Part of the joy of writing personal notes is the enticing array of beautiful handmade papers available from artists and stationers. In my writing, I’ve explored connection from lots of angles, but an online acquaintance with Dr. John Gaudet has helped me connect with the earliest history of paper. Here’s John’s bio from his website Field of Reeds:
“Fulbright Scholar to both India and Malaya, John Gaudet is a writer and practicing ecologist. His research on the ancient aquatic plant, papyrus, [which was] funded in part by the National Geographic Society, took him to Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia, and many other places in Africa where papyrus grows. He is a trained ecologist with a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley and is the author of many scientific papers on the ecology and development of papyrus swamps. His work has been discussed in Nature, and by Peter Moore on the BBC show Science Now, and in an article by Alan Cowell in the New York Times.”
My path first crossed several years ago with John’s when he posted an image on Google+ titled “The History of Paper,” showing a woman reading an ancient papyrus scroll across her lap and unrolled onto the floor at her feet. Other pictures show a papyrus paper fragment of Plato’s Republic dating back to ancient Egypt; another shows a piece of Japanese scroll made with Chinese paper from pulp dating back to 1193. Below is our online conversation.
My conversation with John:
Elizabeth Cottrell: “Amazing to realize what trouble people went to in ancient times to write a letter. Now, when it’s so easy, we can’t get folks to put pen to paper. I’m trying to change that, but it’s an uphill climb…”
John Gaudet: “Papyrus paper did not go unacknowledged, Cassiodorus in 530AD wrote a letter in praise of it. “…For does a crop grow in any field to equal this [papyrus], on which the thoughts of the wise and the ideas of our ancestors are preserved. Discourse is stored in safety, to be heard forever with consistency. Papyrus paper which can be spread out to such a vast extent, and yet folded up into such a little space…” He also referred to papyrus as the enemy of oblivion!”
Elizabeth Cottrell: “‘the enemy of oblivion’…what a delightful term. What does that make email, I wonder?”
John Gaudet: “Oblivion unchained I would think – given the number of email messages that pass into the time-space continuum every day. Also scary to think so many depend on a trail of emails to record their own immortality. What happens if someone pulls the plug?”
Elizabeth Cottrell: ” Yes, that’s exactly what I was thinking…historians are losing a precious resource when so few people write personal letters.”
On John’s website, Field of Reeds, I took a fascinating journey to a papyrus swamp in the Jordan Valley. I learned how it dominated the world for two thousand years, between 1100 BC and 900 AD, and about its first uses by the Egyptians in making cradles, roof thatching, baskets, and boats large enough to cross oceans (proven by Thor Heyerdahl).
Papyrus was the basis for the hundreds of thousands of books in the Royal Library in Alexandria and the fifty-eight public libraries in Rome—virtually all of the Western world’s literature and sacred texts. “The world’s first and second bestsellers were written on it,” Gaudet claims.
I learned how papyrus dominated the economies of many countries in much the same way “King Cotton” dominated the economy of the South for generations. The site illustrates the steps for making paper out of papyrus.
I’m worried that the story of papyrus will not have a happy ending. Today papyrus swamps and wetlands serve as a natural filter for sewage and a habitat for birds, yet they are fast disappearing—the victims of water being siphoned off for energy supplies, competing use of swamps by the flower export market, and other development.
My note-writing life is greatly enriched by learning a bit more about the remarkable history of papyrus, its early use as a means for preserving the written word, and its earned reputation as “the enemy of oblivion.”
Have you ever made paper and used it in your correspondence? Please share your comments below or join the conversation on Elizabeth’s Facebook Page.
John Gaudet makes many speaking appearances at clubs, universities, and libraries to talk about his research, his work, and his conservation efforts. You can find him on Linkedin and Twitter (@BwanaPapyrus).