On beyond paper

Snow fog at dawn

Several years ago I went on a fungus-writing spree, scouring the mountain for the shelf fungi with creamy white undersides known as artist’s conks. I used a sharp nut pick about half the diameter of a pencil to scratch poems into the surface. The first result of my experimenting is above. The illustrations were simply copied from pen-and-ink sketches I found in back issues of Pennsylvania Game News magazine. I got successively fancier with the calligraphy on each one, culminating with this:

January Thaw

It occurs to me that many of my Morning Porch pieces are just the right length for fungal inscriptions; it might be an interesting way to make a collection of them (with photos posted to the web, of course). The trouble is, I don’t think we have too many more good shelf fungi in the woods. They are actually somewhat scarcer than one might expect.

Birch bark might be another option, though we don’t have too many paper birches on the property, either. My only experiment along those lines was with some inner bark from a dead yellow birch, picked up off the forest floor in an old-growth forest in the Adirondacks years ago. I used it for one of my favorite quotes about poetry, and had it hanging on the wall beside my writing table for a long time.

Mina Loy on poetry

Writing on natural surfaces is something that’s always interested me, though I admit I find it hard to like spraypaint on boulders. The particular attraction of a hornets’ nest, of course, is that it is literally paper, manufactured by insects out of the same material that we (unfortunately) still use for most of our own paper: wood. Indeed, it was from watching paper wasps that 18th-century scientists first got the idea of switching from rags to wood fibers as the primary source for pulp.

It’s worth remembering, though, that the original paper (etymologically speaking) was papyrus — a woven mat of flattened reeds. The word “bible” derives from a Greek word for the inner bark of papyrus. The early Chinese wrote on long slivers of bamboo before they invented the first true paper, while in ancient and medieval Europe, animal skins proved to be durable, reusable writing surfaces. One explanation for the flowering of literature in rural medieval Iceland, aside from the long winters when public readings were a major form of diversion, is that there was a glut of calfskin from all the dairies. (I love this example, by the way, because it proves that you don’t need urban civilization for a literary culture to flourish. Human settlement in medieval Iceland consisted entirely of scattered farms; there wasn’t even a single village.)

But one of the earliest writing media has proved to be the most durable of all: the clay tablet, favored for cuneiform inscriptions in ancient Sumeria. Burn a library of clay tablets, and you only make them harder. I also find a lot of appeal in the idea of clay as a writing medium. So my ultimate fantasy publishing project involves working with a potter to devise some sort of letter press for wet clay, and grinding out limited edition poetry tablets that way. Attractively glazed and fitted with wall hangers, I suspect they’d sell much better than chapbooks or broadsheets. And barring a lot of guys with sledgehammers, they’d probably survive the collapse of our civilization. I doubt the same could be said for texts on the internet.

16 Comments


  1. You are a skilled calligrapher, Dave! Fungus writing is new to me. I enjoyed this refresher on the many writing surfaces in history and I like the sound of your fantasy writing project – you should go for it!

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  2. Yes. You are. I am so happy to see these.

    Re letterpress for clay: you can cut letters out of erasers. You can also fashion them in clay and bake them. Or cut them out of wood, a whittling project.

    Birch bark has always seemed like a good surface for etched calligraphy, to me. But it’s scarce round these parts…

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  3. Thanks, Marja-Leena. I’m surprised you haven’t heard of decorating shelf fungi; I thought it was rather more common in the Pacific northwest than anywhere else.

    Pica – Wood blocks might be a good idea, but there’s a real appeal to making them out of clay! Obviously I’d want something that would last for up to fifty or more “prints” to make it worthwhile.

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  4. This is a fascinating post and your decorated fungi are beautiful. We have quite a lot of similar fungi here at the moment, more than usual because of the rain. I’d be worried about damaging the natural environment though by picking them, plus there’s no way any attempt of mine to write poetry on them would be as good as yours!

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  5. CGP – That’s not an invalid concern. Our shelf fungi are habitat for a couple different species of beetles. Folks should be careful about taking all the artist’s conks from a given area, or even from a given tree. I should’ve said that in the post.

    (I’m quite certain that some of your shorter poems would be up to the task, though.)

    Dick – Thanks. Scrimshaw may indeed have been an inspiration for the artists who first started etching on these things, I don’t know.

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  6. I used to visit a friend in Cannon Beach, OR. There was a person there who would come down to the beach at low tide every day and write a poem in the sand. They were wonderful poems, not written down anywhere else, and people would go to the beach just to read them and talk about them later in the coffee shop. The tide would come in and wash them away and they would be gone except in people’s memories.

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  7. That’s wonderful. What a model for how poetry should be written and shared. I conceive of this blog, and the internet in general, as only a slightly more durable beach, though I could be wrong.

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  8. Wow — nice work on those fungi — even copying, that’s a very precise “hand”. How long do the fungi last?

    Inscribed clay tablets would make interesting tsotschkes, but might be a little heavy for people to lug home. Durability could also be a problem….

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  9. The letters and drawings you etched into the fungi are very tenderly done, and the poems too have a light touch. Another original way to make a poem, and turn it into an extended experience.

    Great history lesson too.

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  10. David – I don’t know what the shelf life of shelf fungi is – decades, I imagine, unless they get attacked by mold or something.

    The tablets wouldn’t have to heavy; I picture something about twice the thickness of a tile, and the size of a dinner plate.

    christine – Thanks. I’m glad those work for you.

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  11. very interesting and informative piece. beautiful images and great calligraphy. this is something that i would definitely like to get into the future. what do you do with these after you’re done with them? it’d be great to have poem art all over the house.

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  12. I just stash ’em away, to be honest. I’d be up for trading them for someone else’s poem art.

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  13. Thanks for jogging my memory. That is a very cool object. (And hey, I’m glad you’ve mastered HTML link tags now.)

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  14. Wow, Dave… these are amazing! I like the hornet’s nest scribing too, tough to pick a favorite. Thanks for the wonderful poems and the great insights into natural media.

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