The Tree in Belize

From Greensleeves to Help – the story of The Tree

Back in the 1500s Henry VIII (1491-1547) became the King Of England to begin a bloody reign of religious turmoil and savage executions while, elsewhere in the world things were hardly any more peaceful. A glance through history shows a never-ending stream of conflicts and raging upheaval. As a rather more creative alternative though, Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo were producing art that would have the power to move people to tears centuries later. At about that time, though complete accuracy is obviously impossible, a tiny seed fell to the ground in the Chiquibil jungle in The Greater Mayan Mountains in what is now Belize in Central America. That seed was strong and managed to take root in complete tranquillity and quietly began the battle for its own journey of life. It too would find a fame all of its own.

It grew and would soon become recognisable as a young Mahogany sapling as, nourished by the forest, it reached forever upward toward the sunlight. The events that it witnessed first hand were comparatively few though elsewhere there was plenty going on as the planet and its inhabitants continued their evolution in familiar violent fashion. All it heard was the noises of the forest and all it felt must have been the insects that scrambled over it to feed and make a home.

The years and centuries passed.

There is of course no record of its existence although the local tribes must have been aware of it over time because by the early part of the last century it had grown considerably. Now around 500 years old it stood over 100 feet tall. Common accounts claim it was around 10 feet at its base but, looking at the original picture of the loggers linking arms it seems to me that it was a lot bigger. As ever with The Tree, there is a single story but certain mix of opinions. But, this was a big tree by any standards though little else singled it out as being anything particularly special. Still, its sheer mass proved to be literally its downfall when, at around the time The Beatles released their album Help, a small group of loggers stumbled upon it in 1965. These men decided to chop the tree down purely for commercial reasons and armed only with small and quite rudimentary axes and tools, they began the crazy task of ending its forest life once and for all with the intention of bringing its timber yield to market, probably for furniture. Presumably the price they would get from the timber merchants made this formidable endeavour seem worthwhile.

The original loggers standing by The Tree in 1965
The original loggers standing by The Tree in 1965.

I can’t imagine the efforts required to fell such a monstrous tree, especially in the sweltering jungle with all the associated obstacles. The humidity, insects the size of your hand, jungle wildlife, personal food supplies. I think it’s fair to say that these guys were a different breed and as they went about their work, which apparently took weeks, they had devised through experience which way The Tree should fall to make it easy, or at least easier, for them to actually bring the wood to the point where they could realise some financial rewards for their backbreaking efforts. As the story goes, many days passed until The Tree was finally ready to fall. As the final blows were delivered though, the unexpected happened and almost as if The Tree refused to comply, it fell in the wrong direction with a resounding crash and slid down a ravine before coming to rest in a final act of defiance at the bottom.

I can find no written estimate of how much it must have weighed but many tons is probably an understatement. So, after all of their efforts, it became clear very quickly that extracting it from the bottom of the ravine was totally out of the question even if they could bring some rudimentary mechanical help to bear from local industry, so they moved on. For a decade The Tree lay there, awaiting the next chapter in its life. Apart from its size and its reluctance to fall where the men had anticipated there still seemed nothing remarkable about this particular specimen but it was clear that getting it to a place where some profit could be made was going to require some inspiration or luck.

Later in the following decade and a gentleman named Alan Maunay, on a quest for some desirable timber somehow stumbles across The Tree and speaks of it to Mr Robert Novak who is an American dealing in the more desirable hardwoods like the Rosewoods of south America and in particular Brazil. The luck came in the fact that Robert was in the area at all. The pure synchronicity of this sequence of events was to be decisive and I believe that had Maunay, Novak and The Tree not collided at that time then the whole myth of this particular timber might never have happened and it might even still be laying at the bottom of that ravine where it would have presumably slowly but inexorably returned to the forest floor as it decayed and got covered with growth.

Fortunately for The Tree itself, no such ignominy awaited because as soon as Novak saw it, he realised that this was a significant specimen. It was quite a find and I can only imagine how his eyes must have lit up as he initially examined the unusually ornate figuring and growth patterns that this Mahogany giant had nurtured and concealed for around 500 years. But within the myth lies the potential for profit and as we know, that sense of exclusivity and rarity and even uniqueness will always add to the desirability of just about anything.

Novak purchased the entire tree but its location and the very wet adverse conditions were going to make the next steps more than tricky. His experience told him that the best way would be to quarter The Tree in situ and then cut those quarters to length. Getting the pieces out of the ravine was accomplished by employing a large tractor and some brute force and even then the sections needed to be transported through the heart of what was essentially a dense, sweltering jungle to the Chiquibil River that lay a mere 100 miles away. Easy to write but virtually impossible to achieve without some serious dedication and hardship. But, even then, there was still some 70 miles to go before Novak could begin to truly assess what he had and that lay in the shape of a steam-powered sawmill. So, the last part of the journey found The Tree, now in huge log form, being floated and cajoled 70 miles down the Chiquibil. From tiny seed to sawmill in half a millennium, the tree was about to reveal its glories.

