In North America, back when the people who were here were the only people here, great expanses of bamboo spread across the south eastern regions, becoming the famous "Breaks" of many legends. Legends which passed down through Seminole, Cherokee and myriad other names which the peoples called themselves before those others came from across the seas and cut down the Breaks.

Those who cut down the Breaks, those who plow the prairies dead, those who decimate the forests from Atlantic to Pacific, from Arctic to Caribe have lost the great bamboos of North America. We do not know bamboo as the Chinese did and do. We do not know bamboo as most of Asia knows and reveres bamboo. It is our loss. It is our opportunity to redress the great imbalances with nature brought on by those who cut down, those who plow and those who decimate what nature freely gives.

Here and there, humankind is making efforts, small here, a little more there; searching for what we define as viable, sustainable, renewable. Bamboo is a natural. Like grass it grows rapidly and propagates itself if left alone. Like wood it is strong, grows nearly everywhere and has many, many uses. Given its way, bamboo will hold hillsides in place against raging waters unleashed from above.

Given its way, growing profusely among peoples judged materially poorest on the planet, without gigantic industries cutting, gathering, processing, transporting it; bamboo is here, waiting to serve. It is there to build shelter, to fashion tools, to weave baskets, to help water obey, to provide beauty and sounds.

Wind moving through bamboo forests or thickets makes symphony orchestras seem impotent. Wind moving little pieces of bamboo to strike against each other gives joy and peace to those who hear it.

Bamboo feels so good. Grasp a culm and energy is defined within your hand. A strong culm advances from underground rhizome to sky, often many tens of feet, many meters, in a matter of a very few weeks. All of it is there from the moment it breaks ground. Every thrusting inch, foot or meter, from node to node, every future leaf is compactly folded in place ready and willing to come out. Visited daily, growth is measured first against a human body and that dwarfed, then against the taller and then tallest of other natural forms. As if in mockery of humankinds' gigantic new buildings, in Asia skyscrapers are built with skeletons, scaffolds of bamboo reaching to their tops and above.

In nearly all of Asia, in South, North and Central America, in Africa, on the Indian Sub-continent, across the great Pacific islands and the lesser volcanic specks, in Australia and New Zealand. much of Europe and across the steppes underlying the Urals; wherever there is minimal water to sustain bamboo, as little as 20 inches of rainfall for some varieties in some climates; from sealevel to many thousands of feet in altitude, from tropical to temperate conditions; bamboo thrives and enriches the lives of people who simply love being with it as well as the billions of humankind who are, to some degree, dependent on it.

There are delicate, precious little bamboos who weep from a suspended pot bright green rounded leaves etched from lavender purple culms. There are bamboos fully enveloped with tiny leaves on slim little culms responding to every whim of breeze with delicate movements like ostrich feather fans. Relatives grow to tens of feet in height and define an area with breathless beauty.

There are bamboos with leaves as tactile as velvet. Others show tiny little wisps of hair-like decorations around the bases of leaf stems and culm sheaths. There are those with sawtoothed leaf edges which cut quickly and accurately. The colors of greens in bamboo leaves and culms exceed the capacities of an unappreciative eye to discriminate. Leaves are variegated in nearly uncountable variations. They are slim, thin, pointed and ellipsoid, banded and striped, fat and long, tight to the ground and airy as an eagle's flight. Culms are streaked with rosy, green, violet, shades and grades, specks and streaks of verdant browns, fathomless blacks.

Culm sheaths likewise provide a color feast for inquiring eyes. And, mystery of the insides of nature, the iridescent insides of the culm sheaths dance with color and shadow when moved under sunlight.

In Europe and North America and lands dominated by Western minds, power and technologies; bamboo is primarily ornamental, grown in gardens, subjected to taxonomic arguments, confined and contained while little used as the practical, pragmatic, bountiful cornucopia it is. People who garden seriously tend to dismiss bamboos as nuisances while carefully tending their roses, their lilies, their tulips, shrubs and trees; ignoring that all the ill behavior ascribed to bamboo is cured in exactly the same ways: paying attention, doing what is appropriate to the species when it is appropriate, taking care and giving love.

While the last of North American forests fall daily and relentlessly to humankind's needs, greeds and follies; to become toilet paper, to become magazines, to become fences and houses; bamboo waits to take over.

As it has taken hundreds of years in the West to ignore bamboo, it will probably take determined effort, massive concentrations of will and investment to find a balancing space: a time and technological actuality within which supply and demand are created and realized. There is no reason not to start now. Already in Asia, bamboo pulp is used for the majority of papers, cardboards and cartons. Look closely and you can see the differences from papers, cardboard and carton stock made with wood pulp. Should we use bamboo to replicate those forms which we have heretofore made from wood? Should we find bamboo-realistic alternatives? Will it serve us and sustainability, viability and renewable balances to grow bamboo here, cut it, truck it there, process it with chemicals and toxins no less noxious than those needed for plywood and particle board and then truck it again and again out to possible markets?

Somewhat like adobe in that it can be a site specific building material, bamboo works better when it is possible to go out, grub together some clay, water and straw and shape it into a home. Literally, bamboo can supply every component of a home from foundation to roofing, from floor to ceiling. A visit to almost any rural area in Asia will show us how bamboo is used locally, for local purposes in local ways which keep the wood in forests, the ores and oils in the earth and the money at home.

Meanwhile, each in our own way, each in our own place and time, we can learn to live with bamboo, to fashion things with bamboo, to invest in a bamboo future by making out personal commitments to a wonderful gift of nature, a gift of patience. Go out and find some bamboo to love. If you can't play a bamboo flute, find a recording to brighten your ears. Ask for bamboo products. Put bamboo blinds on your windows, bamboo wind chimes in your trees, bamboo furniture in your rooms, bamboo rugs on your floors, bamboo in your oriental dishes, bamboo decor on your shelves and walls. Grow bamboo in the ground or in containers. With a little care, appropriate and seasonal maintenance, bamboo is easy to live with and guaranteed to be a good neighbor. Grow bamboo and you can help some deserving and very beautiful as well as useful, bamboo to be happy, too.

Is there more to life?

Published May 07, 1996
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