Being with Bamboo
American Bamboo Society Logo
Promoting the Beauty and Utility of Bamboo
by Milo Clark

"[Bamboo] resolved my artistic dilemma about how to create beautiful things without getting caught up in the dispiriting materialism that usually surrounds such creative acts.”

Leonard Koren, Wabi-Sabi

Bamboo is vitality and paradox wrapped into what appears to be a plant. 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 ancient Chinese for whom Dao, Buddha and Confucius formed boundaries of actuality, a measured, meaningful life was defined and created in terms of, in relationship with, bamboo.

Chinese said, believed and knew that “it", meaning quality of life, began with bamboo and ended with bamboo. Study of meaning in life began with familiarity and ended with mastery. To study bamboo, 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, delicate weavings and baskets of given dimension by bamboo thereby defining 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. In China and in many Asian and island nations bamboo still grows profusely and 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 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. She we now kill bamboo?

Hawaiians were skilled in many bamboo crafts. In Hawaii, bamboo is known as ‘Ohe. Although it is assumed some bamboo came on the first canoes, how and when bamboo arrived in the islands is a mystery from beyond time. Intricate designs of delicate tapa stamps are carved from split bamboo. In a society with no wheels, bamboo provided stout shafts for carrying the baskets woven, in part, from bamboo fibers.

In the high Tantalus forest over Honolulu, among more peaceful places in all Hawaii is an expansive, tall bamboo cathedral, full of birds, filtered light, wispy leaves and quiet, marvelous quiet.

In North America, back when the peoples who were there were the only people there, great expanses of bamboo spread across the south eastern regions, becoming the famous “Breaks”. Legends about these bamboo forests passed down through Seminole, Cherokee and myriad other names peoples called themselves before others came across the seas to cut down the Breaks.

Those who cut down the Breaks, those who plowed the prairies dead, those who decimate the forests from Atlantic to Pacific, from Arctic to Caribe have lost the great bamboo of North America.

We do not know bamboo as Chinese do. We do not know bamboo as most of Asia knows and reveres bamboo. It is our loss.

It is our opportunity to redress 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, sensible, renewable.

Bamboo is a natural. Like grass it grows rapidly and propagates itself if left alone. Like wood it is strong, grows many places 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 here to 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. A strong culm advances from underground to sky, often many tens of feet, many meters, in a matter of 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 humankind’s gigantic new buildings, in Asia skyscrapers are built with 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 Subcontinent, across the great Pacific islands and the lesser volcanic specks, in Australia and New Zealand, once some 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 sea level 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 those who remain, to some degree, dependent upon it.

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

There are bamboo with leaves soft as velvet. Others show tiny little wisps of hair-like decorations around the bases of leaf stems and culm sheaths. There are those with saw-toothed leaf edges which cut quickly and accurately.

The colors of greens in bamboo leaves and culms exceed the capacities of an eye to discriminate. Leaves are variegated in splendid variations. There are leaves 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, deep blacks.

Culm sheaths likewise provide a color feast for inquiring eyes. And, mystery of the insides of nature, culm sheaths’ iridescent insides 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 tend to dismiss bamboo 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 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 is tauted as substitute. Probably not realistic, but humans rarely are.

As it has taken hundreds of years 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.

Should we find bamboo-realistic alternatives? Will it serve us and sensibility, 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, gather some and shape it on site. 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 our personal commitments to a wonderful gift of nature, a gift of patience.

Go out. 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?

Milo Clark
Pacific Bamboo Council
P. O. Box 454
Pahoa HI 96778-0454

revised 08-2001


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