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4.0 out of 5 stars Gaudeamus Papyrus, 25 Jun 2014
This review is from: Papyrus - the Plant That Changed the World: from Ancient Egypt to Today's Water Wars (Hardcover)
In 1960, Flanders & Swann had a song in their review At The Drop Of A Hat, called The Wom-Pom Song. It praised a miracle plant, all of which could be used and which solved basically every problem of mankind (Chorus: “There is nothing that the Wom-Pom cannot do”). They might have been inspired by the papyrus plant, as explained and examined by John Gaudet.

From rope to paper to clothing to flooring to boats, papyrus ruled. It grew wild in effusive abundance, and all you had to do to cultivate it was – nothing. For four thousand years, Egypt was the sole source for paper in the western world, which led empires to crave it – Egypt, that is. It wasn’t until 1000 AD that papyrus began to fade as the paper of record.

I particularly liked the way delta-living Egyptians built houseboats out of papyrus, which floated during the flood season, and beached during the dry season, allowing the papyrus to dry out over a few months before the waters rose again. By bundling papyrus tightly, the Egyptians created air tanks that formed the hulls of their boats and rafts, giving them high buoyancy and long life.

On the paper front, the wild, uncultivated, 18 ft tall plant and the stunningly simple process to make paper from it, led Egypt to supply the known world. Gaudet says the bureaucratic Roman Empire would have ground to a halt if Egypt had stopped shipping boatloads of paper.

Unavoidably, I suppose, the story deteriorates from the upbeat to the disastrous, as papyrus has disappeared from Egypt. We have drained the swamps they need, abandoned the water purification they provide, poisoned the ground with artificial fertilizers and dumped raw sewage into the Nile in the billions of gallons – per day. No surprise then that the Nile doesn’t support such idyllic scenes and beneficial species any more. Egyptians can literally smell fish caught in the Nile, and back away.

The most horrible story comes from Israel, much more recently, and therefore much more thoroughly documented. Developers in the north drained a papyrus swamp, which ruined their business, caused massive pollution for 20 years as far south as Galilee, and stopped virtually all development as people moved out in droves. All because the papyrus was not left to do the job it had been silently and effectively performing for thousands of years.

So Papyrus isn’t really the story of the plant that changed the world. It’s about the human species that changed the world, and not really for the better.

Remarkably, and uniquely in my limited experience, this ecology book ends on upbeat notes. The Israelis came to realize that costly patches to the mess they made only add more problems. They decided to reflood the area and let nature take its course. They also went much farther, creating a strict nature reserve, in partnership with Jordan. The results are overwhelmingly spectacular, and the reserve is a huge tourist attraction as hundreds of thousands of birds have returned to this ancient pit stop. In Egypt, the greens are starting to have an effect as well, with natural filtration plants, and yes, the re-emergence of papyrus.

There is actually hope.

David Wineberg
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