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:
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.
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.