Aug 03, 2023

Can a Papermaker Help to Save Civilization?


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By Mark Levine

Each November, a papermaker named Timothy Barrett gathers a group of friends and students on the grounds of the University of Iowa Research Park, a onetime tuberculosis sanitarium in Coralville, Iowa, for what he bills as a harvest event. Armed with hook-shaped knives, Barrett and his party hack away at a grove of bare, shrublike trees called kozo, a Japanese relative of the common mulberry. At his nearby studio, which is housed in the former sanitarium's laundry facility, the bundles of cut kozo are steamed in a steel caldron to loosen the bark. After the bark is stripped from the kozo, it is hung on racks, where it shrivels to a crisp over a matter of days. Eventually the bark is rehydrated and sliced apart from its middle, "green" layer, and that layer, in turn, is sheared from the prized inner layer. It takes about a hundred pounds of harvested kozo trees to yield eight pounds of this "white bark," from which Barrett will ultimately make a few hundred sheets of what connoisseurs consider to be some of the world's most perfect paper.

Barrett, who is 61, has dedicated his life to unlocking the mysteries of paper, which he regards as both the elemental stuff of civilization and an endangered species in digital culture. For his range of paper-related activities, he received a $500,000 fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation in 2009. "Sometimes I worry about what a weird thing it is to be preoccupied with paper when there's so much trouble in the world," Barrett told me, "but then I think of how our whole culture is knitted together by paper, and it makes a kind of sense." The Library of Congress and the Newberry Library in Chicago are among the institutions that often use his paper to mend their most important holdings, from illuminated manuscripts to musical scores penned by Mozart. In 1999, officials at the National Archives commissioned Barrett to fabricate paper on which to lay the fragile parchment originals of the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence. A visitor to Washington, Barrett said, would be unlikely to notice his paper resting beneath the founding charters. "But if you kind of turn your head sideways and squint, you can see it."

I first met Barrett last winter, when I went to his studio to see him make washi, the lustrous, translucent, tissue-thin Japanese-style paper that is the fruit of his mulberry harvest. Washi, he told me, was a centuries-old winter vocation of Japanese rice farmers. A thermostat on a cinder-block wall read 50.2 degrees, and Barrett was wearing a thick long-sleeve undershirt, a flannel shirt and a down vest beneath his heavy apron. He makes washi only six weeks each year, and forms sheets of paper only on Thursdays. Much of the rest of the time he is preparing the white bark according to a regimen that includes cooking it in a solution of wood-ash lye, laboriously picking the strands free of tiny bits of debris, beating them with a mechanical stamping device, pounding them with mallets and then macerating the stringy clumps in a tub outfitted with S-shaped blades that he says are modeled on a medieval Japanese sword.

He stepped inside an 8-by-10-foot corner of the studio that was enclosed by curtains of plastic sheeting and scooped a few liters of wet white bark fibers into a vat of purified water. Then he poured in what he called a "formation agent" — plant secretions that, he said, were the key to the amazing strength, softness and flexibility of sheets no thicker than a Kleenex. He stirred the vat with a four-foot pole, then pushed and pulled the prongs of a huge, rakelike wooden tool through the solution to disperse the fibers evenly in the water. "A hundred and fifty strokes," he said, though he didn't appear to be counting. He stirred with the pole again and paused. Now he was ready to make a sheet of paper.

He took hold of a rectangular wooden frame, or mold, that had a bamboo mat and dipped it into the vat. He lifted it out, let excess water splash over the sides, then plunged it back in. He shook his arms rhythmically. Small waves formed on the surface. He might have been taken for someone at a washtub, though he swayed in a languid, trancelike manner. Finally, he bent his knees deeply, took one more pull out of the vat and quickly tossed the excess off. Nothing but a wet sheen was left on the mold. I thought that the process had, for some reason, failed to produce paper. But soon, from a corner of the frame, Barrett peeled off a pale yellow sheet, which resembled a large damp handkerchief. "People are always surprised when they see it for the first time," he told me afterward. "It's as though it comes out of nowhere." By the end of the day he had a stack of 100 sheets or so, which he would drain overnight, clamp in a screw press and dry on a wall of steam-heated sheet metal the following day. The finished product was a rectangle of radiant simplicity, an unfancy, richly hued blank presence that was the predictable result, Barrett insisted, of selecting proper materials, preparing them in patient, time-honored ways and approaching their manufacture with a spirit of total dedication. "This is pretty much how it was done for 1,800 years," he remarked. "By hand. One sheet at a time."