As it stood in the jungle The Tree comprised around 13,000 feet of timber but, rather like a diamond cutter maximising the yield of a rough stone, experience is needed to achieve the maximum product of quality, useable wood from the log. Robert supervised the process and was amazed to see in detail the astonishing figuring that emerged as the wood began to reveal itself. Several weeks later the milling was completed and yielded 12,000 board feet of timber which was then shipped to the United States where it underwent kiln drying for a full 30 days.

Novack must have had many contacts interested in such a unique material because the rumours of this timber began to get around as it was converted into exclusive furniture, etc. But, eventually it found its way into the hands of a new breed of Luthier who were founding what has become generally thought of as the custom acoustic guitar golden age. These men are superb craftsman and instrument builders who could supply individually made guitars to those who could afford them and also wanted something tailor-made and outside the usual mainstream Martin or Gibson models, excellent though these were. In fact mahogany was viewed as a far lesser material than rosewood at the time. Therefore it was cheaper to source and generally used on more stock guitars with less embellishments and features. But then nobody had seen mahogany with this much visual appeal. There had certainly been quilted mahogany before but this wood was different. When you look into the structure of a superbly finished guitar made from The Tree, the eye is drawn to the incredible glowing tortoiseshell figure. It has an almost three dimensional quality as if layers of golden scales have been carefully arranged on a translucent webbing to catch the light at different angles and open up all sorts of subtle colours and shadings. It’s often difficult to focus when looking at it as it has that optical illusion depth-of-field-factor that plays with the eye. Some of it I have seen photographs of is almost too intense and certainly looks other-worldly while other examples are softer with gentler figuring and intensity. In fact there are even names for the three main types of patterns one might find in wood from The Tree.

It wasn’t until later in the 80’s that luthiers like Richard Hoover of the Santa Cruz Guitar Company and others pioneered The Tree in their more exclusive guitars and being such a relatively small community at the time, it didn’t take long for the word to get around. This is when the name The Tree first appeared and presumably when its mythic status sprung up as its history unfolded. Of course all of this might have been interesting and somewhat decorative if it weren’t for the captivating tone of this remarkable wood. Guitar makers and players are as colourful as some audio reviewers in their vocabulary and the uniqueness of this particular tone-wood, to say nothing of the cost of the instruments it has spawned all bring their own weight to the descriptions of those vital questions. How does it sound and is it worth it?

Please check out my friend Michael Watts in the link below to have a listen for yourself. Michael has been lucky enough to own a guitar lovingly crafted by Jason Kostal, a true master of the art, from this amazing wood for over a decade and his fingers speak with an eloquence that my words can only hint at. I have played a Tree guitar, though very briefly. It was a custom cutaway model by a highly respected builder with the traditional back and sides from the same wood and a master-grade Spruce top. Sound-wise it was unlike any guitar I have ever played. It had that strong, woody fundamental that good mahogany should always have but with an incredible and slightly glassy sustain as if the notes were being formed on the surface of the wood and shimmering and dancing atop the astonishing figuring in a rippling gold afterglow. It was a fast instrument too with an instant response to any input. I don’t want to go too over the top but it didn’t have the warm and deep melting quality of the finest Brazilian rosewood but the tone was complex and colourful with glorious overtones and rich, singing harmonics that enveloped me as I played it. As the years passed that particular guitar might develop tonally in ways that I would love to have experienced, oh that it was mine. It was certainly an instrument with unlimited tonal potential and expression for the right player and I was left with the thought that there was a lot of music in it and certainly many songs too. But, let me confess that I was certainly seduced by the sheer beauty and story too and that may well have impacted my feeling about playing such a beautiful instrument. I hope so anyway because a little romance is always a good thing.

The Tree carries a great story with it and the guitars that feature it carry an unsurprisingly hefty price tag. Add to this that only the very best builders tend to use it and none of their guitars, from whatever woods, ever come cheap. But when you think of how easy it is to spend more than those numbers on cabling for a high-end audio system, perhaps there’s some perspective there. Beauty, as ever, is in the eye, ear and ultimately the pocket of the beholder and this is never more true than where high-end instruments are concerned.

In case you are wondering, The Tree seems to be unique. It was 500 years in the making and so far no other like it has been discovered. Best guess seems to be that it carries some kind of mutation which very possibly makes it a one-off. The fact is that nobody really knows. I think it absolutely adds to its appeal because it certainly adds to its price. In custom acoustic guitar circles it’s perhaps where myth meets reality.

Or perhaps it is just that we all love a good story.

I hope you enjoy Michael’s video and for further listening to this remarkable instrument and player please check out his album Vetiver.

Chris Thomas
About the author

Chris Thomas has been a reviewer of specialist audio for over 20 years. He is currently writes for Hi-Fi+ magazine.