pierre laszlo

Cyperus papyrus

This robust perennial, African in origin, ranges widely in the tropical and subtropical zones. It is invasive to such an extent that it has colonized large areas of Florida and has escaped into the wild from cultivation in other regions of the United States. This intruder disturbs a whole ecology. Thus, it serves as a concrete illustration, if metaphoric, to the ocean of paper in which we drown. But we shall come back to the papyrus-paper lineage.

Papyrus has an outstanding ability at recycling nutrients. Accordingly, it grows fast. Moreover, papyrus swamps sequester large amounts of the carbon formed under anaerobic conditions by submerged organic matter (1.6 kg. m-2.y-1) but they release it back into the atmosphere as soon as the water level declines enough to expose detritus and rhizomes (1.0 kg.m-2.y-1).

To Egyptians during Antiquity, the Nile Valley was the equivalent of our Silicon Valley. The papyrus reeds growing there provided them with an abundant and inexpensive support for information, which the very word “paper” records lastingly.

The decorative plant is surely a familiar sight to the reader. It grows tall, up to a dozen feet or so. An herbaceous clump of stems rise from a rhizome. The younger parts of that rhizome preserve an idea of leaves, in the form of mere triangular scales. Each stem carries a headgear formed by a cluster of thinner and bright green stems, about 20 cm in length, which give it the aspect of a feather duster.

In Antiquity, the Egyptians not only pioneered use of papyrus for writing. It was cheaper, energy-wise, than kiln-baked slabs of incised clay. They had quite a few other uses for the reed, as foodstuff but also as building material for boats and rafts. Nowadays, ironically, papyrus have all but disappeared from the Nile Valley.