The Adventures of Tom: September 2014

Sitting in a peaceful bamboo grove almost makes me want to go a bit Buddhist.

By | Fri 29 Aug 2014


It’s a bit tricky pretending to be a writer at the moment, because those who are in charge of this gorgeous country are being very strict about what is, and what isn’t, allowed into print. But as luck would have it, while I was looking around for something relatively politically, religiously, majestically and socially innocuous to wax lyrical about my eyes settled on the erection opposite my apartment.

Encasing the steel, the concrete and all the other crap that is pumped into raising yet another soulless condominium is bamboo – five stories of bamboo scaffolding. And it is bamboo that I shall be ‘junta safe’ talking about. I know we live in a world where the internet tells you: ‘This site will blow your mind’, or ‘this page will change the way you live’, or ‘this pill will give you a larger penis’ (I’ve always found some gentle masturbation does that, but I’m a bit old fashioned about that sort of thing), this piece on bamboo will truly make your jaw drop.

Bamboo is incredible. The stuff that is supporting a bunch of builders opposite me has been celebrated in Asia forever, because it can pretty much do anything (including giving you a bigger penis, if you use it imaginatively) and is pretty much responsible for Asian civilisation. It builds homes, boats, bridges, rope, medicines, teeth, fibre, clothes, it makes irrigation possible, it pens animals, it feeds animals, and it feeds us.

It’s a grass. And being a grass means in evolutionary terms it’s pretty new to the planet, like us, and like us it can live pretty much anywhere and is therefore probably one of the most important resources we have.

Literally nothing grows faster than bamboo. Its growth spurt has been recorded at a quite incredible two inches per hour (I would continue with the erection analogies here, but won’t). It grows ridiculously quicker than any tree and, when harvested, doesn’t shrink or expand like wood, making it the perfect building material. And because it’s a grass you can chop its top bit off and it will just keep coming back for more.

And here’s another thing. Everyone bangs on about how Pandas sit around not having sex because they have to concentrate on stuffing their adorable faces with as much bamboo as possible because bamboo is lacking in nutrients. That’s utter rubbish. Bamboo leaves are at least 15 per cent protein, which makes it very nutritious in plant terms. Pandas just don’t like having sex is all. And bamboo is good for us too. Its shoots have hardly any calories or fats but are high in fibre and potassium, which I’m pretty positive is a good thing, according to doctors.

Bamboo is strong. Amazingly so. Its tensile strength is greater than steel. Its compressive strength is pretty much the same as concrete and its weight-to-strength ratio is greater than graphite. It also lasts. There are bamboo artefacts dating back more than 7,500 years, so a bit longer than the condo being built opposite is likely to last. When strong hurricanes, earthquakes and floods hit, wood and concrete structures can be devastated, whereas bamboo houses tend to get away pretty much unscathed.

Bamboo also has to be celebrated in this ecologically defunct time because it absorbs far more carbon dioxide than trees and other plants and emits a massive 30 per cent more oxygen. It sheds a huge amount of leaves which nourish and keep water in the soil. Its roots hold the soil together and are extremely adept at sucking out much of the toxic crap we insist on spilling into the environment (bamboo literally sucks poison from the earth and spits it out as something akin to flowery scented rainbows). This amazing plant also reaches full maturity between three and five years (trees are extremely lazy in comparison with softwoods taking between 10 and 20 years and hardwoods between 30 and 40), meaning it is the only woody plant capable of keeping up with our stupid desire to consume and deforest. Once it has started growing, that’s it, it just keeps going. It needs no additional tending, no pesticides, no fertilisers and no chemicals – it is completely self-sufficient. And it burns brilliantly. Because by the time it is ready for burning it has already sucked more CO2 out of the atmosphere than it will ever produce when on fire, it is the answer to burning trees. In many countries around 90 per cent of all deforestation is to do with fuel for cooking and other productive activities. Bamboo is totally sustainable in this regard, so why not use it? Well, and here’s my conspiracy theory, whereas 80 per cent of the world’s wood is on public land, and therefore easily ripped down by anyone who fancies it, 63 per cent of all bamboo plantations are privately owned. Just a paranoid thought, but perhaps ‘them’ already know how valuable this beautiful plant is about to become?

Bamboo is also anti-bacterial and a brilliant deodorant. A stuff called ‘bamboo kun’, a naturally produced bio-agent, means that most bacteria won’t grow on the surface of the plant – even after it has been harvested and turned into a floorboard, a bicycle, or a pair of trousers. Bamboo charcoal is incredible at absorbing bacteria. It is used to clean water and is being increasingly used to replace deodorants in naturally eliminating those pesky bacteria’s that cause our bodies to smell. A pair of bamboo socks and a bamboo shirt are all one needs to say goodbye to what advertisers like to refer to as ‘embarrassing body odour’. Bamboo cloth is also extremely good at absorbing moisture, is anti-fungal and mildew resistant. Yep, a bamboo shirt really can make smelly, sweaty belly-buttons a thing of the past.

And get this: bamboo fabric can be a soft as cashmere and have the lustre of fine silk. Clothes made from the stuff are porous and breathable, anti-static, UV-resistant, easy to dye, cool in hot weather, insulating in cold, do not shrink when washed and disappear completely and cleanly when dumped in a landfill, and that’s not too shabby.

Unfortunately, bamboo has its downside. It’s responsible for chop sticks, possibly the most ridiculous invention ever. It is also used in some very inventive torture methods, but like chop sticks, let us not dwell on this.

And it’s very pretty. Sitting in a peaceful bamboo grove almost makes me want to go a bit Buddhist. Although bamboo rarely flowers, some species does once in every 120 years or so, but when it does, every single bamboo plant flowers at exactly the same time, wherever it is on the planet!

We have been aware for a long time already how precious this grass is for all sorts of unlikely purposes. The first phonographic needle made by Alexander Graham Bell was bamboo and the first light bulb filament successfully produced by Thomas Edison was, well, you’ve guessed it (and there is still a working one in the Smithsonian!). And bamboo seems to be able to survive even the most obnoxious things we throw at it. Bamboo shoots were the first of any plant to reappear after Hiroshima was vaporised.

So while the Land of Smiles tries to figure out just what the heck is going to happen next, we can all rest assured that whatever does happen, whether it’s military rule or a democratically elected government, the nation, and indeed the world, will always be propped-up, housed, fed and clothed by bamboo.

Next month: Coconuts? What the hell are they all about?