Numlock Sunday: Priyanka Runwal on the guitar wood crisis

By Walt Hickey

Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition. Each week, I'll sit down with an author or a writer behind one of the stories covered in a previous weekday edition for a casual conversation about what they wrote.

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This week, I spoke to Priyanka Runwal who wrote “Climate Change Hits Rock and Roll as Prized Guitar Wood Shortage Looms” for Scientific American. Here's what I wrote about it:

In the lower Mississippi, the winter and spring floods lead the hardwood ash tree forests to produce thin-walled cells with big gaps between them. This specific ash wood — marinated for a little while, but not for too long, in the Mississippi River — is strong but low-density, and highly sought-after by musical instrument manufacturers. Fender has used it to make guitars since the ‘50s, but threats to the forests led the company to stop using the beloved swamp ash in Stratocasters and Telecasters and begin only using the wood in classics. The reason is that climate-fueled flooding lasts longer, which kills saplings and makes the trees that can be harvested very hard to get to. Further, an invasive tree-boring beetle has not yet made it to the lower Mississippi, but will soon. This is one reason lumber companies are rushing to bank as much swamp ash as they can now — they used to take just 30 percent of adult ash trees in a designated area, but in 2015 began logging anything they could find — to try to beat the beetles and bank wood while they still can.

I loved this story because there’s so much going on in it — guitars! rivers! climate change! supply chains! beetles! — but it’s so well told and so fascinating when you get the big picture understanding of what’s going down in the south Mississippi.

Priyanka can be found on Twitter.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Top photo by Valeria Benítez Fernández on Scopio

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You wrote about this special type of ash that is used to make instruments. I would love to hear about what attracted you to this story — this is just such a niche thing that ended up being so fascinating.

It started with a tweet that I saw. Essentially it was a photo of a guitar from the Entomological Society of America. I was like, "That's weird. Why is the Entomological Society of America tweeting about a guitar?"

Then it said something about invasive beetle species. I was like, "Okay, that makes sense." They talked about ash in general, the wood. Then they made that connection with the guitar.

I thought this is very interesting. The tweet had nothing to do with any mentions of climate change. None of that. I started digging into it a little bit more, started calling up suppliers, trying to understand what the trouble was. They were telling me that it has been difficult for them to get a hold of this ash. At the same time, I was lurking around on a few acoustic guitar forums to try and see if people were talking about these problems related with ash and difficulty finding guitars, or anything to that effect.

Then I learned that Fender had fairly recently announced that it was becoming really difficult to get swamp ash for their guitars. That's where these different pieces started to come together.

When I started speaking to more lumber companies further south, much closer to the lower Mississippi River, they started telling me about flooding that they'd witnessed for the last two and a half years. I asked them what they thought about it. There are levies that are in place and dams that were built a while ago to prevent flooding.

Essentially all of these different elements came together and made sense to me in the sense that this is a problem that the music industry is facing. There's climate change on one side, there's an invasive beetle on the other side. To me, it's largely a climate change story, and music would be an important way for me to make it relatable to a much larger audience.

For people who are never going to live in those parts of the Mississippi and don't really understand what it's like for climate change to unfold in those areas, music could be a very powerful way to realize what climate change really means.

I really love this angle, in particular, because as you’re reading the story, it unfolds that this isn't just a flooding story, this is now a supply chain story. Then it's a music story. You talk about the beetles angle, which is, I think, a fairly under-covered story that I don't know if we talk enough about societally, that our entire lumber is being devoured by ravenous bugs that can't be killed. Would you like to go into a little bit about that moving part of this?

The invasive beetle, that bit is not necessarily connected with climate change. That's more to do with people moving around, trade. It's native to certain parts of Asia, and trade is how the beetle made its way into the United States. It's been around since 2002, but 2014 onward it built up to where it just started killing the trees left, right, center.

These areas of the lower Mississippi that I've written about haven't seen the beetles come to their ash trees yet, but everybody understood that it's only a matter of time. In 2015, they decided that, "Look, this is going to happen one way or the other." It makes sense to start taking down any ash trees that are around. That's where this part fits into the shortage: you're seeing the shortage because of flooding, climate change, but then there's this other threat that may not have reached them yet, but it's a preemptive measure that people have to take. That plays into that story about the wood shortage as well.

There are so many moving parts in this story, but what it really comes down to is how are areas taking care of their natural resources, and how are they failing to do so? As you were reporting this story, was there a "you got it" moment, where the light bulb went on that this is a huge thing connecting guitars, bugs, climate change, the Mississippi River, and all that?

There were two "Aha!" moments for me.

One was when I was speaking with Mike Born. He was the former wood director at Fender, who talked to me at great length about wood. He'd been working with Fender for I don't know how many decades. I was speaking with him about the fact that the ash was a challenging wood to get, but it became that much more challenging to get the wood in the last few years after they decided to only reserve the wood for vintage models. Him talking me through that entire process, and how that had become more severe in the last few years, it was like, "Okay, there's a story here that we need to write about." I'd been reading all about flooding in that region. I was like, "Okay, this makes sense. We can tie these two together."

The second, I think, aha moment that I had was when I called up Richie Kotzen. He was the lead guitarist with Poison. There's another story to this. I was trying to get so many musicians to speak with me. I tried Keith Richards, I tried Bruce Springsteen. Anyway —

Wait, what!?


There was a reason Richie Kotzen decided to speak with me. He was like, "I got a call earlier this year. They told me they can't make my signature guitars with the same wood that they were making it with up until now."

The fact that here's a person who it doesn't necessarily affect personally — in the sense that they're not his own guitars in his own house that he uses that he would have to give up — but that it's the signature series that he has to now go and find a different kind of wood for. It's the kind of wood that was associated with his guitar. There is a connection there. The fact that he has to go find another kind of wood was a moment where I was like, "Okay. This person definitely will feature in my story."

Again, just even the fact that you mention that Fender has a research and development wing, it makes sense.

They do. They take their wood very seriously. Not just the wood, but the shape, and the architecture, and all of that. Their research wing does all kinds of stuff, wood primarily being one of them.

Your work is really fun. What kind of stories are most intriguing for you? I know I wrote up another story you wrote this year about an extremely durable type of lice, which was very, very scary. Thank you for that one.

I have a background in ecology and conservation. Stories about the environment, and strange things that animals do, or bizarre things that happen in nature, I do get drawn to those kinds of stories. But I think I'm increasingly pivoting toward telling environment stories, but more from a people point of view.

In the past, I think a lot of my stories haven't featured human elements, and emotions, and struggles that people go through. I'm increasingly trying to build that into my stories now. For the last month and a half, I've been working at STAT covering health from a people’s perspective. I don't know how else one would cover it, but what I mean by that is not necessarily very technical, science-y stuff, which I do write about as well, but what health inequities mean to people and what health disparities are doing to people, especially now. Those are the things that I think I'm focusing on. But, I see myself going back to writing environment stories, but featuring more human characters in those stories

Awesome. Thank you so much for chatting with me. I really appreciate it. I'm a big fan of your work. Where can people find you? Where can people find your work?

I tweet my stories quite a lot, so Twitter would be a great place to find me.

If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.

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