The Bamboo Floor

For several years, Ralf and Rosie dreamed about replacing the carpet in their bedrooms with wood. The carpet was a white Berber which looked fantastic when they moved in but over the years, the passage of children and pets had made it lose its pristine look and become worn and stained. By the time that they had enough spare cash to make their dream a reality, their pets had died, their two daughters married and moved away, and they were retired empty nesters. One warm fall morning Rosie spilled coffee onto the master bedroom floor. The resultant stain gave them the final nudge, and they went floor shopping. Rosie wanted a light-colored finish to harmonize with the décor which she had assembled to go with the Berber. Ralf was anxious to be environmentally conscious. Their two desires led them to select a bamboo floor.

“The stuff grows like weeds!” said Ralf. “The row that our neighbor, David, planted on his side of our north fence a year ago, is already up to his eaves.” Rosie nodded in agreement, and Ralf continued, “David says that he planted a non-invasive variety, but it is sending up shoots in our yard. I’m convinced that you can see it growing. One day nothing and the next a long shoot pointing straight as an arrow toward the sky. When I missed cutting one off because it was concealed behind a bush, it grew to four feet tall in a week and was stiff as a spear shaft. You could almost have harvested it right there and turned it into flooring!”

The wood flooring salesman confirmed Ralf’s knowledge about Bamboo, “Our supplier,’ he said,” harvests bamboo by cutting off the stacks, or culms, at ground level; the truncated stump then regrows. In about five years this, the ultimate renewable resource, is ready to be harvested again.

Rosie looked at the bamboo flooring sample and traced her finger along the recognizable shapes of bamboo culms. “How do you prevent these stalks from coming alive and re-growing.”

The salesman laughed, “It’s dead!”

“You may laugh;” Rosie responded, “but did you know that in Honduras the branches put into the ground as fence posts grow? The Hondurans like it that way because termites only eat dead wood, it also ensures a good sturdy footing. So, you see, I was thinking that some ‘dead’ wood isn’t really dead.” Rosie studied the salesman’s look of rejection and became apologetic, “and, well you see, bamboo is so invasive and virile, I wondered if maybe ……?” Rosie’s voice trailed off in a question.

The salesman took a sample in his hands and fondly rubbed its smooth surface, “This bamboo will not regrow. As I said, it is dead. It is well treated; let me explain. The split culms are cut into strips and bundled. They are then boiled, yes boiled, in a solution of boric acid and lime to kill insects and to remove sugars and starches.”

“There are insects to kill?”

“Yes, but don’t look for bodies in the final product. After the boiling, it is allowed to dry. If a dark final product is desired it is carbonizing by steaming under pressure and heat. Most bamboo flooring is then laminated using urea-formaldehyde. It pressed to cure the adhesive.”

“Is this when it is beginning to look like wood planks?”

 “You got it! It then has to be planed, sanded and milled. The last step is the application of an ultraviolet curing lacquer to give the floor its final durable finish.”

Rosie felt reassured. Ralf said that the urea-formaldehyde gave him some concern but rationalized that it was a small premium to pay for the ability to utilize such a renewable resource. They contacted an installer and were soon carting furniture into their garage to vacate the bedrooms. The carpet came up easily with a lot of dust. Rosie hoped that their new floor would house less dust and help reduce her allergies. Of course, their floors proved to be irregular obliging the installation team to spend a day grinding and pouring concrete. The dust made Rosie miserable. When the bamboo planks arrived, they proved to be warped and unacceptable. Ralf called their salesman who undertook to try to locate a replacement product. Several hours later, he called back with good news. He had located a new supplier, one with whom he had not worked before, who had enough, slightly less expensive, product in stock. He told Ralf that he would be happy to know that this supplier’s product was reputed to use less boric acid and lime and decidedly less urea-formaldehyde.

The replacement bamboo looked good and wasn’t warped. The installer laid it in one day, and the next-day Ralf and Rosie moved everything back out of their garage. They were delighted with the end product and luxuriated in the new look it gave to their home. The distinct reduction in dust meant that Rosie felt better than she had felt in years. This time of satisfaction might have been the end of our story, but it isn’t.

The problems began the next spring when Rosie began to have nightmares; and to sleep poorly. She told Ralf that she heard tap-tapping, crackling noises, particularly on the north side of the bedroom. At first, even she, dismissed the noises as imaginary, but it seemed to her that each night, they got louder and more intrusive. Ralf suggested that they might have rats in the wall. He inspected the attic – nothing. Just to be sure he placed rat poison in strategic locations. He checked the outside of the house to see if there were any rat entry points – nothing. He did find a row of sturdy bamboo shoots growing like giant spears planted in the ground along the house perimeter and in the area up to the north fence. He suggested to Rosie that, perhaps, the wind had been causing these to tap-tap upon the bedroom window. He meticulously cut them all down. By now, David’s side of the fence was an impenetrable thicket. He and Ralf discussed it as they stood in their respective driveways. David said that the bamboo kept his south wall cool but that his wife wanted him to remove it. He told Ralf, “The ladies have a way of insisting on things! One of these days I know that she will get someone to come in and eradicate it!”

The nocturnal noises continued and became more intrusive, tap-tap, creak, creak, groan, groan, pop, pop. Rosie moved out of the master bedroom into the largest spare room on the south side of the house. About a week later, when she was cleaning Rosie noticed what appeared to be a bamboo shoot under the window, behind the dresser on the master bedroom north wall. At first, she thought that it was an optical illusion and was actually a shoot growing outside. Then she wondered whether it was a shoot placed by Ralf as a joke. Ralf assured Rosie that it was no joke and pulled out the dresser. There to their utter horror were several bamboo shoots apparently growing through their new floor. The floor along the entire north wall was discolored and a little warped. Ralf took photographs and called on David. Together Ralf and David cut off the offending culms, and Rosie patched the floor with wood putty. All agreed that now was the time to call in an expert to eradicate David’s bamboo. They learned that bamboo grows from rhizomes, which spread under the surface of the ground. The eradication team worked from the outside of the patch cutting out the rhizomes followed by cutting the culms. They installed root barriers along the foundations of both houses, although they said that they had never, ever, heard of bamboo pushing through a concrete slab. They warned that no eradication is one hundred percent effective the first time but if David and Ralf diligently dug up shoots as they appeared in a few years they would be bamboo free.

 For a while, things were calm and then Rosie began to hear noises again. She said that they were worse than ever. Ralf was pleased when Easter rolled around, and they left town to visit grand-children. After Easter, they returned, anxious to take up residence again in, ‘the palace,’ as Ralf called it. It was raining when they got home. Ralf the found the house to be eerie and un-naturally quiet, wrapped in the soothing patter of rain on the roof. Rosie paused as she entered; she said that over the music of the rain she heard a chorus of groans, pops, squeaks and crackles; she looked terrified. They trundled their suitcases to the master bedroom which they found to have transformed itself into an impenetrable bamboo grove. Their new bamboo floor was warped into living hills and valleys. Culms even grew through their bed and some of the tallest were already pierced through the roof. Rain dripped in.