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Russian shaped wood - Expo Paris 1867

Russian shaped wood at the Exhibition Expo Paris 1867

About two hundred million hectares in forests, such is the share of woodland in European Russia alone, for we are forced to leave out Asian Russia; the extent of forests there is considerable, as we know, but we have no precise information on their content. Let us add that the total we have just enumerated must be accepted only with a certain reserve; for many estimates have only been made at first sight.

The most wooded part of all Russia, and at the same time the one containing the most beautiful forests, consists of the northern and north-eastern governments. Just as we say in France the great and almost uninterrupted massifs of the Ardennes, the Vosges and the Jura, so in Russia the greater part of the governments of Arkangel, Vologda, Olonetz, Kostroma, Vintka and Orenburg is covered with impenetrable forests, all of which are unexploited. Just as in Austria, these are true virgin forests, and we shall shortly see these enormous stretches of woodland towards Poland contain the last remnants of animals that were once famous even in our France, the aurochs, for example, whose last survivors, numbered, belong to the Czar and roam the immense forests of the government of Grodno, where every year they are hunted historically in order to have the luxury of destroying some of them. This is where the aurochs from the acclimatisation garden came from, which the czar had given to the emperor. In this country, almost a third of the surface area is covered by woodland, and the Vicalowisca massif, the retreat of the aurochs, is no less than a million hectares in extent.

Our largest French forest is 22,000 hectares, and we find that enormous: it is at most good, in comparison, for raising rabbits! One million hectares represents, on average, two French departments.

It is far from certain that the whole of Russia in Europe is so magnificently endowed with woods, for with its enormous extent, it would be in much higher figures that it would count their surface. The governments of the centre are being rapidly deforested as they become more populated and civilised; many of them already lack firewood. Thus, on the one hand, there is a shortage of wood, and farmers are forced to replace it with kisiak, or stable manure made into bricks, and on the other hand, there is an abundance of wood that is no longer valuable or available for sale. These facts are obviously only due to the lack of communication which all these populations, still so backward, are suffering from. If the railways and the byways were built, if there were some form of intensive cultivation, the manure, instead of being burnt in the midst of foul smoke, would return to the soil and double its fertility, while the first-rate timber would go abroad and the second-rate timber, consumed in neighbouring countries, would bring ease and well-being to these governments which are now neglected.

One last consideration must be made when speaking of the immense forest wealth of Russia, and that is that in evaluating these areas, account must be taken of the climatic conditions which render and will always render a large part of these spaces unproductive. Indeed, the whole northern part of the continent is subject to a temperature that prevents any cultivation: what is called forest consists of scrubland that is absolutely unworkable and covers marshy ground incapable of producing valuable trees. In the government of Astrakhan, 94 out of 600 parts are uncultivated and for the most part incapable of any cultivation; they are immense deserts interrupted by the scrubland we spoke of earlier. The genius of man will never do anything there, the soil is lacking and, even more so, the heat. After this comes the government of Arkangel, two thirds of whose surface is, for the same reasons, absolutely unproductive. Let us add Somara, at least half of which is uncultivated. How many others in this zone and below, as far as St. Petersburg, have their uncultivated land varying between one twentieth and one fortieth of the soil!

Without wood, a Russian could not live. For him wood is the universal material, it is everything. His roof, his house, his bed, his furniture, from the smallest to the largest, his shoes, his cloth, what do I know? The forest is an inexhaustible and benevolent mine from which he draws without counting the cost. Equipped with his belt axe, which never leaves him and replaces the modest knife of our peasant, he cuts, trims and slices with a skill and a sure hand that always amazes us. The exhibition of the Dois travaillés is also truly interesting, if only in the extreme diversity of the objects displayed.

Each major territorial division has given rise to a particular pyramid: it is a very ingenious idea to group the objects exhibited by the same region. In the foreground, on the right, we find the Finnish pyramid with its almost raw forest materials: birch bark for leather tanning, willow bark for the same purpose, bark tan from the birch tree (Sumac, in Russian Soumak); spruce and pine seeds harvested by the forestry institute in Evoi. Yellow resins for breweries. The association of these words resin and beer seemed difficult to explain, and my mind was wandering far afield on the subject, when I ended up - where I should have started - by asking one of the commissioners for some explanation, and I learned that in Finland, as in Germany, the barrels in which beer is kept are coated with resin on the inside. What is the purpose of this operation? It cannot be to close the cracks in the wood: a good barrel has no cracks. At most, it would be to close the pores, which is quite possible, in order to avoid external evaporation. But would it not be rather so that the anti-putrid action of the resinous and tarry substances acts on the too easily putrid fermentation of the starchy substances? In any case, we learned at the same time how the operation is done, and we report it here in the hope that it will be useful to some people: one removes the bottom of the barrel, pours in pure yellow melted resin, which is then set on fire: the bottom is replaced and rolled. The inside of the wood is thus lightly charred, smoked and coated with a kind of tarry turpentine that the heat incorporates into the wood.

Attention amateurs!

Next to the famous beer resin, here is a composition to prevent steam boilers from becoming embedded. Here, we did not need anyone to recognise a vegetable tanning composition, intended to act on the calcareous salts of water by the tannin that this preparation contains. Is it really effective? Only experience can tell.

