From ancient Pharos to 21st Century water wars, papyrus is a unique plant that is now the fastest growing plant species on earth. It produces its own “soil”—a peaty, matrix that floats on water—and inspired the fluted columns of the ancient Greeks. In ancient Egypt, the papyrus bounty from the Nile delta provided not just paper for record keeping—instrumental to the development of civilization—but food, fuel and boats. Disastrous weather in the 6th Century caused famines and plagues that almost to wipe out civilization in the west, but it was papyrus to the rescue. Today, it is not just a curious relic of our ancient past, but a rescuing force for modern ecological and societal blight. In an ironic twist, Egypt is faced with enormous pollution loads that forces them to import food supplies, and yet papyrus is one of the most effective and efficient natural pollution filters known to man. Papyrus was the key in stemming the devastation to the Sea of Galilee and Jordan River from raging peat fires (that last for years), and the papyrus laden shores of Lake Victoria—which provides water to more than 30 million people—will be crucial as the global drying of the climate continues.
A Fulbright Scholar to both India and Malaya, John Gaudet is a writer and practicing ecologist. His early research on papyrus, funded in part by the National Geographic Society, took him to Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, and Ethiopia. A trained ecologist with a PhD from University of California at Berkeley, he is the author of Papyrus: The Plant that Changed the World, and his writing has appeared in Science, Nature, Ecology, the Washington Post, Salon and the Huffington Post. He lives in McLean, Virginia.