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Ellen McCallie's Carriacou diary: Mapping it out

Updated Monday, 28th January 2008

Paper and ink – we take them for granted, but how easy would it be to make them on a Caribbean island?

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Day 1

Talk about a quick panic! Kathy and Mike L were designing their strategy and prepping materials for mapping when they realized they had nothing to take notes on. I don’t think Kate or anyone else had thought about that problem. Here Kathy and Mike L were about to set out to survey the area and they had to remember everything! We all brainstormed. How soon could the paper be ready? I started thinking about options. Some bark can be written on, as can some leaves. They all come from plants with lots of latex (milky, sticky sap). Most of the plants I’ve used in the past for sketching were from interior rainforest. As I scanned the beach, looking for other options, I remember that I’d read one time that the conquistadors had made playing cards by writing on the leaves of seagrape trees found on the beach. Kathy tried it. It’s a good thing we didn’t give up when it didn’t work immediately. When you first write on the leaves, you can barely see what you are doing. After a while, however, the writing turns bright white against a green leaf. Cool.

We started off the day well. I thought I felt great but by 10am we were all dragging. By 2pm we had to take a break. We just sat down for an hour and did nothing. It was as if the air carried a malaise bug. One of the directors went out and bought us cookies (biscuits), chips (crisps), and soda (fizzy drinks) to pep us up.

I like this challenge. It is much harder than it probably appears. So what’s the big deal about making paper, ink and a pen?

An ink pen, the dipping kind, is quite easy because seed pods of Acacia species have great points at their ends for nibs. No modification is needed. You have to dip them frequently but that’s okay.

Ink is a significant challenge because one has to find plants and/or other products that will produce a dark ink that will last - lots of fruits stain, but can you control the stain? We are choosing logwood as our "guaranteed to work" ink. When mixed with iron salts such as iron sulfate, which Mike B can make, logwood makes a great black dye for cloth. The color starts off as a dark maroon but changes to black as the ink oxidizes with the air. Logwood is not typically used for an ink. I don’t know why not but hopefully it will work well enough for us. I need to take off the outer bark and the wood down to the heartwood, which is a rich brownish-red color. I’ll chip the heartwood and boil it. The liquid is the dye to which we will add the iron sulfate.

We plan on adding a thickening agent, such as sticky cherry, so the ink does not smear all over the place. This should also keep it from flowing too quickly.

As for the paper, most today is made from soft wood pulp, like pines. Pines are not an option for us for several reasons:

  1. There are no pine trees here
  2. It would be too much labor to chip wood and then pound it into useable pulp

So we have to find other plants that are strong, yet flexible and absorbant. The plant family, Malvaceae, which includes cotton and hibiscus, is often used to make paper. The leaves of these plants have appropriate fibers. Unfortunately, the mealy bug wiped out most Malvaceae plants on this island several years ago. So we have to use something else. All plants have fibers, so finding fiber itself is not hard. Finding the right kind of fiber is a different story.

Wood is made of fibers. These fibers in hardwood trees are often short and brittle, however. Imagine a bunch of teeny-weeny toothpicks piled up. This doesn’t make good paper. Paper needs relatively long fibers that are somewhat soft, so they spread out and overlap well. This makes thin, strong, flexible paper.

Plant leaves have fibers. Some, like agave leaves, have long, strong fibers. These are great for making rope, but they are too thick and hard for paper-making. They don’t form a smooth surface. Imagine piling little rope pieces up and trying to write on them.

So, what am I left with? I wandered around for a couple hours and found two potentials: a shrubby tree in the milkweed family (Asclepidaceae) and the towering kapok tree (Bombicaceae). Milkweed plants have a lot of sticky latex in them, but as I peeled off the bark, the fibers were soft and pliable. If Mike B can make me a good alkali solution, the milkweed plant might just work. It means a lot of banging to get the bark off, though.

I’m also going to collect the fruits of the kapok tree. Kapok trees are the stars of many children’s books about the rainforest. They are immense, emergent trees with huge branches and leaves that remind me of jaguar paw prints. I once saw a kapok tree that took 26 people holding hands to circle it.

