Sunday, February 8, 2009

Teak, in Life, in Literature...

For my online nickname, I chose Teak as I am a fan of both the wood and the shortness of the name. I now own a teak bench seat, two teak chairs, and best of all, a 3-legged stool made of teak.

(Photo: My teak stool)

Teak is a wonderful wood both in physical character (texture, color, resistance to rot) and also its history. One good overview is available at Wikipedia.

Teak (Tectona grandis) is a very dense wood, that is high in silica (sand) and natural oils. Showing little shrinkage, teak has great resistant character against wind, rain, salt water corrosion, wood rot, insects, worms, and even being non-reactant to most metals. Thus has teak been used for hundreds of years in the construction of sailing ships, and more recently, as the preferred wood for outdoor furniture, flooring and decks for high-end yachts.

A nice literary description of the teak logging industry in Burma is found in Amitav Ghosh’s wonderful historical novel The Glass Palace (2000). Covering three generations of Burmese royalty and immigrants to Burma, it begins in the year 1886, when Britain deposed the King and Queen of Burma and captured the royal city of Mandalay.

Ghosh describes the method for cutting teak as:

The trees, once picked, had to be killed and left to dry, for the density of teak is such that it will not remain afloat while its heartwood is moist. The killing was achieved with a girdle of incisions, thin slits, carved deep into the wood at a height of four feet and six inches off the ground (teak being ruled, despite the wildness of its terrain, by imperial stricture in every tiny detail).

Leaving the trees to die in-place, the cutters would return after two or more years, when the trees were adjudged to be dry enough to float. Elephants were used to haul the downed logs to small tributary streams called chaungs, where the logs were stacked to await the monsoonal rains. Again, Ghosh with the description:

Then teams of elephants would go to work, guided by their handlers, their oo-sis and pe-sis, butting, prodding, levering with their trunks. Belts of wooden rollers would be laid on the ground, and quick-fingered pa-kyeiks, specialized in the tying of chains, would dart between the elephant’s legs, fastening steel harnesses. When finally the logs began to move such was the friction of their passage that water-carriers would have to run beside them, dousing the smoking rollers with tilted buckets.

When the monsoonal rains finally came, the chaungs would swell into raging torrents and the logs would be pushed into the streams and be floated downstream to the larger rivers draining Burma, such as the Irrawaddy. Again, teams of elephants (called aunging herds) were used to clear the numerous log-jams on the chaungs, as one log lodged up against huge boulders was capable of trapping other logs until a massive jam built up. Again, Ghosh, with the rich descrition:

Often the logs came not singly but in groups, dozens of tons of hardwood caroming down the stream together: when they hit each other the impact would be felt all the way up the banks. At times a log would snag, in rapids or on the shore, and within minutes a tangled dam would rise out of the water, plugging the stream. One after another logs would go cannoning into one another, adding to the weight of the accumulated hardwood. The weight of the mass would mount until it became an irresistible force. Then at last something would give; a log, nine feet in girth, would snap like a matchstick. With a great detonation the dam would capsize and a tidal wave of wood and water would wash down the slopes of the mountain.

Upon reaching the larger rivers, the teak logs would be captured by riverside dwellers who worked as retrievers for the timber companies. Swimming out into the river, they would grab onto the floating logs and one-by-one would herd them to shore, riding on them like river cowboys.

Once brought to shore, the logs would be tethered until a sufficient number was available to build a massive log-raft. Rafts were built from exactly 360 teak logs (30 dozen), a number dictated by the companies. At the centre of each raft was small hut which served as housing for the crew. Livestock also accompanied the crew –a few chickens, pigs, or even a goat- for sufficient meal stock on the trip downriver. Again, Ghosh with the description:

Despite their immense size, the rafts were fragile in construction: running afoul of a shoal or sandbank, they could disintegrate in a matter of minutes. Solid in appearance, their surfaces were as deceptive as quicksand. Thousands of gaps constantly opened and closed between the logs, each a small but deadly ankle trap.

Eventually, after a journey of five or more weeks, the rafts would arrive in Rangoon, where the teak logs were piled in various timber yards to await buyers.