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The Nature of the Page

Exploring the poetic interplay between human ideas and the plant, animal, and mineral forms through which they are mediated, The Nature of the Page tells the story of handmade paper in Renaissance England and prompts readers to reconsider the role of the natural world in everything from old books to new smartphones.

The Nature of the Page
Poetry, Papermaking, and the Ecology of Texts in Renaissance England

Joshua Calhoun

2020 | 288 pages | Cloth $55.00
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Table of Contents

Preface. Beginnings
Introduction. Toward an Ecology of Texts 1

Part I. Legible Ecologies
Chapter 1. Substances Used to Convey Ideas: Ship Sails, Cellulose, and Spinning Wheels
Chapter 2. The Word Made Flax: Cheap Bibles, Textual Corruption, and the Poetics of Paper

Part II. Indistinct Ecologies
Chapter 3. How to Read a Blot: Historiography and Renaissance Ecologies of Inscriptive Error
Chapter 4. Sizing Matters: Annotating Animals in Renaissance England
Chapter 5. This Book, as Long Lived as the Elements: Climate Control, Biodeterioration, and the Poetics of Decay

Remainders. Reading and Seeing Textual Ecology


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


Tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones.
—Duke Senior in William Shakespeare, As You Like It, 2.1.16-17

This book tells a story about paper in Renaissance England—about what it was elementally, and about what it was not; about what a page of paper did, what it was made to do, and what it would not do; about what it made representable and unrepresentable, recordable and revisable, preservable and destructible. It is a story about recording so much of what we call history on sloshed-together plant fibers. For most of the history of printing, paper was made primarily from recycled rags, so this is also a story about using tattered ship sails and worn-out clothes to tell new stories about the past, about the plant fibers used to make those textiles that were eventually used to make texts, and about the plant fibers that frustrated papermakers' best attempts to replace scarce natural resources with abundant natural resources. Paper, in the story this book tells, is a marvelous but flawed protagonist, the product of nature and culture, of nonhuman and human agency. This story about human ideas recorded on plants is also an environmental story about the ecology of paper and about the ecosystems in which poets and plants can become (and un-become) Renaissance literature. And because plants, like humans, are defenseless against "Time's scythe," this is also a story about corruption—corruption and replication and the desperate hope that we can out-replicate the thing we love so as to preserve it from decay.

We have, by and large, taken for granted the ecologies that allow, disallow, and alter the storage and transmission of ideas. We overlook not only the nature of handmade pages, but also the nature of the electronic screens on which we access digital reproductions of those pages and record our own ideas. Portions of this book, especially ideas that came at moments when keyboard and screen or pen and paper were not manageable, were first recorded on an iPhone, a now ubiquitous communication device that, in its earliest versions, was made with "toxins" such as arsenic, beryllium, lead, and mercury. In 2015, Apple Inc.'s new take-back initiatives aimed at recycling "finite resources" recovered nearly 200,000 pounds of cobalt, more than 2,000 pounds of gold, and more than 4.5 million pounds of aluminum from old iPhones. Though we may not have such precise statistics for natural resource usage in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century bookmaking, we know that, like smartphones, Renaissance books were made from and with finite resources. They were also made with visible, recognizable traces of ecological matter: recycled clothes, slaughtered animals, felled trees.

The Nature of the Page draws attention to the plant, animal, and mineral materials employed by human creatures, who seem to have a unique need to externalize cognition and memory, creatures whose minds are bursting with ideas that they want to transfer to some savable, shareable format. This study traces the plant fibers found in handmade papers through the late 1800s, when recycled rags were replaced by living trees as the stuff that stories, like this very book, are made on. My focus is especially on the ways in which the production and use of handmade paper have influenced and been influenced by global resource availability in an age of burgeoning exploration and colonization and natural resource extraction. Eating, we know, has human advantages and ecological consequences. Agriculture has profoundly altered our planet. Writing and reading, too, have human advantages and ecological consequences, and on a scale that we have not yet honestly acknowledged in our stories about book history or fully recognized in our studies of environmental history.

