At some time during elementary school all of us learned about the Papyrus plant (Cyperus papyrus) and its use as the source of the first paper. If you reacted like I did, this knowledge was as unimpressive as last week’s Jell-O at the school cafeteria. The picture of the plant in the book was about as large as the beans the class sprouted in paper cups sitting on the window sill and the existence of paper only meant some kind of work had to be done on it before you could throw it away or turn it in to the teacher. The exception was, of course, paper airplanes, which were strictly outlawed at school. So, papyrus was a non- event in the classroom and didn’t make the list of things we were going to enjoy remembering from our school days. This would not be the case if any of the teachers brought anything like the knowledge John Gaudet has about the subject, or better yet, an actual Papyrus plant into the classroom.
Papyrus was responsible for a lot more than just paper. Not that paper wasn’t or isn’t a very large force in shaping civilization. It was and, in spite of the “electronic revolution”, still is. But Papyrus, the plant, was an abundant source of building materials for many cultures around the world. It was also used to make rope, handcrafted items and could be used as a fuel when dry. In a pinch, you could even eat it, but you would prefer most anything else if even remotely available. Perhaps the most important use of the plant was as a freshwater marsh reed that purified and conserved the water while simultaneously providing a biome for a huge number of animal, insect, fish and microbial life. That is what this book is really about.
Gaudet is a professional ecologist, to quote from the book’s jacket. He has worked with the U.S. government and the National Geographic Society and is still active in African, agricultural and conservation/environmental agencies. So, his cache of relevant knowledge on the subject is both deep and wide. This becomes obvious as the book progresses. His website is www.fieldofreeds.com.
The style of the book is from an earlier era and, therefore, comfortable and familiar to me. The text gives a background to the subject at hand, delves into the importance of the plant in its many uses and functions, then spends the back half relating how all of this history is relevant to the problems and confrontations of today’s world. There is no attempt to exaggerate anything just to add excitement. The subject is interesting and relevant all by itself and needs no additional zip or splash. While there are plenty of illustrations accompanying the text, they are hand drawn and in black-and-white. There is a small section of color photographs and illustrations in the middle of the volume just to accentuate some of the drama and beauty to be found in a Papyrus swamp, but it is a bit shocking to the eye after the soft edges and stylish shapes of the illustrator’s art.
The color section does serve a purpose however, just as Dorothy discovers she isn’t in Kansas anymore in The Wizard of Oz we are transported to the modern Congo, Zambesi, Nile and Jordan rivers as well as lakes with names as different from each other as Victoria and Chad are from Naivasha and Upemba. But, what is in a name? The rivers, lakes and marshes as well as the people who depend upon them for life itself are all suffering from the same problem: a seriously degraded and diminished supply of clean water. Gaudet takes each region in its turn and describes how things got to be such a sorry mess. He lays blame where he sees it appropriate, but wastes little time hand-wringing and whining. In each case he suggests a method to either eliminate or minimize the problem. As you have to have guessed, the solutions generally boil down to restoring papyrus marshes where they once were or starting new ones where they might provide the same water cleaning and conservation service.
Stated that way, it sounds like a simplistic solution to a massive global problem. It’s not and Gaudet doesn’t treat it that way. Each region has its own set of water problems that make a single formula solution impossible. This is where Gaudet really shines. His expertise, hard won by many years in the field, allows him to rise to the task and offer sensible, real world solutions that, if implemented, would make a significant difference in the lives of those close to the marshes. Those of us not so close would benefit, too. Cleaner air and water combined with more sustainable industry to feed and house the marginalized people could only lead to less war and better health for all.
There is a significant amount of science in this book, but all of it is very reachable to the layman. The only mathematical skill you will need is the ability to compare a big number to a smaller one. For example, C3 grasses like phragmites lose 833 molecules of water for each molecule of carbon sequestered. C4 grasses like papyrus lose only 277. Obviously, much more water is conserved in a papyrus swamp compared to a phragmites swamp. You learn the names of each part of the Papyrus plant and some uses for them. The relative strengths and weaknesses of papyrus, phragmites and some other marsh flora are compared. There is lots of geography, some ancient civilization, tales of the explorers, paper making techniques, reed hut differences between locations and plants used, boat/raft design and more. In other words, it’s not only broadly informative, it’s entertaining.
As you may have also guessed, you can’t talk about this many aspects of the environment without bringing up birds. And so he does, but as a descriptive of the condition he is describing. There is a good description of the Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex) and its plighted condition in the shrinking papyrus marshes. Cranes and storks are used to discuss migration patterns. Herons and warblers make a showing along with a Papyrus Gonolek (Laniarius mufumbiri) painted in the color section in all its vibrancy. One gets the general impression Gaudet is a fully addicted birder whether he knows and admits it or not.
In sum, Papyrus by John Gaudet is one of the most satisfying and informative nonfiction books I have read in a good while. I strongly recommend it to all. Had there been even a single percent of the information in this book presented in the class where I first heard the word papyrus, I would have had a much better understanding of just how important this single plant was to the history of mankind and life on planet Earth.