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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/December 1895/A Natural Paper Mill

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 48‎ | December 1895


DIGGING out here in my back pasture lot, so I may find water for my cows when next summer's drought comes on, I have discovered one of the oldest paper mills in the world—a mill that was in good working order when Alexander went east for other nations to subdue, and one which had whole quires and reams in stock when men lived in caves and the human families exchanged calls with the monkeys. The land here is drift clay, which, mixed with sand and duly baked, makes fine building brick, and which raises such fine timothy hay that the new tariff does not bother me a mite. It is blue clay clear down for twenty feet, when it strikes an old sea brush of dark gravel plentifully filled in with clam, quahog, and scallop shells. Below this are coarser gravel and bowlders, and then comes the ledge, a heats-corched, flinty clay slate that is almost crystallized in many places. For several miles the land is as level as a house floor, and here the rainfall hesitates so long about choosing a direction in which to run that the larger part stays where it falls until the warm sun licks it up to form more clouds to make more rain. Then such portions of the land as are not covered with sward or some form of vegetation crack open, and the millions of innocent tadpoles perish from thirst before they know what fun it is to wear legs and breathe atmosphere. Draining this land is out of the question, because in order to do it I should have to dig a ditch four miles across my neighbor's property before the water could escape; and while this might be a very praiseworthy act, it would most surely take all the money I have, and my fellow-farmers would reap the reward equally with myself. Wells are also impossible here, because the frost throws out the walls in two years; and as cattle can not drink out of an artesian-well pipe, I am digging a small pond to hold the rainfall.

The place I have selected is a gentle depression in the generally level land. It is about ten rods in diameter and is walled around by a natural clay embankment varying in height from two to five feet. An opening in the wall lets the water in from one side, while a miniature canon allows it to escape in the opposite direction. Rushes, flags, and sedges stand knee deep in the waters close to the shore, and a few lilies, with leaves like arrowheads, dot the pool, which is otherwise given over to frogs, newts, and aquatic insects. Into the bowels of this wizard's caldron I am digging and scraping in hopes I may keep enough of the surface water in store so that the suns of August shall not leave my pasture dry. Working here, daubed with the muck and the clay from which, the race is made, I have found the aged paper mill about which I started to tell.

This particular paper mill—for there are dozens of them on my land and thousands of them on the tract—is in the bed of the rill which feeds the reservoir I am making. The rivulet soaks down across the pasture at a cripple's gait, going out of its way to extemporize shallow ponds here and there, and finally, after swelling up a little to surmount the ring of clay wall, topples over into the pool, which, from its size and conformation, I think is a scar or dent that still remains from some stranded iceberg that grounded here millenniums ago, and dissolving, left the hole in my field which I am trying to enlarge. The land is very dry at present, and looking in the bed of the extinct feeding mill I see it is carpeted with a grayish-brown matting that has a sheen like gossamer silk, and which crackles like stiff paper when struck with my spade. It stretches up the channel for rods and follows the windings very closely. I tear off some from the dead grass stalks, and when I hold it up to the light I find it is very good paper, thin, fairly strong, and in places semitransparent. Under this coat is another, and still another, so when I put my spade down the full length of its blade I find I can not reach through it all. A hand glass shows it is full of zigzag and irregular ribs, like the wings of a fly. These are the coarser portions of the paper, but the whole fabric is made of the same material, which is simply the shredded and digested woody fiber of the coarse grasses and rushes growing by the brookside. For centuries past these have flourished in the summer time until killed by the frost. The snow came, beating down the dead herbage, and before spring the whole was bedded in ice. Gradually the rill gnawed its way through the ice cap and the water began to sweep past the dead grass, now lying horizontally in the current. Slowly, atom by atom, the pith, gum, starch, and silex in the grasses were washed away, leaving only a fine and complexly mingled meshing of woody fiber where once were rushes, foul meadow, and blue joint. Then the brooklet receded before the warmer rays of a gaining sun, and a green scum, composed of infusoria and numberless low-grade microscopic plants, formed above the slackened water, filling all the spaces in the pulp network already in place. This settled with the water until stopped by the stumps of the broken grass, and then for a few weeks the stream ran under the canopy until it dried up altogether, and spiders hunted their prey concealed by a shade of natural paper. Again the grasses came up and grew and died. The snow of the next winter, which beat them down, pressed the underlying paper flat into the bed of the brook, and again the paper mill was making ready for a new output. Year by year this went on, no matter who was President or what London bankers charged for exchange. Shredded by ice and frost all winter, washed from impurities during the spring, and dried in sunlight in the early summer, the paper was completed and ready to store away when the grasses were high enough to shade the ground.

Thus the work went on all the year and all years until the present large supply is on hand. Before now I have been told, and indeed I have read in cyclopædias, that the wasps were the earliest paper makers, and that wasp nests were the first paper the world ever saw. This is evidently an erroneous idea. Grasses and rushes came on this planet long before wasps or bees, and coarse grasses with water and sunlight have perhaps been in partnership in the paper business since long before the coal age in America. Out here on my farm I can trace the history of this mill back to a time long before Adam walked in his garden, and I have every reason to believe there were other and similar mills in operation eons or cycles previous to the time mine began its work.

