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Bamboo Universe

Early summer in London is heralded by the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. This year, the winner of the Best Fresh Garden was the Dark Matter Garden, an extraordinary design by Howard Miller. Dark matter is invisible and thought to constitute much of the universe, but can only be observed through the distortion of light rays, an effect represented in the garden by a lattice of bent steel rods and lines of bamboo, swaying in the wind.

It seems appropriate that bamboo should be associated with unseen forces. We still do not fully understand bamboo, in particular the phenomenon that A. B. Freeman-Mitford, writing in 1896, described as ‘the suicidal mystery of the flower of the Bamboos’: the synchronous blooming, fruiting and death of certain species of bamboo, across the world, in cycles of anything from 15 to 120 years. Freeman-Mitford, whose book The Bamboo Garden was responsible for popularising bamboo in Britain, writes that it would seem “fated that some mystery should enshroud everything connected with these plants. Their very name is as great a puzzle to etymologists as the different species are a riddle to botanists”.

To unpack the etymological puzzle, Freeman-Mitford appealed, as so many writers and readers would, to the encyclopaedic glossary of British India; Henry Yule and A. C. Burnell’s Hobson-Jobson (1886). According to Yule, the word ‘bamboo’ is “one of the commonest in Anglo-Indian daily use, and thoroughly naturalised in English”, but ‘of exceedingly obscure origin’. The word may have entered English via Portuguese, from Kannada, Malay, or Javanese. It may have an onomatopoeic source in the popping sound of burning bamboo.

Yule’s article on ‘Bamboo’ demonstrates many of the distinctive qualities of the glossary: learned, digressive and quirky. The discussion skips from the relation of the Kannada word to the Sanskrit, via the misnomer ‘bamboo cane’ as applied to walking sticks, to the streets of suburban London: “some 30-35 years ago there existed along the high road between Putney Station and West Hill a garden fence of bamboos of considerable extent.” The idiosyncratic personal tone even creeps into the illustrative quotations that accompany the article. To demonstrate the multifarious uses of bamboo, Yule cites his own in Narrative of the Mission to Ava (1855):

When I speak of bamboo huts, I mean to say that post and walls, wall-plates and rafters, floor and thatch and the withes that bind them, are all of bamboo. In fact it might almost be said that among the Indo-Chinese nations the staff of life is a Bamboo. Scaffolding and ladders, landing-jetties, fishing apparatus, irrigation-wheels and scoops, oars, masts and yards, spears and arrows, hats and helmets, bow, bow-string and quiver, oil cans, water-stoups and cooking-pots, pipe-sticks, conduits, clothes-boxes, pan boxes, dinner trays, pickles, preserves, and melodious musical instruments, torches, footballs, cordage, bellows, mats, paper, these are but a few of the articles that are made from the bamboo.

Yule’s endless list at once enacts the plant’s limitless versatility and sketches out the cultural, social and domestic framework of Southeast Asian life.

Yule’s sense of bamboo as the staff of life is strangely prescient. Stressing its phenomenal growth rate and multiple uses, modern advocates of bamboo see it as a sustainable replacement for timber. In its range, plenitude and continuing relevance, Yule’s article on bamboo reveals some of the pleasures of reading Hobson-Jobson. In the process of looking up a word, you always discover more than you expect.

Featured image: Bamboo bridge by suman. CC0 via Pixabay.

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