The origins of what paper cognoscenti call "true paper," which requires the breaking-down and reconstitution of plant fibers, are often dated to A.D. 105 and linked to Ts’ai Lun, a eunuch in the court of Emperor Han Ho Ti of China. Few technological advances have been as enduring. Wherever it appeared, paper swiftly relegated more primitive writing surfaces like stone, wood blocks, clay tablets, wax and sheets of laminated bark or matted papyrus stalks to oblivion. The miracle of paper — its combination of flexibility and tensile strength in an easily fabricated and, well, paper-thin material — is a chemical gift of cellulose. When cellulose fibers are separated from noncellulosic components of plants, beaten to a pulp, briefly suspended in water and spread onto a screen, the fibers bond together to form a sheet. A piece of paper is a plant re-engineered for specifically human purposes.

Paper production was confined to the Far East until the year 751, when, some historians believe, Muslim conquerors of Central Asia carried the secrets of the trade to Samarkand. It wasn't until the 12th century, when Muslims ruled Spain, that papermaking began spreading to Europe. Unlike Asian papermakers, who relied on plants like hemp, mulberry, bamboo and daphne for fiber, mills in Italy, France, Germany and the Low Countries turned to worn-out textiles for their raw material. Rag men roamed the towns and countryside, collecting scraps of fabric whose hemp and flax fibers had been degraded by years of washing and drying in the sun. Until the 19th century, European and American books were made largely of recycled clothes and other textiles.

According to Jesse Munn, a paper specialist who worked as a conservator at the Library of Congress for 32 years, the rapid spread of printing took a toll on the quality of paper. "The insatiable demand of the common market lowered standards of some papers," she says. "The history of paper in most cases is one of steady decline in character and strength." To cut their costs, some mills began using less-carefully-sorted rags and rushed the process of preparing the pulp. The result was weaker, darker paper, with knots and clumps of fiber in the finished sheets. Quality sank further when, at the beginning of the 19th century, French and English inventors developed a steam-powered "paper machine." Paper production exploded, quickly exhausting the available supply of rags. Papermakers turned to a plentiful source of low-grade cellulose: trees. An age of abundant, cheap, inferior paper emerged. Newspapers flourished and inexpensive books flooded the market. Paper became an ingredient in everything from shoes to construction materials. The industrialized paper trade crossed the Atlantic in the 19th century, eventually transforming vast swaths of American forests into paper plantations. Some chemicals used in preparing wood pulp resulted in what paper conservators call "self-destructing paper," which turned brown and brittle with age. As Munn told me, "We’ll lose a lot of the 19th century."

At the same time, small artisanal movements grew up in fierce resistance to industrialization. In England, William Morris commissioned a mill to supply his press with paper made by hand, using the materials and methods employed in the Italian Renaissance. Dard Hunter, an Ohio-born acolyte of the Arts and Crafts movement, spent much of the first half of the 20th century proselytizing on behalf of meticulously handcrafted papers. Nonetheless, the use of cheap, mass-produced papers grew inexorably. In his 1947 edition of "Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft," Hunter noted that per capita consumption of paper in the U.S. was 287.5 pounds in 1943; that would rise in recent years to more than 600 pounds. In the interim, handmade paper became all but obsolete.

Tim Barrett was raised in Kalamazoo, Mich., which was once known as the Paper City, in recognition of the local paper industry. As a boy, he took an interest in all things mechanical. Unlike his father, an English professor at Kalamazoo College, Barrett was less interested in what was written in books than in how their paper was made. Barrett's father would occasionally take the family on visits to local factories. On one such trip, Barrett recalled being struck by the sight of massive machinery churning bales of waste paper into pulp.

At the famously countercultural Antioch College, he threw himself into all manner of arty pursuits — ceramics, stained-glass-window making, photography, film, printmaking. He tanned deer hides and made fringed clothing. For the first time, too, he tried making sheets of paper, pulping cotton linters in a garbage pail with an electric drill and mixing in fabric dye he bought at a grocery store. When he graduated, he traveled for a while with a group of artist friends, painting vaguely political murals on the sides of barns.

