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Mandolin Miracles

By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
December 27, 2007 - 9:30 pm

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Bill Graham
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.

There is silence, then pick strikes strings and sound fills the room. Sound with chime, harmony and melody.

Notes drift high and low, not unlike the wind-blown snowflakes outside my windows today.

Mandolins and music played on them always seem a bit more miraculous this time of year, as the heart of winter begins.

Christmas is a few days past. I'm lucky to be home this week and watching snow swirl in the wind around the sugar maple outside my kitchen window.

It's the tree that produces the same type of wood used for the backs and sides of my two F5 mandolins.

Another maple is near the bird feeders, and two more are higher on the hill near the garden, where my dog and I take a daily walk.

So I watch them change through the seasons. I have since they were saplings.

One is almost big enough to make a two-piece back and sides. All are big enough for necks.

But hopefully they will avoid death and get even larger. Perhaps I'll even tap them for syrup someday.

First though, they must continue living through extremes.

This snow, cold as it is, seems benign for the maples compared to other weather during 2007.

An ice storm struck in January to start the year. Our trees lost some limbs but survived, unlike a few hundred miles south where they ice storm toppled whole trees or stripped trunks bare of limbs.

A warm March caused leaves to come forth green and full about three weeks early.

Then a hard freeze in early April killed the foliage. Trees had to tap energy reserves and secondary buds and re-grow leaves.

Heavy rains and floods struck in June. The ground was soggy and the maples struggled in overly wet soils where oxygen was choked off from roots.

Drought in August made the same soil powder dry next to the shallow roots that feed the foliage. Trees that can release tons of water in respiration on a hot day slowed down the cellular processes in leaves to survive.

You see, the maple wood in my mandolins was once part of a living thing. Different from me, but a living thing that must eat and drink none-the-less.

Deep roots of my maples curl around buried limestone ledges; the hard-packed remains of what were once sea creatures floating in a great inland ocean millions of years ago.

Shallow roots pull minerals billions of years old from soil that the winds piled up as the last glaciers retreated from our area about 12,000 years ago.

The trees mix those ingredients, and then they use light energy that took 8.5 seconds to travel 150 million from the sun to trigger complex chemical reactions in leaves, which eventually leads to layers of cellulose tissue capable of someday becoming part of a mandolin.

If the tree survives nature's elements.

Aphids, tiny sap-sucking insects, appeared in far larger numbers than usual this summer and damaged foliage.

The maples still managed to turn achingly beautiful shades of crimson and gold in late autumn.

Then a few weeks ago, another ice storm hit. Tree limbs and tops were bent low from the weight of a quarter-inch of ice caked on during a freezing rain.

The pattern changed just in time to keep the trees from snapping or uprooting on the slope from the weight of ice. Unlike 20 miles to the north, where many trees were destroyed.

So this snow outside today doesn't seem so bad.

Of course, I don't have to stand outside through all the bitter temperature and moisture changes.

But somehow this cycle lets trees grow and produce wood that has qualities that make it musical.

First though, humans had to figure out how to cut them down and create lumber from them. Then someone figured out that stringing some dried gut over thin wood and causing it to vibrate created a pleasant sound.

Over thousands of years of human endeavor and passed down wisdom, musical instruments evolved. Mandolins were born in the string family.

They've been refined into most pleasant musical instruments by our immediate ancestors, and they're still evolving.

But tree-to-mandolin changes would not have occurred if mankind had not embraced expressing the human spirit's love, joy, anger and pain through music.

Sometimes, too, we scrape a pick across the strings and celebrate the spirit of higher powers. Our faith forms may differ but spiritual light in darkness is the common bond.

Enough maple trees survive the winter ice to become mandolins. As do red spruce trees and sitka spruce trees for the tops.

My human spirit survives life's trials better because playing the mandolin releases the bad feelings and builds the good.

Playing music with friends lets me express lonesome but end lonely.

Somehow it seems more starkly clear when the black tree trunks contrast against the white snow, and the day is darkened by the storm even at mid-afternoon.

Mandolins are miracles. Playing them is, too.

© Mandolin Cafe

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