Big On Bamboo
story by Derek Ferrar
photos by Brian Suda
"It’s a miracle plant, really, when you think about it," tropical horticulture specialist Norman Bezona says, gazing up at a towering stand of bamboo in his "cloud forest" botanical retreat in the cool heights above Kona. "It’s the fastest-growing woody plant on earth; it’s beautiful; it has been put to thousands of uses by societies around the globe; and it’s a totally renewable resourceyou can clear cut it, and it grows right back."
If Bezona sounds like a believer, he isand he’s not alone. Long an advocate of the benefits of bamboo, he is among a growing community of farmers, woodworkers, inventors, artists and merchants who see great possibilities for the plant in the Islands. "Our hope is to see bamboo developed as part of a sustainable agricultural system here," says Bezona, whose sixty-acre arboretum includes test plantings of nearly a hundred species of bamboo, ranging from six-inch dwarf grasses to 120-foot giants. "There’s no forest tree we could grow in Hawaii that could provide as much as bamboo."
There’s no doubt that bamboo has long served humankind as what Honolulu musician and sculptor Steven Rosenthal terms "one of our oldest allies." Technically a type of grass, bamboo grows naturally throughout the tropical world, as well as in temperate regions of Asia. There are 1,500 known varieties, and many of these are capable of growing a foot or more in a single day. (The fastest growth rate recorded, however, was more like four feet in a day.) Amazingly versatile, bamboo has benefited societies from Asia to Africa to South America and beyond, providing everything from building material with the strength of steel to weapons (including the first rocket, a bamboo tube stuffed with gunpowder and lashed to an arrow) to food to fuel to writing implements to musical instruments and much, much more: One book on bamboo lists some 5,000 known uses.
But beyond its practical uses, bamboo, with its clacking stems and whispering leaves, also has a peaceful, mystical aura that has inspired human beings for millennia. The ancient teachings of the Chinese sage Lao Tzu (originally written down on bamboo strips) compare the plant to the ideal human character: strong and upright, but flexible enough to bend with the winds of change. In Japan, bamboo is closely associated with the serenity of Zen temples. And according to Taiwanese legend, the first bamboo was brought to earth by a man from heaven.In Hawaii, bambooor ohewas one of the "canoe plants" that the first Polynesian settlers brought with them from their home islands in the South Pacific. Early Hawaiians employed bamboo for everything from nose flutes to house frames, water carriers to kapa fabric stamps, knives to irrigation troughs. Then, during the plantation era, workers from Asia introduced new varieties, resulting in many of the wild bamboo groves that can be found in the Islands today.
Lately, there has been an expanding movement in the West to start making better use of this amazing resource. In the early 1990s, Bezona and other enthusiasts formed a Hawaii chapter of the American Bamboo Society, and in 1996 they hosted an international bamboo conference in Hilo. Since then, there has been a steady upswing in the plant’s popularity here.
Just as bamboo is a special plant, the people who are devoted to it seem to be a special breed. Case in point: Susan Ruskin and Peter Berg, whose Quindembo Bamboo nursery, located in dry grassland on the leeward side of the Kohala mountains, is the premier supplier of live bamboo in the state.
Formerly from Northern California, Peter was an anthropologist and Susan a record producer when they began collecting and growing bamboo, until their Berkeley home was surrounded by it. Then, in the mid-1980s, they made the move to the Big Island. "We were looking for something else to do," Susan explains, "and we naively thought bamboo was enough."
Bit by bit, they began importing new species to the Islandsno small feat, considering that each plant has to undergo a year-long quarantine to prevent the introduction of pests and diseases. "In the beginning," Peter says, "we thought we’d be selling them to farmers, but as it turned out, 90 percent of our business has been what we euphemistically call ‘neighbor abatement,’ so we’ve become primarily a landscape nursery."
Susan and Peter laughingly call their passion for bamboo "an addiction."
"Our real plan," Peter jokes, "is to make money off a twelve-step program for the people we get hooked." Thanks in large part to their work, Island bamboo addicts now have a lot more to choose from. "There’s more good stock in Hawaii now," Susan says. "Ten years ago, the choices were much more limited."
One of the challenges bamboo promoters in Hawaii face is the perception here that bamboo is an invasive plant that can quickly overwhelm yards and native forests. In this regard, it’s important to make a fundamental distinction between two basic types of bamboos: the runners and the clumpers. Running bamboo, which is native to the harsher conditions of a temperate climate, spreads underground and pops up like a weed. But clumping bamboo, which is native to the tropics, does not send out runners and remains solely in the area where it was planted. The people promoting bamboo for Hawaii emphasize that, although harmful varieties have been introduced in the past, they are now bringing in only clumping species of bamboo, which present little threatand many benefitsto the environment.
On the other side of the island, in a tin-roofed workshop amid the scrubby ferns and ohia trees of a lava forest in coastal Puna, inventor Gary Young is taking a very different approach to bambooexperimenting with new ways of replacing fiberglass with epoxy-laminated bamboo (or "fibergrass," as he calls it). Using a vacuum process, Young laminates thin sheets of bamboo veneer or woven matting over a foam core. The result is as beautiful as it is functional, with natural grains and weaves adorning high-performance surfboards, canoes, paddles, auto body panels and even a dining room table so light that you can lift it with your fingertips, yet so strong you can hop on top of it without damage.
