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Papyrus: Building Block of Ancient Egypt, Protector of Modern Waters

Papyrus The Plant that Changed the World book

Author and ecologist John Gaudet’s 2014 book Papyrus: The Plant that Changed the World - From Ancient Egypt to Today’s Water Wars reads like a lecture from my favorite college professor.  Papyrus is well-researched, meticulously documented, and interspersed with color photos, maps, and diagrams that bring a holistic, understandable, and ardent voice to an environmentally-timely subject.

Papyrus begins in Egypt and details how this member of the sedge family was such an important part of ancient Egyptian society. The hardy plant’s stems were used to make rope, boats, houses, and temples. Papyrus swamps housed edible birds and fish and the plant could be used for cooking fuel, mats, and scrolls such as the funerary text, Book of the Dead. After 3000 B.C.E., papyrus paper and rope became significant export commodities to the Roman Empire. The papyrus motif was included in paintings, jewelry, tombs, and the 80-foot columns of the Karnak temple complex of Upper Egypt. Gaudet says that the rich culture of ancient Egypt was dependent on papyrus and his numerous notes and documentation make his viewpoint feasible.

After describing papyrus’ importance in ancient Egypt, Gaudet switches gears at chapter 10 and writes about the value of the plant in today’s world. Egypt is again a starting point as Gaudet writes about pollution in the present-day Nile River, where over 40 towns of 50,000-plus people and about 1500 villages pollute the Nile with their waste. Papyrus swamps are being considered as part of low-cost filter scheme because water ceases to move in a swamp. Sediment and heavy pollutants settle at the swamp bottom, absorbing sediment, decreasing erosion, and maintaining habitat for native fish, local and migratory birds, and other animals.

The remaining 14 chapter of Papyrus are dedicated to specific examples in which papyrus and other filter swamps are being used or could be used to improve water quality and local peoples’ lives in Africa and other places. Gaudet also writes about increasing “water wars” wherein countries divert water for their own use, often leaving their neighbors desperate for a resource once shared. The latter chapters discuss increasing water stressors such as global warming, industry, urbanization, and nutrient flushes that cause the growth of invasive plants and algae. Chapter 18 includes details about the draining of Kenya’s Lake Naivasha to irrigate commercially-grown roses and emphasizes how innocent-sounding industry can overwhelm a region’s resources and create problems for locals.

Papyrus, while overall a scholarly book, is still comfortably readable. Gaudet has been to many of the places he discusses and his personal vignettes, attention to detail, and interest in preserving the natural world makes Papyrus a must-read. Also included are instructions and illustrations about how to make papyrus paper; a fun way to introduce children to the plant and its multiple earth-friendly uses.