Acknowledging and engaging with the ecology of media in other periods and places, this book focuses on a particular medium, paper, in a particular time and place, Renaissance England. Yet the questions I ask of early handmade paper might also be just as productively asked of millennia-old Eastern palm-leaf books or medieval scrolls or Victorian headstones or junk mail or the newest iPhone. They might be distilled into three questions that guide this work: (1) How has scarcity of nonhuman matter altered human communication? (2) How have humans creatively imagined or reimagined the textual possibilities available to them in a given ecosystem? (3) How has human communication been altered by the corruptibility of the nonhuman matter used to make texts? Scarcity. Possibility. Corruptibility. These three ecopoetic negotiations—as pertinent to twenty-first-century ebooks as to sixteenth-century books on handmade paper—guide The Nature of the Page's narrative.


Paper mills required rivers, and I think it is appropriate that two rivers have shaped my own understanding of the nature of the page. I grew up near the source of the Hudson River in the patchwork wilderness of the Adirondack Park, a six-million-acre area—larger than Yellowstone, Everglades, Glacier, and Grand Canyon National Parks combined—of which roughly half is private land (villages, businesses, farms, etc.) and the other half is forest preserve that has been designated "forever wild." With age and reading and train trips down the Hudson River to access rare books in archival libraries came the realization that the Adirondacks were not a sovereign island of wilderness but were and in many ways continue to be New York City's hinterland. My journeys through the watersheds and river valleys between the Adirondacks and archival libraries have shaped this work and have left me unable to think about technology and progress without also asking about wilderness and landscape.

Now in Madison, Wisconsin, I write these words less than fifty miles from where Aldo Leopold once stood on the edge of the Wisconsin River looking at a piece of driftwood and jotting down observations that would, with enough paper and time, become these lines in A Sand County Almanac:

The spring flood brings us more than high adventure; it brings likewise an unpredictable miscellany of floatable objects pilfered from upriver farms. . . . Each old board has its own individual history, always unknown, but always to some degree guessable from the kind of wood, its dimensions, its nails, screws, or paint, its finish or the lack of it, its wear or decay. One can even guess, from the abrasion of its edges and ends on sandbars, how many floods have carried it in years past.

Here Leopold offers what we might now recognize as a material culture reading of lumber that is invested not only in political and cultural systems, but also, and especially, in ecosystems. Drawing attention to "biotic interactions between people and land," Leopold claims that the riparian lumber is "not only a collection of personalities, but an anthology of human strivings in upriver farms and forests." The person who understands human strivings in upriver farms and forests has a kind of ecological literacy to reconstruct the history of a piece of driftwood, Leopold claims. The driftwood serves, in his account, as "a kind of literature" that might be "taught on campuses," a record of the past that is accessible and available to be "read at will." The language he uses to describe the ecological readings is that of eager curiosity tempered by sensible humility: the history of a board, Leopold claims, is "always unknown, but always to some degree guessable from the kind of wood, its dimensions, its nails, screws, or paint, its finish or lack of it, its wear or decay." This language of discovery, of the unknown but to some degree guessable, of drawing on imperfect expertise in an attempt to make the ecologies of media more legible aptly describes the project that The Nature of the Page undertakes.

I quote these lines from a specially issued Leopold Pines Edition of A Sand County Almanac, an edition that, in 2007, was "printed on paper made from pines planted by Aldo Leopold and his family in the 1930s and '40s." In a foreword to the edition, Nina Leopold Bradley, A. Carl Leopold, and Estella B. Leopold, who, as children, helped to plant the very pines from which the volume's paper was made, write of the "happy continuity" of their father's "precious pine trees becoming the medium, the paper, on which we print his moving words." Reading Leopold reading driftwood on pages made from the pine trees he planted with his children is, for me, quite a lot like holding Renaissance books printed or written on handmade paper, objects whose human ecology repeatedly interrupts the text on the page and insists on being read. History is mediated by nature; nature is mediated by history. The Leopold Pines Edition is one of many examples I cite in this book where the nature of the medium, paper, intertwines with the message it carries in complex ways that are mostly unknown, but that are at least partially guessable. The Nature of the Page, then, tells a story about textual habits grounded in and supplied by ecological habitats. It is a story about the plants, animals, and minerals on which the poetry of Shakespeare and his contemporaries was stored and then transmitted across time and space. And it is a story, in the end, about the ecological resources we use now in our attempts to preserve the poetry we have received from the past on thin, pliable, handcrafted leaves of organic matter.

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