In California, Barrett crossed paths with a pair of twin sisters who were planning to move to Indiana and open a papermaking studio with their husbands. He signed on as an apprentice. "We were all self-taught as papermakers, which is another way of saying we had no idea what we were doing," he said. Eventually the studio, called Twinrocker Handmade Paper, gained a following for its heavyweight cotton printmaking papers, which were favored by artists like Jasper Johns and Jim Dine. But Barrett wasn't interested in making art papers. His temperament was both more austere and more drawn to plain, pragmatic craftsmanship. He wanted to make paper that would be handled, not simply looked at, and he wanted to make it in ways that the old artisans would have approved of. After two years at Twinrocker, he received a Fulbright grant and went to Japan, despite having no knowledge of the language or the culture. He traveled the countryside, getting tips on where paper was being made. The papermakers he met tended to be perplexed by his interest, but he persisted. "I learned enough Japanese to say things like, ‘How much wood-ash lye do you use for cooking the fiber?’ "

When he returned to the U.S., he moved into a barn on his parents’ property, and, using sketches and notes he made in Japan, began building equipment for his own paper shop. He also embarked on writing the book "Japanese Papermaking," which is part manual, part affectionate, detailed history of a waning craft. He supported himself, barely, with occasional grants and by driving around the country in a van, giving lectures and demonstrations.

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In 1986, he landed at the University of Iowa, which was one of the few schools in the country to employ a papermaker. Over the years, he developed a fascination with 15th-century European papers, which, he said, "were amazingly attractive to me, but in a totally different way from the Japanese papers. They struck me as having an elusive quality of character, authenticity and integrity, that I didn't see anywhere else. They were supple, strong, had a kind of crackle and made you want to touch them." Barrett began analyzing these and other papers, testing close to 1,500 pages produced between the 14th and 19th centuries. He reconstructed the materials and techniques that were used in the papermaking centers of preindustrial Europe and began producing Western-style paper in ways that he considered historically accurate — starting with raw flax and hemp, sometimes fermenting them for weeks, cooking the fibers in lime, adding gelatin to the paper and burnishing the finished sheets with a stone.

Barrett's connection to the old papers was becoming more than simply technical. It was emotional. He detected life in them. He once found the imprint of a person's thumb on a page in a Renaissance book. "Maybe the papermaker was rushing to fill an order, and grabbed the corner of the sheet too firmly," he said. "To me, that fingerprint marked the sheet with the humanity of the person who made it. I could feel his presence."

James Galvin, a poet who teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, occasionally feels the need to send his students a wake-up call. When this happens, Galvin calls Barrett, with whom he attended Antioch (for a while, the two of them dated sisters), and asks him to send over one sheet of paper per student. "I describe the paper to the students," Galvin says, "and I talk about the care, knowledge and aesthetic wisdom that went into making it. Then I tell them to go home and write something on it that makes it more interesting than it is when it's blank."

Barrett's work has been driven by the notion that good materials, worked by hand, transmit their power in ways that the products of less painstaking manufacture can't. "I have to believe that the eye and the hand take it all in, even when we’re not aware of it," he said. There's a poignancy to his work, given that paper's long role as the repository of cultural memory and accomplishment is being usurped by swift technological change. As Bob Stein, the founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book, told me: "The notion of a page is being expanded as we speak. I imagine the book going in two directions — one as an art object, printed on paper in small quantities and so expensive only the rich can afford it, and the other as an electronic form that will incorporate still images, animation, a diverse set of links to the open Web and a significant social component. In terms of the electronic book, we’re in 1464" — the infancy of Gutenberg's press — "and everything is poised to change."

One afternoon last year, I met Barrett in the special-collections department of the University of Iowa Libraries. "Sometimes I worry that handmade books and paper are going the way of the horse-drawn carriage," he mused, "and that I’m one of those enthusiasts who get really into making replicas of buggies. But I don't think so." He continued: "Paper is a big part of who we are. I like to imagine someone falling in love, and writing a note to his sweetheart on a piece of well-made paper. It's got to be more meaningful than sending an e-mail."

One of Barrett's coming projects involves gathering a team of students to reproduce what he called the "production environment" of a 15th-century paper mill — making paper in relatively high volume and treating the product as a useful commodity rather than a luxury item. Usefulness, he said, is a large part of what makes the paper he most admires beautiful. He opened a case and took out a book he considers one of his favorites: "Historia Scholastica," by the 12th-century French cleric Petrus Comestor, published in Augsburg, in Bavaria, in 1473. It's a book of biblical stories, but it wasn't the text that inspired Barrett.

"Look," he said, fingering the lushly textured paper, which dates to the year of Copernicus's birth, "you can see fine lines from the way the threads were sewn down on the mold. And here, if you hold it up in raking light, you can see where someone in the mill picked up the edge of the sheet. I love these little touches of the hand." He glanced down at a librarian's notes detailing the efforts that had been made to conserve the book, and read with a mix of surprise and delight, "Mended in the spine with paper from Barrett's shop."

Mark Levine is the author of ‘‘F5,’’ a nonfiction book, and three books of poetry.

Editor: Dean Robinson


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