Foraging and Forging Paper
How students are examining old techniques to inspire new solutions for sustainability
Bryn Mawr College’s Advanced Topics in Environmental Studies: Sustainability Lab Approaches is not your typical college course; students don’t bring paper to class, they make it there. This class, taught by Dr. Sara Grossman, explores how the work of environmental humanists is shaped by artistic and scientific experimentation in DIY culture as well as black feminist and indigenous approaches to environmental justice and restoration. Students pair hands-on lab work such as paper making, ecological restoration, and perennial agriculture planning with a seminar centered on contemporary indigenous ecological knowledge practices.
Over the course of the 2019 fall semester, one of the students’ main projects was to create paper from the fibers of Oriental bittersweet vines and mugwort plants. This activity was designed to exhibit the practicality of sustainable practices and to reconnect students with objects they use on a daily basis.
Dr. Grossman and her class began their venture by teaming up with Haverford Arboretum’s program coordinator Jennie Ciborowski to collect invasive species from Haverford College’s campus. After a strenuous process of vine wrestling and mugwort foraging, students steamed their collecting then scraped off the epidermis of the branches and stems. The plants were then retted, a process that involves cooking the fibers with an alkaline that makes it easier to beat them into a pulp. Additionally, retting swells cellulose fibers which result in stronger sheets of paper.
Once malleable, the pulp was drained, pummeled, and then mixed with water to create a consistency thin enough for paper. To create the sheets, a mold and deckle was dipped into the pulp and rocked back and forth, resulting in an evenly distributed layer of pulp. The remaining water in the pulp was then squeezed out and the pulp was left to dry on sheets of glass.
Although papermaking has been practiced for thousands of years, its popularity has dwindled in recent centuries in response to the emergence of the paper industry. Industrial paper production is not a sustainable alternative though, the process perpetuates deforestation and contributes to rising levels of atmospheric methane. Dr. Grossman, along with other environmental activists, are encouraging the public to reexamine mundane objects in their lives, such as paper, and consider the ways in which these products could be more sustainably produced.