Following the Goods in the Wood, These Researchers Solve Timber Mysteries

This decades-old organization is the place to turn to for mysteries preserved in wood

04-01-1999 // Nancy Shepherdson

Scientists were puzzled: Large masses of wood scraps began appearing, seemingly out of nowhere, in the Pacific Ocean off South America. Schools of small fish, relishing the new-found shelter, huddled beneath the wood. And hungry tuna and dolphins followed closely behind, looking for an easy meal.

Fishermen followed the flotsam, too. In the process of catching the tuna, they were unintentionally netting dolphins. The scientists figured they could curtail this harmful practice if they could eliminate the wood, but no one knew where it was coming from. Perhaps, some speculated, it was from a rain forest being logged somewhere in South America. To find out for sure, the scientists sent samples to the Center for Wood Anatomy Research in Madison, Wisconsin.

"I could see immediately that it wasn´t all debris from logs, so that ruled out the rain-forest idea," says Regis Miller, a botanist who runs the center. After more research, Miller found Asian woods in the mix, something unusual for the west coast of South America. His conclusion: The wood was packing material tossed overboard from ocean freighters. What was done about it? Miller has no idea: He rarely learns the outcome of the center´s investigations. Just identifying the wood is satisfying enough for him.

The center, part of the U.S. Forest Service´s Forest Products Laboratory, is one of the few places in the world where mysteries involving wood can be solved authoritatively. Scientists at the center have investigated a forestful of wood-related questions since the research facility was created in 1914--everything from the origin of heirloom armoires to the identity of murderers.

In an average year, Miller and his assistant Alex Wiedenhoeft identify 2,500 wood samples from approximately 900 inquirers. Many of the samples come from museums interested in nailing down the origin of wooden artifacts in their collections. Other questions are business-related: Are these birdhouses from China actually made from the wood the exporters claim? And because the center is part of the U.S. government, ordinary taxpayers can use Miller´s services, too. "People will ask us, ´Did I get the expensive wood they told me I was buying?´ Most of the time, the answer is ´No,´" he says, sighing.

Perhaps the center´s most famous investigation related to the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. Arthur Koehler, head of the center in 1933, was able to prove conclusively that part of the ladder used in the kidnapping was built from wood in Bruno Hauptmann´s home. The growth rings on floor boards in his attic matched part of the ladder exactly and it was planed with a tool in his garage. Despite Hauptmann´s pleas of innocence, says Miller, "The house said he did it!"

For other cases, Miller and Wiedenhoeft consult their collection of more than 115,000 wood samples--the world´s largest research wood collection. Much of the wood is neatly stored in card-catalog-type drawers for easy consultation. But some of the wood in the center´s main room is more obvious to the naked eye: huge "notches" of wood (sections of trunk) scattered about the room. Hundreds more are in storage, all part of the Jesup Collection, an 1881 to 1884 effort by philanthropist Morris K. Jesup to collect every known species of American wood. He feared (rightly, as it turns out) that many of the trees collected would become rare. How many people today have ever heard of yucca baccatin, hog´s haw or farkleberry?

Most of the time, the center´s mysteries arrive by mail, a sliver at a time. Sometimes an examination with a hand lens is all that is necessary to make a positive identification. But usually, even when Miller thinks he has something ordinary like white pine, he will shave off a thin slice and examine it under a microscope. "I was looking at a piece of heavy white wood from a shipping pallet once and it kept coming back ebony. I couldn´t believe it. It turns out the white sapwood from ebony is often used that way because who wants white ebony?" says Miller.

The center´s services are in keen demand; Miller and Wiedenhoeft have a backlog of four to six weeks´ worth of work. So they ask people with questions about wood to start by querying local experts, such as those in university forestry or botany departments, or antique dealers. If these sources are unable to identify your wood sample, then Miller and Wiedenhoeft may be able to help.

Illinois writer Nancy Shepherdson still can´t tell farkleberry from hog´s haw.

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