Wood as wine: Suar

Wood as wine: Suar

Somewhere in the forests of Northern Thailand, a branch is growing a little every day, stretching outward and upward with a strength that no one stops to appreciate. Today, the branch is not even considered as important as the insects that live in it. But one day this fast-growing piece of wood will be transformed into something of beauty, a valued part of the home for people living on the other side of the world. If you're a sucker for greatness from humble origins, consider the suar. 

A rapid rise from the forest floor translates into a feeling of movement and energy in a piece of suar. The lines of the grain typically sweep in long, fluid gestures that echo the freedom of flowing water. Other regions present scenes of organic turbulence — ripples upon ripples, like gathering stratus clouds. You might catch a glimpse of a waterfall or fast-moving river. In its natural guise, suar wears a warm palette of earthy-sweet colours. Waves of wheat and butterscotch slide past coffee bean boulders and chocolate whirlpools. Sometimes you think of the dusk: A large piece with a prominent knot can resemble the sepia-toned setting of a caramel sun. Or you might see a desert scene of overlapping sand dunes.

In keeping with its sense of spontaneity and eternally uncoiling energy, no piece of suar is without blemish. Knicks, knots and notches lend each piece its own particular character.

Mature suar trees are a sight to behold, often more than 30 metres tall and famous for their massive, umbrella-shaped canopies. The twisting branches sprout eye-shaped leaves, and pink flowers that resemble sea anemones thanks to their delicate tendrils. Spanning 30 metres or more, these canopies lend the tree a majestic air. They create a huge circle of shade, too, making the tree a popular one to plant along boulevards in parts of the world where escaping from the midday heat is of crucial importance. At night, the leaves fold up and allow the rain to pass through, a habit that leaves the grass underneath the tree a more vibrant green. This habit also gave the species yet another name: the rain tree. Also known as the saman or monkeypod (or by its official species names, albizia saman or the older term samanea saman), the tree's range spans regions of South America, Asia and Hawaii.

The suar trees that Artemano harvests — on Java, Indonesia, and in Northern Thailand near the border with Laos — have less distinguished beginnings. They're typically too young to sport the famous gigantic canopies, and they aren't primarily grown and harvested for furniture. The lumber is a byproduct of the commercial raising of special insects for the sake of their secretions. Lac insects use suar trees (among a few other species) as hosts, leaving behind a sticky resin. This will be transformed into shellac, a natural substance with myriad applications from cosmetics to food to furnishings (and vinyl records, once upon a time). We couldn't have silk without the silkworm, nor fine wine without yeast or tasty cheese without bacteria. In a similar fashion, lac insects unknowingly leave behind suar lumber, a luxury product for humans to enjoy.

The trees don't even need to be cut down, only their largest limbs harvested. The wood that is past its most productive years is turned into lumber rather than going to waste. The trunk is left behind and still alive, and will generate new limbs over time. And it doesn't require too much time, for that matter: Suar is fast-growing — aggressive, even. After about six years, a specimen is mature enough to sport branches wide enough to be harvested and used for furniture.

The speed of the growth results in criss-crossed patterns in the grain that trap moisture inside. Wood that is destined to spend its future in the temperate zones of the world must be carefully seasoned to prevent it from drying out when exposed to artificial heat.

Afterwards the wood is ready to be fashioned into a piece of breathtaking beauty. Suar brims with vigour and charisma, like a scene-stealing young actor or a flavourful bottle of California Cabernet Sauvignon or Aussie Shiraz. And as with those wines, the end product often glows brightest when the maker steps partway to the side and simply allows the essence of the raw materials to shine. A freeform edge can work especially well with suar thanks to its graceful curves.

Suar exudes a certain star quality thanks to its majesty and youthful energy. It gives off a glow that pulls our attention toward it. A piece in suar often becomes the focal point of a room, or even holds court over an entire home or workplace. You simply cannot look away. Not bad for a piece of wood that started out in the darkness of the forest in a shellac-producing region.

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