A great deal of forestry activity across the world focuses on its technical and practical aspects: such as natural forest ecology, plantation silviculture,  studies of carbon cycles, breeding productive hardwoods, designing forests to manage flood risks, reducing the lignin content of softwoods … to name a few. Such is the diversity of forestry. While the social aspects of forestry have come to the fore in recent years, leading to a greater understanding of the cultural importance of forests, there have been few social studies directed at wood. The culture, traditions, aesthetics of wood have been largely overlooked by scientists and the policy community.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN organised a large international conference to tackle this shortfall. The aptly named conference, The Art and Joy of Wood, was hosted by the Institute of Wood Science and Technology at Bangalore in India on 19-22 October 2011; attracting 350 delegates from all corners of the world.

I gave a presentation, Recovering Britain’s Wood Culture, talking about the work of the Sylva Foundation, particularly the support it provides woodland owners through the myForest Service, and its work to engage the public in growing trees for wood through the OneOak project. My paper and talk, and the conference proceedings as a whole, will be published later in the year and I will publish a link to them when they’re available.

Gabriel Hemery speaking at the Art and Joy of Wood conference
People love the sight of lambs in the Spring countryside, and attending lambing open days on farms is popular with families. A week later they may enjoy eating a lamb joint, burger or kebab. There is a disconnect between the two: the unspeakable act of slaughter, out-of-sight, out-of-mind. I suggested to delegates that this provided an interesting comparison to tree harvesting. People love trees, and surround themselves with wood in their homes and offices, yet many are uncomfortable seeing a tree being felled. The difference between lamb and tree is that anyone may come across the death of tree and accompanying roar of a chainsaw when they go for a walk in the countryside.

Wood is Good, we were reminded repeatedly, while being treated to views from speakers talking about topics ranging from magico-cultural aspects of wood and forest in Nigeria, the next generation of wood buildings that may soon reach 30 storeys, consumer purchasing trends in furniture and wooden houses, vernacular wood use in Austria, social aspects of wooden house design in Ghana, and an inspiring wood education programme in Japan. Despite the wonderful diversity of these perspectives the essence of the conference remained elusive.

V. Ramakrishnan got close to the nub of the subject in a talk about the “Fourth dimension of wood“. He talked about the “umbilical connection” humans have with trees and nature, and the positive energy exuded from trees. This connection is intangible and perhaps at a higher plain to what is physical; beyond length, breadth, height, colour and smell. The fourth dimension of wood may be difficult to define but can be described as the lifting of spirits, the feelings of energy, eternity and tranquillity, the karma when with wood. It is sitting in the shade of the Neem tree, or sheltering in a storm under a Banyan tree. Watch carefully how someone will touch a wooden object, stroke it, roll it in their hands, smell it.

A breakthrough of sorts came through at the very end of the three day conference when a quite brilliant 14 year Indian student, the winner of a poetry prize invited to attend a prizewinning ceremony, asked the assembled delegates to explain what the conference was all about. Several ‘experts’ had a go but despite several interesting replies the lack of a coherent answer spoke volumes. It seems that a new discipline has been unearthed that cannot yet be defined nor explained simply. There is much work to do but it is encouraging that so many people from across the World have come together and created a new network.

Wood is the truly amazing material that is produced from photosynthesis; a process that man has not got even near to replicating in the laboratory, despite sending men to the moon and understanding more than ever before about the origins of the universe.

  • Wood is the most sustainable material on Earth.
  • Forests sustain life on Earth.

It is no exaggeration that trees and wood are at the heart of our future: to live sustainably we must use more wood while conserving and expanding our forests.  And there, quite simply, is one enormous challenge.

Gabriel Hemery


  1. Hi Gabriel

    Very good synopsis. We’re still struggling to work-out where we go from here in FAO – probably another conference (at least!), if not more. By the way, the exhibition and most of the presentations are now available on the IWCS channel on YouTube. We’re almost there with the proceedings as well (all 1,000+ pages of them)!


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