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The Bread and Paper Project

Winter 2011
Winter 2011
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Gordon Sisler is a third-generation papermaker with two decades of finepaper industrial experience. For the past ten years he has been proprietor of Emmet Press and Crown Mills Paper where he pursues his artistic work in which he explores the interface of poem, print, and paper. In addition, Sisler is a scientist at the Xerox Research Centre of Canada investigating the relationship of print and paper.  Early in the summer of 2008 my wife Janice Giesbrecht and I, with friends, sowed twelve rows of twelve sorghum seeds in the large garden behind our home in St. Catharines, Ontario. A simple beginning to a project dreamed of for many years: to grow a crop we could transform into two staples of our lives since we were teenagers—bread and paper. Beginning in high school we wrote essays, and later in university, proved mathematical theorems, on paper supplied from the mill where my father worked; and after the activities of the day we ate sandwiches made with brown bread baked by Janice's mother. The sorghum plant, or kaffir, as it is known to my wife's family of Russian Mennonites, would supply nutty grains from its seed head for Janice's bread and papermaking fiber from its stalk for me. >>>

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By the middle of September each plant resembled a corn stalk in height and appearance, bearing at its top an elliptical seed head the size of your hand. We gathered our harvest to dry in my shop. That autumn, we steamed the stalks and laboriously split and scraped the pith and removed the outer layer. Slowly, over many weekends, we accumulated two kilograms of delicately curled bast-like sheaves. By the completion of this task, it was late in the year for papermaking, so the sheaves went into the freezer. Over the winter we threshed the seed heads using a large wooden bowl and mallet, then winnowed them with a vacuum cleaner and fine screen. We gathered the brown and white seeds, each the size of bicycle-wheel ball bearings, and froze those as well. The following year I extracted fiber, cooking liter batches of sorghum sheaves in an alkaline liquor for six to eight hours. After washing, with a small amount of household bleach added, the resulting stock was long-fibered and cream-colored, resembling kozo pulp. One of the mysteries of the craft of papermaking is beating, the process by which the potential of cellulose fibers to form a sheet of paper is realized. It took some experimentation to persuade our Hollander beater to beat the sorghum's extremely long fibers without dewatering and plugging. We formed sheets on 18 x 24-inch and 9 x12-inch moulds using Western handmade techniques. We kept the forming consistency low to ensure thin papers which highlight the lustrous quality of the fibers after calendering. In one of those amazing correspondences between number and truth delighting minds from Plato to Einstein, I ended up making exactly 144 sheets of paper—one sheet per plant. Bread making is underway when the earthenware bowl of sourdough starter appears bubbling on our kitchen counter. The night before a bread day, Janice mixes flour, water, and starter to form a dough sponge which rises while we sleep. Later the next morning, at the end of the second rising, Janice grinds the kaffir seeds and adds them along with additional flour to form a pliable dough. Kneading is to bread, as fundamental and mysterious, as beating is to paper, though the application of force in this case is entirely a matter of fists, shoulder, and elbows. My wife describes it as her favorite form of stress management following a busy week. The elastic dough is separated and placed in three greased pans for the third and final rising, in due time assuming the familiar form of loaves of bread. Janice carefully places them in a heated oven. Afterwards, she turns them from the pans, steaming and golden brown, to cool on racks. Entering the kitchen from outside on a crisp October day, one crosses a threshold of inviting pungency from fallen leaves to freshly baked bread. Sometime when our children were small my wife and I discovered the poem "Bread" by Boris Pasternak, which immediately became a favorite, growing in significance over the years. In this poem Pasternak speaks of two events that lie at the origin of many cultures: the development of agriculture and the invention of the written word. The Bread and Paper Project was an attempt to reenact these origin myths in a family ritual using the craft of mind and hand. The project was complete when I letterpress printed a copy of Pasternak's "Bread" on sorghum paper in the shop where one year before our harvested kaffir stalks hung to dry. Pasternak's poem contains a line—And a harvest field is not just wheat / But a page to understand—which becomes immeasurably richer in meaning as a result of having transformed actual field into actual page. Similarly, having read the words—Written about yourself / In your remote forefather's hand—my wife, kneading dough as she learned from her mother, knowing her grandfather was born in Russia the same year as Boris Pasternak, preserves the past in each loaf of bread.