We will only say a few words about the samples of forest soil that were brought there. It would be desirable that the collections of our forestry school be enriched with these products, which are not worth taking home and which, when compared with other similar products and studied from a number of points of view, could lead to valuable discoveries. There is a wealth of interesting connections here.

Let's move on to the next pyramid - still on the right - it contains the products of Poland itself. At the top of the pyramid is the Lipowka, a barrel made of lime wood for storing honey. Here, all household and farm objects are made of wood. Here is a plough mouldboard made of hornbeam, cut with a knife, a hunting horn made of wood, reminiscent in shape of the ox horns with holes in them, which the great German feudatories blew in the Middle Ages. Here is the oak mug for tipping beer. It is a small wooden cask with sleeves encircled by small circles of polished steel: it is provided with a handle and a lid; it is, in its manner, as complete as that whose handle and lid of chased silver shine in the breweries, in the evening.

The needs of all peoples are the same: a bucket is needed for the supply of water, a spoon is needed for the housewife to draw from it, in turn, for the uses of the house. Here is the Polish water spoon: we have the same in Brittany; only the peasants here have found a way of making their massive spoon an intermittent fountain. They have pierced the tail along its entire length: the spoon is filled with water, it is placed on the edge of the bucket, across it, the water flows and forms a small jet under which the peasant washes his hands before his meal. And this is how he made a fountain out of a spoon. The Polish women's clotheshorse is square and the handle is slightly bent. There is also the small ash barrel, ringed with thirty small pressed circles, in which the brandy supplies are kept. This small barrel ends, at one of its bottoms, in a neck like a bottle, and this neck is closed with a screw. This is a precious liquor; it must be poured sparingly and not evaporate.

Let us not forget the long pipe which looks exactly like a large cane with a corbin beak; the pipe is made of cherry wood, probably Mahaleb, whose aromatic and strong smell pleases the many smokers. Let's get to the elm or poplar clogs. These are the brothers of our Norman and Breton boxes, only the material is different: in our case birch and aspen are used. Next to it we see a special kind of shoe, but very crude; it is a kind of spardille made of strips of lime bark woven three times over. It is enough to protect a man's feet from the stones of the road, but, in truth, such a shoe is unworthy of a civilised people. As the barbarians from Asia invented it twenty centuries ago, so we see it today.

Let us pause in this nomenclature, the greater part of which we omit, to say a few words about a collection in the form of a volume, of sixty species of indigenous Polish wood. So far, nothing new: the bark forms the back, the flat of the volume shows the fibre lengthwise and slantwise, the slice crosswise; but the volume opens, it is hollow, and in its interior we find the leaf, the flower, the fruit of the tree, a twig, a young twig, the moss that covers its stem, the parasitic animals and insects, its ash, its charcoal, a chip of its wood, an oblique section of a branch, in short, everything that can serve to study the tree, and, in the middle of the back, a learned Latin description. Is this complete enough?

Let us continue our journey. The next great pyramid is that of Russia itself; it is formed and assembled by the Forestry Institute of St. Petersburg. From gigantic hemp to corks, it includes an enormous quantity of disparate but mostly curious things. In a country as rich in wood as Russia, there must be many mines for processing, and they will become more so every day. The acetic acid and tar factories, as products at least, have sent in their products, which are not remarkable, but prove that they are not the only ones.
nothing remarkable, but at least prove that these materials are manufactured in the various forest governments.

The Imperial Botanical Garden of St. Petersburg has sent a collection of 160 specimens of trees and plants of various species: then the forestry administrations of the Baltic, Arkangel, Vologda, Peron, Vilna, Kasan, Minsck, Volhynia, Astrakhan and Tauride governments have assembled a magnificent collection of wood in large natural blocks 0.5 metres high, with their bark on one side. There are species from the north, the centre and the south; there is not enough time to show the relationships and differences. Moreover, the location for such studies is not favourable. Let us renew our wish that the Russian forestry administration, whose relations with our forestry administration are so friendly, will not be afraid to leave to the Nancy school this collection, so curious for us, almost without value for it, since it will be enough for it to want to do so in order to make it as complete as possible in a short time.

Why should our forestry administration not reciprocate? France and Algeria can send samples to St. Petersburg which, for the Russians, will certainly compete in interest with those they may have left us.

Let us finish by reviewing some remarkable hemp, especially from the point of view of length, and various oils: hemp, sun, mustard, olive, some brown, others light and blond. Then the famous wooden vases with red and gold varnish; fantastic in form, fantastic in design, but original, but graceful and popular.... I won't tell you more! There was a queue to obtain permission to pay for these beautiful ornamental jars by the weight of gold! At last fashion has put its stamp on them!

Speaking of corks, we have little to report. Russian corks are what everybody's touchers are. Only they had the strange idea of making cork cigar holders. It's bad enough that they make caps and hats out of this material, which are not light at all because they have to be lined with something. But to make cigar holders out of it is a baroque idea, because the sensation of the cork on the lips will only tempt a small number of people in our country! Well, all tastes are in nature, as the old saying goes: I guess it's true.

As a backdrop, we have a small breakthrough on the Nizhny Novogorod exhibition where we will find wood - not wood bark, but lime bark, lime - used for everything: nets, horse harnesses, mats, baskets, fans, what have you? everything from shoes to hats. It's not beautiful, it's true; it's not supple, oh no, not at all, but it must be economical and fresh.

©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée