For 21 years, Matt Finstrom has been growing bamboo in Tucson. Spellbound by the seemingly endless uses for the tall grass, Matt--also a gamelan (Indonesian-style orchestra) drummer--has grown more than 140 different species. His business, Bamboo Ranch, a self-contained bamboo forest that encapsulates his home, now touts the largest collection of bamboo species in the desert Southwest. Formally a biologist, Matt has recently dedicated his life to bamboo cultivation. Why? Because he believes it can save the world. For more information on the westside ranch, call 743-9879.

Can you explain how you first learned about bamboo?

Even as a young Yooper (native of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan), I was intrigued with bamboo. I didn't get my hands on any until I worked in Panama in 1977 as a biologist. One of the first things I was shown when I moved to El Real, in the still-remote province of Darien, was a stand of giant bamboo, about a two-mile hike from the village. I also saw the world-class collection of tropical giant bamboos at Summit Gardens in the former Canal Zone, imported by the late Floyd McClure, a USDA scientist who tried to enlighten the United States about bamboo during his amazing career.

You are also a drummer. How did drumming and the gamelan contribute to your love affair with bamboo?

I began percussion at age 10. ... Rhythm is life. Ask your heart. Music and botany crossed paths at gourds first--that's another story--then bamboo. I was first introduced to gamelan my junior year of college in Ann Arbor. For a melodically inclined drummer, seeing and hearing a gamelan can be something of a sacred experience. After leaving Ann Arbor, to my dismay, I found there weren't gamelans everywhere. In fact, there were hardly any in the U.S., so I started making my own. I eventually built my own set and started the Fine Stream Gamelan in 1988. I made the instruments out of metal with bamboo designs on the cases. ... In 1989, I built the first calung set in the U.S. Calung is a set of gamelan instruments made of bamboo, from Banyumas in Central Java. By then, I was no stranger to working with bamboo.

You say making bamboo instruments helped turn you on to its properties. What are some of bamboo's uses?

Bamboo was probably man's first cultivated plant. We weren't clever enough to know we were cultivating it. Our bamboo rafts took root on the riverbank. All we knew is that it was a damn useful plant and still is. We're still learning ways to use bamboo. It can replace any wood product and many metal products. It is stronger than steel by weight, makes a fabric almost four times more absorbent than cotton and uses less water to grow than any tree of equal size.

Explain how it can help save the environment, perhaps more than any other plant, and its suitableness in the desert Southwest.

There is a misconception that watering plants in the desert is a bad thing to do. We forget that overgrazing created our present surroundings, and that 200 years ago, there were grasses in the valleys and cottonwoods along the Santa Cruz. The abundant vegetation helped to maintain a water table much higher than today. In the plant world, grasses have always been man's best friends. Rice, corn, wheat, barley, sugarcane and bamboo all played vital roles in our history and economic development. Now more than ever, bamboo can make a difference.


Time is not on our side given the rate of global warming. Bulldozers are the new cows, and we're still overgrazing the little vegetation left. Growing plants is one way that individuals can lock up carbon dioxide, protect the soil and shade the land, with a cash crop to boot. Herbaceous plants die after a year and return carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as they decay. Trees can lock up more carbon than non-woody plants, but take much longer to grow. Bamboos are the fastest-growing plants and lock up carbon in the form of useful poles and edible shoots. Unlike trees, bamboo poles can be removed every year without killing the grove. Since the poles are useful and not usually left to decay, bamboo can lock up more carbon year after year, indefinitely. Bamboos have shallow root systems, so they don't require deep watering. The fallen leaves create mulch under the plant and form a vapor barrier that retards evaporation. Bamboos are thus very efficient with water, which makes them good in the desert. If planted along the interstate (highway) in strategic locations, they could mitigate the effects of dust storms and crosswinds. The list of potential uses is endless.

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