Papyrus Trail


Elizabeth Creith

I think both paper and papyrus are the natural results of evolution. No, really! Before you roll your eyes at me and start nattering about paper mills and so on, I just want you to consider margarine, or artificial vanilla, or any of the hundreds of other synthetic things. Just because we make it now doesn’t mean it didn’t grow on its own in the wild first.

Look at paper birch. This is obviously one of the papiferous plants, probably the only surviving North American one. It’s actually quite well-developed and needs little refinement—just peel it off and write on it. No chopping, pounding, mashing or soaking. Perhaps the only bar to literacy in pre-Columbian North America was the failure of the local flora to produce a pencil-bush.

Think about it—here's how you make papyrus. You take the papyrus plant, which looks like a tribble on a stick and grows in marshes, and you peel the layers of the stem away and lay them down on a hard surface. You need three layers sandwiched together at right angles. Then you take a mallet and beat the crap out of this plant-fibre sandwich until it all sticks together, or your arm falls off, whichever comes first.

Who had so much time on his hands that it seemed like a good idea to go around peeling bits off of plants and pounding them with a mallet just to see what would happen? Where did that idea come from? And in Egypt, where you can raise a sweat without any of that hard work!

I can see it now—Whatses the Egyptian with his little list of plants.

“Sycamore—no. Cabbage—shows promise, but too stiff and curved. Lettuce—nice soft result, but disintegrates easily. May be a use for it. Barley—lumpy.” and on and on. Sorry, I don’t believe it. Anyway, when Whatses finally got to papyrus—about the time he was due for his pyramid-scheme pension—he was too tired to invent books, and settled for just rolling a long sheet of the stuff on a stick.

I can understand figuring out what to eat by watching birds, and maybe even coming up with the idea of weaving that way, but there is no bird that makes papyrus. Even birds aren’t that bird-brained. Woodpeckers, yes; papyrus-pounders, no. I’ll bet there’s a now-extinct strain of plants that grew big, flat, rectangular leaves, and this whole papyrus-sandwich-pounding thing is a myth.

Same thing with paper, really. Oh, all right, wasps make paper, but who was the doofus who went close enough to see them doing it? Did he survive? Or did he expire of his stings, hoarsely whispering “They chew it! They chew it! The horror!” like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now?

Besides, imagine writing a letter on a large oval of grey paper. I mean, you could do it, but the postage would kill you because it doesn’t fit through the letter slot.

When Europeans arrived, they brought their own domesticated paper and ignored the native wild one, and unfortunately, we can’t go back. It’s like trying to go back to being hunter-gatherers after the development of agriculture. We’re already too dependent on domestic paper, which we make, come to think of it, rather like wasps did. Except we made machines to chew it for us.

And we seem to have figured out a use for that lettuce-papyrus experiment, too—we just had to get it onto rolls.


Elizabeth Creith is a biblioholic and incurable librocubicularist. Not only does she buy, read, shelve and stack books, but she also writes them and on occasion makes them by hand. Elizabeth lives and writes in Wharncliffe, Northern Ontario, distracted occasionally by her husband, dog, and cat. The Scriptorium is where she blogs about writing and life. Contact Elizabeth.



Contact Us || Site Map || || Article Search || © 2006 - 2012 BiblioBuffet