It is an interesting study to take up this latest issue of the great serial record and glance over the events which it noted right here during last summer. Of course a full story of the field's doings is not told, but I find enough to keep me busy and cause me to search for more. The tale is not twisted or distorted by reporters' imagination in order to make it read well, neither is it marred by typographical errors, causing the reader to guess at what was the writer's intention. The matrix was good and the impression was perfect all over the sheet. Writers of the realistic school, like Zola and Howells, can take lessons from this author, for here are the remains of the conflicts and tragedies narrated pressed flat upon the paper and terribly in evidence to vouch for every detail. Modern newspapers, with all their boasted push and enterprise, can never hope to equal this aged annual which dates its first number back to two thousand years before Methuselah began to grow whiskers.

Records of the whole season are found on this paper, telling the story of what has been going on in the animal world as plainly as if it were printed with life photographs and for sale on the street. Here are a half dozen "wiggler boats" that once served as skins for mosquito larvæ. When the wigglers grew large and were ready to quit the waters these cases cracked open along the back, and out stepped the mosquitoes, armed and equipped to prey upon the summer visitors. Near by are two legs and portions of the wing cases of a big locust. It is hard to tell whether he died a natural death or perished from violence. On looking at the fragments more closely, however, faint threads may be seen here and there, showing that he succumbed to some artful spider. The web proper is gone, the spider can not be found, but there is the story all told inside of half an inch's space. Farther on are the feathers of a bird, evidently a sparrow, which were probably torn out by a ravenous hawk. Yes, here is a spatter of blood on the paper that the rains have failed to erase and will never wash out, though that paper is buried for years. Across the middle of the sheet is where an earthworm has traveled, and near at hand is the track of a mole, its mortal enemy. The mole followed the worm, and the footprints mar the straight channel made by the annelid all the way. A broad wavy line in one corner shows where a snake has been along, seeking for stray bugs, and over all the slimy tracks of the slow but industrious snails shine like mica. In addition to these, I find the fragments of a cabbage butterfly's wing with the powder still clinging in places; a few hairs of a muskrat, loosened, perhaps, by a predatory mink; several dead dragonflies, as stiff as mummies; the head of a dead ant, with his big eyes staring at me as if in reproach; the cases of two cad dice worms; and bits of severed twigs and grass and leaves and bark innumerable. I have found all these sitting here and looking at the paper I have torn up and which has not surface enough to cover the top of my desk; but the tale it tells is the history of the whole summer with its loves and hates and mirth and music—simply the story of one summer printed in pictures on paper, and issued by Nature to file away in her great library of past events.

Below the top pages are the other books of this valuable collection. Every sheet represents a year. Possibly, in seasons where two dry spells with an intervening period of continued rainfall occur, there may be two sheets of paper issued in a year; but then, again, there have been very wet years when no paper at all could be made, so it is safe to count on one sheet a year. Taking this as the basis of my calculations, I dig out a bit of the record on the point of my spade about midway to the bottom and count up how many sheets I cut through in going down an inch. The sheets are very fine and closely pressed, so I find trouble in counting, but after several trials I feel sure the average is fully three hundred sheets to an inch, which would make thirty-six hundred sheets to every foot in depth. Now, my spade blade is a foot long, and below this is as much more, and that takes me away back of any historical record now extant. So here I have a paper factory that is more than seven thousand years old, and the same blue clay and sand and shells were under it then that are there now. Yet my paper mill was started in modern times when the glacier works were on the surrounding hills no plainer than they are to-day.

Beyond doubt this little handful of crumbling, grass-imbedded, peaty pulp I now hold in my hand was made and filed away at a time when the mastodon came along here for food and the big American elephant shook the earth with his heavy steps. If I had time and patience, what a story this old library of primitive paper could tell me! It would be the tale of the world, who lived on it, how they lived and how they died, the story of storm and freshet and tornado, of drought and fire and famine, and the family record of every insect, mammal, and bird which has visited this field for the past seven thousand years. The proofs of the photographer fade and go out to nothing, the images of the spectroscope die with the light which created them, and the dormant words in the phonograph lisp and stutter with age and much using; but Nature's record book, which is always open and always getting new additions, holds fast to every fact, no matter how trivial it may seem, and will keep them all there in evidence until the senile earth wrinkles up, like a sun-dried lemon, and floats through space a cold and shriveled husk. This paper mill, I have found, old as it is, measures but one beat of the pendulum on the great clock of geologic time, a clock that was wound up millions of years before man came on earth, and will continue to run for millions of years after the last human being has gone.

A heavy rainfall came on before I had finished my digging, and when I visit my paper mill again it is flooded with water. Both work and study are useless here at present, and I pass an hour watching the pool, and noting how the added water has increased the activity of the aquatic animals that make it their home. All the wigglers in wigglerdom are out zigzagging themselves to the top of the water to stick their star-shaped noses up for a bit of air, and then falling to the bottom again to feed on the decaying muck. The pond seems alive with them, and the frogs are having a feast, eating wigglers by the dozen at every swallow. My ducks come waddling up from the house, and enter the pond for a swim; but, catching sight of the frogs, they conclude to abandon their bath and have a frog dinner. For the next ten minutes the water is a splashing, boiling sea, lashed into waves by fleeing frogs and pursuing ducks.


The report of the British Association's Committee on the Teaching of Science in Elementary Schools represents that while much improvement has been made in the character of the teaching, difficulty still exists in getting it done by experiments and in a truly educational way, rather than as a series of useful but isolated facts. School teachers are generally enthusiastic in their endeavor to obtain a knowledge of science when classes are organized for their benefit. Progress is making in the number of subjects taught in elementary schools and the number of pupils receiving instruction.