Gary recalls sitting in a gasoline line during the energy crisis of the mid-1970s when he first got the inspiration to start working with natural materials: "I thought to myself, If what they’re telling us is true, then we need to start making things from renewable resources.’ Along the way, it became obvious that you just don’t get any more renewable than bamboo, and it also has the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any natural fiber I’ve ever worked with. I really believe bamboo can contribute to a solution for the planet."
Speaking of lamination: One form of bamboo that has been selling particularly well lately is laminated, or "engineered" bamboo lumber that makes gorgeous flooring, plywood and furniture. Factories in Asia shave bamboo into thin sheets and glue it together into dimensional lumber that can be used for virtually all the same purposes as regular wood. "Flooring stores are really selling a lot of it now," says Paul Rufo, whose small shop in Waimea, Basically Bamboo, carries laminated products as well as a variety of more traditional bamboo items. Rufo, who travels frequently to China on bamboo-buying trips, says he has also been selling quite a bit of hardened-mat wall paneling, a more natural-looking alternative to drywall. Selling the panels is particularly satisfying, he says, because weaving the matting "is generally a cottage industry in China, and primarily a female occupation."
On a sprawling rainforest property along the Volcano Highway outside of Hilo, a huge, domed tent framed with bamboo poles serves as a workshop for the nonprofit foundation Bamboo Village Hawaii, headed by sculptor-turned-progressive-builder Leimana Pelton. Assembled under the dome is a smaller bamboo cottage with a swooping fabric roof, a prototype of the kind of eco-friendly bamboo dwelling that Pelton plans to showcase at a Bamboo Village demonstration site in the volcanic region near Kalapana in lower Puna.
"What we’re doing," says Leimana, his blue eyes flashing, "is trying to create natural buildings that are sustainable all the way back to the crop. We’re trying to come up with practical and applicable solutionswhich we believe are particularly appropriate for lower Puna, since if lava comes these structures are easy to move."
And Leimana knows lava. Long a sculptor of natural materials, he is best known for hiking miles to active flows with molds, tools and protective gear to shape images in living rock. Around the time of the Big Island bamboo conference in 1996, he became fascinated with the work of one of the conference speakers, Colombian architect Simón Vélez, whose famous bamboo structures include a massive pavilion at Expo 2000 in Hanover, Germany, that was the largest bamboo building on earth.
"To me, this is all cutting-edge stuff," Leimana says, "and that’s where I belong. But the real reason I dropped my artwork to do it is that Hawaii needs it. Our long-term goal is to use local resources as much as possibleincluding people."
One obstacle to that goal has been the fact that, due to a lack of engineering test data, bamboo dwellings are not yet covered by building codes. That is likely to change soon, however: Engineers at a Maui company called Bamboo Technologies have been doing the required tests and expect preliminary approval in the next few months. And that, according to Bamboo Technologies’ Jeffree Trudeau, will make Hawaii "the first state in the union to approve bamboo construction."
In anticipation, the company has been prefabricating modular bamboo houses in Vietnam, which can be shipped anywhere and assembled in about three days. The company has already imported fifteen of the house packages, with models bearing names like"Thai Hale" and "Octahut," ranging in price from $7,000 to $30,000.
Where Leimana has turned his art into building, Kona sculptor Cal Hashimoto has parlayed an architecture background into a career in bamboo as fine art. Originally from central California, Cal remembers first becoming aware of bamboo as a boy, when he saw it growing in his grandmother’s yard. "Even as a kid," he says, "I was just so fascinated by this material that was so straight and hard. I could see right away that it had special properties."
After earning an architecture degree at Berkeley, he served in the Peace Corps in Africa, then traveled the world extensively, accumulating what he calls "an archive of different cultural images to create with." His sculptures reflect this, as he bends and joins the bamboo into organic, metaphysical shapes reminiscent of an African totem, or the calligraphy of a Zen poem.
"It’s the serenity and spirit of bamboo that attracted me in the first place," Cal says, "but then I started getting into the physical characteristics of the material itself. It’s not like working with anything else; there are a lot of techniques that you can only really learn by experience and intuition."
Over the last several years, the Kona area has experienced a boom in luxury housing, which has lead to an increase in commissions for artists like Cal, as well as a thriving market for bamboo and other tropical materials for interior design. "The timing has just been fantastic," says Kacey Parker, whose showroom in Kona’s Old Industrial Area, Bamboo Too, carries what he says is the largest selection of natural-fiber decorating materials in the state. "I started out eight years ago with a little cottage industry, working out of my home; now I have three employees and a forkliftit’s turned into a real job."
Kasey says one of his favorite things about working with bamboo "is that all the people who are involved with it are such interesting, open people to work with. They’re always happy to share information with each other, which isn’t true of the more closed traditional business environment."
For now, Kasey says, he imports nearly all his material from bamboo powerhouses like Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. "In the long term," he says, "I’d love to see more of a bamboo industry here, but it’s really still in its infancy."
How do other bamboo devotees feel about the prospects for a true "grass roots" revolution in the Islands? "Sooner or later," says Quindembo Nursery’s Peter Berg, "enough people will be doing it that some kind of critical mass will occur, because it’s really just such a good idea."