Monday, April 21, 2008

Making grass into paper (I)

I didn't bring any paper over to Australia (even so, my idea of the bare minimum luggage is embarrassing to haul into my hosts' homes) so I find myself in the strange position of having access to a printing press, but with nothing to print on. Fortunately, I am here on the Sunshine Coast as the guest of the Papermakers of Queensland (Inc) so my lack of paper is being actively addressed.
Right now I am staying with Helga and Victor Hill on their farm in the Mary Valley. On my first afternoon Helga and I went out along the road to harvest Hamil grass, a pasture grass which, when ungrazed, towers over us (not so impressive as we are both shorties) with wide tough blades.

Helga's eagle eye for spotting plant pests with papermaking potential found us some Chinese Burr on the other side of the road, so we collected an armload of that too. I was only slightly nervous about reaching into the tangled Australian undergrowth, but followed Helga's example of stamping my feet to scare off any snakes and kept a sharp eye out for scarey spiders. Fortunately the biggest animal we saw was one of these cute caterpillars that seems to thrive in the Hamil grass.

Once safely home with our two sacks of grass and Burr we set about preparing it to be cooked down as the first step towards becoming paper. The grass is quick and easy to process, as it just needs to be chopped small enough to fit in the giant cookpot. That's me cutting grass in the foreground while Helga starts the much more laborious task of stripping the bark off the Chinese Burr. Only the bark is fibrous enough for papermaking, and our big armful of Burr sticks was eventully reduced to a maddenly small tangle of bark strips. In contrast, one sack of grass easily filled a pot to capacity, so we put that onto cook immediately. Grass soup is stinky, and made even less appetising by the neccessary addition of caustic soda, required to help break down the plant matter and release the fibres. It was a noxious witches' brew, that we boiled outside the shed where Victor paints his anti-dam 'Don't Murray the Mary [River]' signage. The Hill's farm is just one of many in this fertile food basket of a valley that will be affected by the proposed dam at Traveston Crossing, and they are very active in their opposition. At the moment we are avidly following the journey of cross-country kayaker Steve Posselt as he paddles and drags his kayak from Brisbane to the Mary River to draw attention to the scandaloulsy flawed dam proposal.

Meanwhile our pot of grass bubbled and boiled over in a poisonous shade of deep, dark green, stinking and steaming, with Helga adding more water and caustic soda as seemed appropriate to her experienced senses. I stirred and payed close attention to every step, as there is no ready formula to follow, just an intuitive understanding of the process that I will only learn by practice. We cooked until after dark, and then left the mix to sit over night, hoping it might prove to be ready when tested in the morning.

Next day, however, Helga rubbed the broken down grass between her gloved fingers (caustic soda, remember?) and said it needed more cooking. So we topped up the water and set the flame alight again, letting it cook until the mixture felt like a slippery gel and the fibres mashed easily, but not too much. Then, and only then, did we stop the cooking and sive out the mass of green slime into an old net curtain, leaving the caustic water in the pot to cook our second batch of grass in.

The next step is rinsing out the caustic soda from the grass, a water-intensive process which in this case utilised the farm's creek water piped to an outside sink. However, the first half dozen buckets of rinse water were so alkaline that they couldn't be tipped down the drain and instead had to be hauled over to a fence line where we applied it as weed killer. Eventually however, the soil ph tester which Helga inherited from her gardening mother, indicated progress towards neutrality (and Victor had fixed up the drain pipe to go somewhere appropriate) so the work became a bit less back breaking.

I lost count of how many times we filled the bucket with clean water, opened out the net and swirled our hands through the fibres before lifting the heavy net out, emptying the bucket and starting again. The hours fly by when papermaking with Helga- I'm constantly surprised that two or three have already passed and it's already time for another cup of tea!

Once Helga was satisfied that the grass was completely ph neutral, the tester confirming the squeaking clean feeling between the fingers, we left Victor to keep an eye on the second grass brew and went off on another harvesting expedition, this time to fill up our pot of Chinese Burr bark. This was to be found on top of a hill, most easily accessed via a neighbour's farm. A heavy shower started just as we arrived, creating the perfect excuse for another cup of tea, and a chance to meet the New Zealand neighbours and have a chat about home, admire their coffee bushes and accept a big bag of passionfruit from their vines. The rain stopped as suddenly as it began so Helga and I wriggled through a barbed wire fence and tackled the edge of a big area of Chinese Burr. It's one of those exotic plants which was fashionable for gardens once (I have no idea why, since it's ugly and smells bad) and then escapes into the wild and jostles out native plants from their niches. We filled the back of the car with it, and arrived home to find the second batch of Hamil grass ready for rinsing. That took until dark, so the bark stripping had to be tackled the next morning, before I scrubbed up (with only partial success as the bark stains skin) and left to catch a bus and two trains to Brisbane for a Passover weekend of over-eating in delightful company. be continued...


Carol said...

I can see I'm going to be reading you each day - I'm really enjoying this saga and learning a lot along the way.

Bron said...

Caustic soda. Is this Wood Ash?