Dendrochronology & Salvaged Wood

Salvaged wood first made an appearance in my life three decades ago while converting a barn into a house. Shaver Brothers made it possible to acquire “previously used” lumber to build ceiling beams, stairs and walls; install solid oak flooring and interior doors; a clawfoot tub; and otherwise complete a home with limited resources. Plus, we liked the idea of bringing new life to old things.

A cross-section of wood from a post-hurricane timber salvage operation in Nicaragua

My meager doctoral student stipend, supplemented by Amie’s salary from work producing home furnishings, meant that we needed to be creative in finding materials to build out a home. The pieces that Amie painted at work, akin to the one seen in the photo above (in our family room to this day, made by Amie and her co-workers at that time) was frequently salvaged wooden furniture.

And to this day salvaged timber like this piece of wood from Nicaragua (to the right), or the pillar at the entrance to our home (below left) provide highlights to our sense of home.

Decorative pillar from the one tree removed to build our home

So, by the time we met the artisans of Ceiba, we were longtime converts to the concept of salvage. And I am always on the lookout for more reasons to appreciate salvaged wood. My reading recommendation today is this article by Rivka Galchen titled Making New Climate Data from Old Timber, for reasons related to all that salvaged wood in our lives:

Illustration by Tyler Keeton Robbins

When an old building is demolished, its construction materials can reveal the secrets of the past.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Eastern Seaboard’s old-growth forests were cut down almost in their entirety. Today, trying to find a tree in this area that is more than two hundred years old is like looking for a button that you lost a few years back.But New York City—unlike the surrounding forests—is host to a great crowd of old wood. It’s just that it exists in the form of beams and joists within buildings. “Whenever we get the call, we try to go to the demolition,” Mukund Rao, an NOAA postdoctoral research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Tree Ring Laboratory, at Columbia University, told me. Some of Rao’s research focusses on the interactions between climate and ecosystems, such as Mongolia’s boreal forests; his work with timbers from demolition sites happens closer to home. “As long as it’s an old enough building, we know this is a gold mine for finding this very limited resource,” Rao said.

By being creative and flexible in searching for samples, scientists at the Tree Ring Lab (and other such labs) have stitched together climate records for the region going back as far as four hundred years. This has been accomplished in part through looking at crossbeams and joists made of trees that may have been cut down a century or two ago but have retained a detailed record of how sweet their springs were, how harsh their winters, how clean their sources of water.
In 1891, construction was begun on the Terminal Warehouse, in what is now far west Chelsea. A block-long building with a tunnel at its core, it could take in shipping crates off the Hudson River and load them onto one of several train lines running nearby. By the nineteen-eighties, the building was the site of the Tunnel night club; now it’s being revamped into an office-and-retail space. The architecture firm cookfox—Cook has a house not far from the Tree Ring Lab—called up the researchers to invite them to see the wood at the site. On a recent visit, Rao and his colleagues selected twenty-eight joist samples. “They chainsawed about an inch off for us,” he said. Each of the samples was then repeatedly polished, with sandpaper of increasingly fine grain. Once the wood was smooth, each growth ring was analyzed in detail. Then the work of interpreting the language of the wood got going in earnest, using dendrochronology, a range of scientific techniques developed in the course of a century.
Around the same time that the Terminal Warehouse was going up, the Boston Brahmin Percival Lowell wanted to establish an astronomical observatory under the dark, clear skies of the Arizona territory. He hired a young astronomer, A. E. Douglass, to help out. Douglass had experience; he’d spent three years helping to set up an observatory in the mountain town of Arequipa, in Peru. He set out with a horse-drawn wagon, a telescope, and a pile of Western Union telegraph paper, so that he could keep Lowell updated on any progress. Eventually they decided on a hill just outside Flagstaff. While Douglass designed the observatory and oversaw its construction, Lowell devoted his time to studying the surface of Mars, where he was convinced that he could see canals, which he believed indicated the presence of an intelligent alien civilization short on water…

One thought on “Dendrochronology & Salvaged Wood

  1. Pingback: Dendrochronology & Salvaged Wood — Organikos | THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON...

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