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Papyrus: The Plant that Changed the World: From Ancient Egypt to Today's Water Wars Hardcover – June 15, 2014

ISBN-13: 978-1605985664 ISBN-10: 160598566X Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Pegasus; 1 edition (June 15, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 160598566X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1605985664
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #196,659 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Is there anything that papyrus can’t do? The tall, tassel-topped reed can be made into boats, mats, baskets, ropes, and, of course, paper. But its greatest usefulness may be serving as a natural water treatment plant, a role that occupies much of Gaudet’s presentation of a plant he has intensively studied. Describing various regions of Africa where papyrus swamps still exist, Gaudet explains their ecological effect of keeping water clean, their potential to ameliorate pollution, and the contextual politics of water use. Along the Nile River, at Lake Tanganyika and environs, and further south on the Zambezi and Okavango Rivers, Gaudet touts the potential of papyrus to contribute to solutions of neighboring countries’ conflicts over water. But papyrus-the-peacemaker is not what most readers associate with the plant; it is ancient Egypt, with which Gaudet begins his book. Noting its former range (little papyrus grows in modern Egypt), Gaudet ambles from properties of papyrus that underlie its usefulness to its ubiquitous depiction in pharaonic art and monumental architecture. Offering abundant information, Gaudet’s combination of environmental advocacy and botanical objectivity forms a unique resource about a unique organism. --Gilbert Taylor


“A versatile plant that has played a huge ecological and economic role, papyrus is brought into focus by John Gaudet in this outstanding book – a fascinating read, an enlightening story.” (Peter H. Raven, President Emeritus, Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis)

“This fascinating and beautifully written book is an absolute eye opener into the extraordinary world of papyrus. John Gaudet has a remarkable story to tell, and he tells it extremely well. This is a wonderful, enlightening book with an important message for those concerned with the fragile ecology of our world.” (Alexander McCall Smith, bestselling author of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency)

“Bravo! Not only does Papyrus tell you everything about papyrus, it is a great read. The section on how to build a papyrus boat is hard to put down! The explanation of just how crucial papyrus was to ancient Egypt's development is masterfully and convincingly told. I love the illustrations.  They explained tomb painting I have been looking at for 40 years in ways I never imagined.” (Bob Brier, "Mr. Mummy" Egyptologist, author, TV host, Great Courses "The History of Ancient Egypt," Senior Research Fellow at Long Island University)

“A fascinating account of the plant that provided the world with paper for the first four thousand years of its history. I learned a lot from this book, not only about papyrus but also about how wetlands can serve as filters for waste-water and how marshes and tropical swamps can help conserve valuable water.  Lively and well written.” (Jean-Daniel Stanley, Senior Scientist Emeritus, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.)

“The hardy reed that stood at the center of ancient Egyptian civilization can foster sustainable growth in the 21st century, asserts ecologist Gaudet...The challenges are daunting, but Gaudet’s detailed, undogmatic account of multiple attempts to counter overdevelopment with better practices inspires cautious optimism.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“One of the ways that papyrus changed the world was by providing the model, both structural and spatial, for the first temple complexes. The history of western architecture begins with the papyrus plant. John Gaudet tells a fascinating tale of the transmutation of vegetable into mineral, of graceful stems and umbels into the first stone columns, and of gladed swamps into sacred precincts. Architects and architectural historians should read this book and learn more about the beautiful and useful plant that inspired the earliest works of monumental architecture.” (Colin Davies, Former Editor of the Architects’ Journal and Professor of Architectural Theory at London Metropolitan University)

More About the Author

A Fulbright Scholar to both India and Malaya, John is a writer and practicing ecologist. His early research on the ancient aquatic plant, papyrus, funded in part by the National Geographic Society, took him to Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia, and many other places in Africa. A trained ecologist with a Ph.D. from University of California at Berkeley, his writing has appeared in Science, Nature, Ecology, the Washington Post, Salon and Huffington Post.

