The Mesmerizing Microscopy of Trees: Otherworldly Images Revealing the Cellular Structure of Wood Specimens
By Maria Popova
After a recent march in D.C., where I walked Walt Whitman’s love of democracy and his conviction that “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without,” I set out to temper the tumult of the human world with an immersion in Whitman’s other great love — the natural world. Visiting the National Museum of Natural History’s Objects of Wonder exhibition, a splendid embodiment of Whitman’s admiration of the character of trees stopped me up short: a display of slides revealing the cellular structure of trees and shrubs seen under a microscope — stunning images that occupy the lacuna between art and science, resembling ancient tapestries and Klimt paintings and galactic constellations.
The slides, photographed by The Smithsonian’s Stanley Yankowski, are drawn from the 4,637 specimens amassed by the prolific wood collector Archie F. Wilson (1903–1960) — the largest private collection of arboreal specimens from around the world, donated to the museum’s already formidable wood collection a year after Wilson’s death.
Wilson, who served as a research associate at the Chicago Museum of Natural History and went on to preside over the International Wood Collectors Society, cut his samples into meticulously sanded 7×3-inch blocks. Each slide presents a thin slice from one of the blocks, stained to reveal specific microscopic features of its structure.
Beyond their aesthetic rapture, these specimens have taken on a wonderfully hope-giving new role in advancing science and the law. Half a century after Wilson’s death, they have become part of a vast database documenting the chemical fingerprints of wood, known as the Forensic Spectra of Trees — or, because scientists do delight in acronymic puns, ForeST. Much like artist Ryota Kajita’s stunning photomicroscopy of Alaskan ice formation are being used to understand climate change, scientists are using Wilson’s samples for vital wood identification, not only in advancing botany, but in combatting the worldwide epidemic of illegal logging and timber trafficking, which has swelled to about a third of the world’s wood trade — ecologically exploitive contraband estimated to be costing the global economy up to $152 billion per year, with unfathomed environmental costs as entire ecosystems are being decimated. (Trees, lest we forget, are the relational infrastructure of the living world.)
In Brazil, nearly 20% of the Amazon rainforest has been savaged by illegal logging in the decades since Wilson’s death — the loss of woodland approximately equivalent to the size of California. In China, rosewood has become the blood diamond of the wood trade — a species protected under the multilateral endangered species treaty CITES, yet ruthlessly logged for the manufacture of expensive Ming and Qing dynasty furniture reproductions. A quarter of Russia’s timber exports come from illegal logging and a devastating 61% of Indonesian wood production is traded illegally.
Accompanying the ForeST database is an advanced spectrometry instrument that showers the wood sample with heated helium atoms to instantly reveal its chemical profile, enabling customs agents and the various custodians of environmental policy to perform simple, cheap, noninvasive wood analysis that identifies illegally traded species and helps prevent these losses of tree life that take generations to recover.
Complement with French photographer Cedric Pollet’s beautiful photographs of tree bark from around the world and amateur wood collector Romeyn Beck Hough’s remarkable cross-sections of trees from a century ago, then revisit Hermann Hesse’s lyrical love letter to trees and this beautiful illustrated celebration of the forest.
Published October 11, 2018