The fruits of the kapok tree are big, blobby, and teardrop shaped. When they ripen, they split open and all this fuzzy fiber blows in the wind, with little round seeds attached. There is a huge kapok tree behind the lime factory. We had to watch out for cow dung as we got there. We filled my backpack several times as I was not sure how much stuff we would need in the end.

Kapok fiber was used in the US as mattress, pillow and life-preserver stuffing. The fibers are naturally waterproof and they float. This is good for a rainforest tree whose seeds and fluff may get blown into the river and travel before hitting dry land. This is not going to be good for me because the first thing I’ll have to do is to remove the natural waterproofing so the fibers can be broken down - softer and able to overlap to make nice, smooth paper. Then I’ll have to re-waterproof them somewhat so the paper does not act like a paper towel, spreading the ink everywhere.

Day 2

I think Kate and everyone else is going to kill me. The milkweed plant has great fibers, but we have to pick out all these little bits of bark and pound the stuff to death. If anyone would have been voted off this island today, I would have gotten the sack. No one but me thinks this is going to work. I know we will end up with some kind of paper. It may not be pretty, but it will be paper. Oh ye of little faith…actually, their doubt has begun to make me have second thoughts…

So, kapok fiber it is. Mike has made alkali. The problem is we can’t tell how strong it is. We need a pH meter. We could guesstimate if we had red cabbage, but we don’t, so I greatly diluted the alkali and cooked the kapok fiber in it. After what seemed like forever in front of the kiln, nothing was happening to the fibers. I put the fibers in stronger alkali and boiled in some more. It was quite a relief when I did the "clumping test" and the fibers began to spread out evenly. Still, I can tell that the whole group, including Drew, the cameraman, and Paul, the soundman, were getting really nervous. They spent so much time helping Kate and me pull seeds out of fibers that they want this to work, too.

Finally, we all helped drag bucket after bucket of fresh water to fill an old copper kettle with water. We dumped the kapok fiber in the kettle. Then Mike B. jumped in! He is such a comic! I bet he was also burning up after standing in front of the kiln all day. So Mike B used a screen we found to collect and spread out the fibers. Next we pressed them in a flower press that Mike B made.

If the sun ever comes out the paper will dry. That is the scary part. We can’t force anything to dry.

Day 3


It rained all night. The paper is as wet as it was yesterday. It turns out we made the paper really, really thick. That would be okay if it were sunny, but it isn’t. We set the press near the kiln, but not too close.

Actually the first thing I did this morning was sweep the water out of Mike B’s "laboratory". It was under about 10 centimeters of water - that’s about up to his knees! We then set to work making inks and dyes. I forgot to mention that I used a machete to slowly chip the logwood down to the heartwood and then boil the chips in a touch of water. I was able to sharpen my machete, but logwood is tough stuff. It took forever to chip even a little bit. It should be called "ironwood". It takes a long time to rot, too.

I then went out to collect flowers, fruits, leaves and bark with which to make colored inks. While we worried about the paper drying Mike B and I had a ball smashing up everything and making colors. It was really exciting. In the end we ended up with more than fifteen colors. It got funny. I would just dump stuff together to see what would happen. Mike B was much more precise. He ended up with some great hues. A couple of times we ended up with indigo colored indigo, but we could never figure out how we did it. I bet the indigo has to oxidize (set out in the air) for that fabulous blue color to occur.

In the end, with the paper dry and all the samples of ink, we were so pleased with ourselves. We made color test strips and paintbrushes. Mike B really likes bouquets, so I decorated the table with flowers in his honor. By the time Kathy and Mike L were ready to draw the map, time was short so they never got to use all of Mike B’s brilliant colors.

The map Kathy made was superb. This was a high-stress challenge that worked. The paper was strong. I need to remember to listen to my gut. I knew the paper should work. I lost my confidence for a while, that makes it hard on everyone.





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