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The Longbow, the Schooner and the Violin: Wood and Human Achievement, by Marq de VilliersHandout

  • Title: The Longbow, the Schooner & the Violin
  • Author: Marq de Villiers
  • Genre: Non-fiction
  • Publisher: Sutherland House
  • Pages: 336

The woods are lovely, dark and deep. True enough, but it turns out that Robert Frost vastly understated the matter.

Now the South African-Canadian writer Marq de Villiers is here with woodland promises to keep. His book is titled The Longbow, the Schooner & the Violin but it is his subtitle that gets to the heart of things: “Wood and Human Achievement.”

In an imaginative romp through the woods, and among myriad piles of wood, de Villiers is an amiable tour guide of both the forests and the trees. With a special eye to the triptych of tree products in the title, he provides an inviting Baedeker to the science of the plant world – and to the special beauty of the three implements fashioned by wood.

Each of these items stands as a symbol of its age. Each is possessed of both beauty and utility, which, de Villiers seems to be telling us, is an apt description of wood itself. His book is nuanced, the happy result of his conviction that forests “are all nuance, places where distinctions are multiple but hidden, boundaries blurred, dark and light manifest together; they are damp, with mould and decay and growth and exuberantly fecund life jumbled and tangled.”

The longbow was the fiercest hand-held weapon ever created, “murderously effective.” The schooner tamed and harnessed the winds. The violin is both a product of great art (Stradivarius is not the only violin family of note) and the producer of great art (Mozart’s Violin Concerto Number 3, among many examples). This is the history of humankind in three objects.

Nothing simple about these objects, though. The wood that comprises the longbow had to be bendable but not breakable, often the wood needed to be dried for two years, the sap content had to be just right – and then sometimes the neck of a snapping turtle had to be close at hand to provide the strings. These were the weapons of mass destruction of choice until the 1513 Battle of Braxton Moor, when longbows began to fade from favour. Cannon and muskets were on the rise, and the age of archery was in fatal decline, except perhaps at summer camps scattered about remote reaches of Canada.

Nothing simple about schooners, either. Sometimes described as “able, handsome ladies,” they are a “complex and intricate apparatus of masts and booms, gaffs and sprits, halyards and sheets,” and that’s without considering the whims of the winds. The schooner survived – the schooner thrived – until steam took over, not because vessels powered by coal were faster (they weren’t) but because they weren’t beholden to the caprices of the breezes.

Now to the violin, operated through four strings, which are ultimately, according to Mr. de Villiers, “a way of giving voice to wood, or of freeing wood’s voice, to shape emotions, melancholy or thrilling, joyful or sorrowful, profound, obsessive, involving.” In these pages he explains the mystery of the music the violin creates, wondering, for example, if violins “retain some kind of molecular memory,” [224] but always, in every element of this meditation on music, coming back to one stubborn fact: “Modern or simple, a violin starts with the wood.”

Everything starts with the wood.

These pages are a gentle walk in the woods, and though the words gymnosperm, mycelium and cellulose – nightmare memories from Grade 11 biology – appear, there is something beguiling about the short course de Villiers sets out, a brisk hike through ancient trees, rain forests and what Henry Longfellow, in Evangeline, described as “the murmuring pines and the hemlocks.” On this sylvan stroll we discover that the tall trees that hold high the roof of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris were likely seedlings in the 8th or 9th century; that chopsticks are best fashioned from chestnut or black persimmon; and that if water divining is in your summertime plans, you would be wise to choose hazel or willow. News you can use.

In this woodland ramble are accounts of deforestation and fire and descriptions of such urgent arcana as the borealization of deciduous hardwoods. But with every step, the words of the poet Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918) may tug at your sub-conscience, for in the end you may conclude that you shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree – or as a longbow, or a schooner or a violin.

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