Few things are more restorative than strolling among balsam fir trees, needles underfoot, breathing in deeply their rich fragrance. Or standing in the cooling shade of the giant Angel Oak. Or marveling at mature redwoods that seem to reach into the heavens.
The Japanese call it shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, the practice of physical and mindful immersion in a living woodland habitat. The trend gained popularity in the 1980s. In this spirit, researchers studying indoor environments have consistently found that people are generally happier and healthier in spaces that prominently feature wood in the form of furniture, floors, paneling, walls, and beams. People in these studies also experienced less stress and lower blood pressure. In health care settings, the presence of wood was associated with improved recovery times and a decreased perception of pain. It is no wonder, then, that Japan in 1982 formally incorporated shinrin-yoku as part of its national health program.
Without question, wood possesses an innate, subliminal appeal for human beings. One study found that people overwhelmingly preferred wood surfaces for seating over stone, concrete, steel, and plastic. This was especially true in colder temperatures because the cellular structure of wood is porous. Tiny pockets of air within wood promote natural insulation; therefore, wood is — quite literally — warmer.
Bringing the woodsy outdoors indoors for therapeutic benefit is known as “biophilic design,” an emerging architectural trend gaining mainstream popularity worldwide. It’s only natural that people are drawn to the beauty and durability of wood in all its forms, from cutting boards and countertops to furniture and flooring.
What types of wood are the best? The entirely subjective question is strongly influenced by how wood is used and whether it is primarily decorative or functional. People find all different wood types attractive for various personal reasons from color, texture, and patina to scent and density.
In the South, rich, red-hued antique heart pine floors and cabinetry are widely coveted but increasingly more difficult to find (and accordingly expensive) because overharvesting has nearly decimated the slow-growing longleaf pine trees that are its source. Furthermore, the pines must be between 200 and 400 years old before they produce the volume of heartwood from the non-living center of the tree’s trunk. Only this center wood has the desired hardness and decay resistance of authentic, solid heart pine. Today, most heart pine is salvaged from old mills and historic structures or recovered from silted river bottoms where logs were transported long ago.
For cutting surfaces, most professional chefs prefer wood, claiming that it is gentler on knife blades and more sanitary than plastic or other manufactured boards. The best cutting surfaces are hard, closed-grain woods with pores so tiny they cannot be seen. This helps prevent bacteria-laden liquids from entering the surface. For this purpose, naturally nontoxic maple is considered the industry standard. In general, the safest, least toxic woods are gleaned from trees that bear edible leaves, fruits, and nuts, such as cherry, maple, or walnut.
Wood used in furniture making runs the gamut from handcrafted solid hardwood to cheap, mass-produced, engineered versions of wood. Solid hardwoods, such as oak, teak, maple, mahogany, hickory, beech, and walnut, are the densest and make the most durable, lasting furniture, the stuff of time-tested antiques. Softer woods from conifers (cone-bearing trees such as pine and spruce) are cheaper and less durable but widely used, though of lesser quality than hardwoods.
Just as it is esteemed for cutting boards, maple also makes an ideal wood for furniture. In addition to its hardness, one reason for maple’s popularity is its pleasing color, which can range from blonde to light brown with a mostly straight grain. Similar woods to maple include birch and poplar. Because it can be easily stained to resemble higher cost woods like cherry or mahogany, beech is a versatile, less expensive material that often is used in combination with more expensive woods, primarily in less visible places like chair and table legs, drawer bottoms, and cabinet backs.
Of course, the fresh, sweet smell of cedar evokes nostalgic memories of a grandparent’s linen trunk or a young girl’s hope chest. Its softness makes it impractical for indoor furniture, but it is well suited to the outdoors because of its weather — and insect — resistant nature. Cedar’s appealing red tones can be found in closets and trunks, outdoor furniture, fencing, and shingles.
Considering wood’s broad diversity and natural allure, gifts bestowed on a couple’s fifth wedding anniversary traditionally are made of wood. Wood symbolizes warmth, growth, and deep roots. It is timeless, touchable, and beautiful.
Whether walking down the aisle of a home goods store or climbing a highland trail, be mindful of wood’s many benefits and expressive forms. Bringing some of the outside inside is actually good for you.