Customer Reviews

4.9 out of 5 stars
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See all 19 customer reviews
A fun and fascinating read.
Ava Talbott
The modern use of the swamps as filters may help control the further pollution of Africa's great inland waters.
weston fisher
John is so open and innocent in his comments that you have to love the guy.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By DRBarker on July 7, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Papyrus is a sedge, one among several classes of swamp plants called “reeds.” Papyrus swamps are distributed widely along rivers and lakes in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East, where they drive some of the most productive plant communities on earth. John Gaudet, an Ecologist, has studied this plant throughout his long professional career, and this book constitutes both an informal encyclopedia of the plant and the swamps it inhabits and a demonstration of an ecological approach.

In ancient times, papyrus grew thickly along the banks of the Nile River, all the way from Lake Victoria to the delta at the Mediterranean shores. From Neolithic times to about 900 AD, Egyptians used it for all sorts of things; houses, boats, rope, and, most famously, paper, whose very name comes to us from this plant. Quite apart from its usefulness to people, papyrus swamps played a key role in controlling the speed and volume of the Nile River water and creating habitats for birds, fish, and mammals.

Fast forward to the industrial age, which is the focus of about 80% of the book. Swamps are commonly viewed as untamed, backward places that need to be drained and cleared for farming and better access to their water.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By David Wineberg TOP 1000 REVIEWER on May 29, 2014
Format: Hardcover
In 1960, Flanders & Swann had a song in their review At The Drop Of A Hat, called The Wom-Pom Song. It praised a miracle plant, all of which could be used and which solved basically every problem of mankind (Chorus: “There is nothing that the Wom-Pom cannot do”). They might have been inspired by the papyrus plant, as explained and examined by John Gaudet.

From rope to paper to clothing to flooring to boats, papyrus ruled. It grew wild in effusive abundance, and all you had to do to cultivate it was – nothing. For four thousand years, Egypt was the sole source for paper in the western world, which led empires to crave it – Egypt, that is. It wasn’t until 1000 AD that papyrus began to fade as the paper of record.

I particularly liked the way delta-living Egyptians built houseboats out of papyrus, which floated during the flood season, and beached during the dry season, allowing the papyrus to dry out over a few months before the waters rose again. By bundling papyrus tightly, the Egyptians created air tanks that formed the hulls of their boats and rafts, giving them high buoyancy and long life.

On the paper front, the wild, uncultivated, 18 ft tall plant and the stunningly simple process to make paper from it, led Egypt to supply the known world. Gaudet says the bureaucratic Roman Empire would have ground to a halt if Egypt had stopped shipping boatloads of paper.

Unavoidably, I suppose, the story deteriorates from the upbeat to the disastrous, as papyrus has disappeared from Egypt. We have drained the swamps they need, abandoned the water purification they provide, poisoned the ground with artificial fertilizers and dumped raw sewage into the Nile in the billions of gallons – per day.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By M. Salmon on June 3, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Papyrus is a book written with passion, knowledge and experience.
John Gaudet starts by reviewing the history of the papyrus plant and how especially in ancient Egypt it played an important part in the economic life of one of the early superpowers – the Egyptians used papyrus in boat construction, in rope manufacture and, most importantly, to make paper (which word derives from papyrus).
In the middle section of Papyrus John Gaudet begins to unravel the complex issues that surround swamps and wetlands, past, present & future. Water thirsty nations look upon swamps as a source of additional water supplies – those dependent on the swamps for their own livelihoods are generally vulnerable to the depredations of those with greater resources. And what are the ecological consequences of draining a swamp? John Gaudet has travelled widely across Africa and the Middle East to examine the benefits and the costs...
In part 3, John Gaudet promotes the benefits of maintaining swamps, one of the greatest being the ability of papyrus swamps to filter pollutants out of water cheaply and effectively.
Perhaps there will be those with sufficient clout who, having read this book and seen what needs to be done, are able to push through the necessary social, political or economic changes to prevent existing swamps from being drained or re-establish swamps where they can cleanse polluted lakes, rivers or estuaries.
I recommend Papyrus as an enjoyable read for anyone interested in the history and geography of Africa and more particularly Egypt. If you have a particular interest in ecology, I’d say Papyrus is a must read book. And all of us who are concerned about the environment and the dangers of water pollution should be fascinated by his explanation of how papyrus is a natural filter for wetland pollution.
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