On endangered species

Ebony is a wood that is very strong, very hard, and very black. It grows most famously in Africa, very slowly. Count me among the many neurotics who have flinched when they heard the term, not for any of its qualities, but from being told ebony is an Endangered Species. (The Diospyrus genus, if you must know.)

Information becomes vague and unreliable, whenever politics draws near. Yet the assertion is plausible. This wood is expensive, and hard to come by, like elephant tusks. Adventurers are reported to risk their lives, smuggling ebony logs from the remaining forests of Madagascar. One African country after another gets cleaned out of it, according to the activists. It is possible the activists are right. (Sometimes.)

Madagascar’s ebony is one species. There is also Gaboon Ebony, Ceylon Ebony, Mun Ebony, Macassar Ebony, &c. As the names suggest, it is also found outside Africa, in species native to its various locations, throughout the tropical mapamonde. All grow slowly. There is Wenge, in exactly the places our ebony first came from in West Africa, though it is Something Else; there was Blackwood among the ancient Egyptians; there is “Peruvian Walnut.” These latter are from species unrelated to ebony, but look much the same, and will freak out your customs inspector just as nicely.

Price, alone, keeps consumption down, to small decorative uses. I have never built a log cabin of ebony, or anything like, and I speculate that no one else has, either. Verily, I haven’t built one even of pine, but don’t tell anyone. (People might doubt my patriotism.) In the cause of truth, I will admit that I have never attempted even to do a decorative ebony inlay, though I’m not opposed to others trying it. My woodworking skills would not suffice.

But I do own a small wooden Crucifix from Egypt, inlaid with nacre (mother-of-pearl). It is mounted on a kitchen cabinet, right in my face, when I am washing the dishes. How I came by it is a memorable story, so being an Idler, I will tell it right away.

A girl named Mariam was an accountant in an old, “colonial,” Cairo hotel, wherein I was camped. A Copt, who spoke Arabic but not a word of English, or rather three or four words only, she held the stopwatch while I transmitted my handwritten “copy” through the Windsor Hotel fax machine, to a newspaper back in the West. (This was once high tech.) She was calm, patiently precise and careful, as we dealt with the vagaries of Egypt’s telephone system. She was also very beautiful. It was when I attempted conversation I learnt that two of her English words were, “No speak.” My Arabic being worse than her English, we communicated by gestures and pointing.

Impressed by the small but magnificent Cross, always on her neck, I once pointed to that, and drew from her the most radiant smile; as if to say, “Yes, I am a Christian.” This made a psychic bond.

But a time came, after a month, when I was checking out of the hotel, and moving on to the next city. I was packed; a taxi was waiting to take me to an aeroplane. I stumbled down the stairs (which, in the Windsor Hotel, wrapped around a glorious cage elevator), to the office where Mariam worked. But she wasn’t there. I had wanted to say good-bye.

Down one last flight, to the tiny foyer on the ground floor, I imagined a patter of footsteps behind me. As I got to the taxi, and finished loading, Mariam herself stepped out of the shadows. She was clutching this inlaid Coptic Crucifix; slightly larger than the one she was wearing. As ever, she said nothing, but pressed this Cross into my hands. And then she ran away.

The wood, on which the nacre is inlaid, is a thin ply of black, like ebony.

Did you know? Ebony is an Endangered Species.