What’s the First Thing You Ever Made, Patterson Clark?


Although it’s tempting to focus on the contents of my first diaper—which surely saw only a flash of daylight before it was dispatched into the farm-house septic system that nourished a giant sycamore tree generating interlaced wood impossible to split with an axe—I’d rather reset the clock to 2003, when a weed stopped me in my tracks.

By then, I’d already pulled thousands of alien weeds as a park volunteer, helping to alleviate some of the pressure that invasive plants impose upon native vegetation. Removing exotic weeds invites the return of indigenous biological diversity. Spot a weed, rip it out, and native plants and animals have a shot at coming back.

One day, I bent over to yank out a noxious young sapling and a realization suddenly struck me: these fellow colonists were offering a superabundance of material.

With a newfound reverence, I pulled out the sapling and carried it back to the kitchen, where I spent the afternoon trying to figure out how to unwrap its gift.

That afternoon has yawned into nine years, during which that first weed, Hibiscus syriacus, has divulged several of its secrets. Its inner bark yields a strong, cream-colored paper. Left to soak overnight, crushed leaves of the plant produce a gooey “formation aid,” which helps to evenly distribute fibers in the papermaking vat. Wood from older stems is dense, hard and bright white, ideal for inlays into darker weed woods. Burning leftover scraps of the plant produces a fine soot for mulling into jet-black ink.

Many other local invasive plants have revealed their virtues: a fluorescent golden-yellow pigment, a fine-grained wood, well-suited for relief printing blocks; long, flexible bast fibers; pink and green yarn; sloppy-sweet berries; pungent greens; aqua, magenta-rust and green-black pigments for watercolors and printing inks; antimicrobial compounds; essential oils and hydrosols; fuel and chemicals used in the papermaking process.

Many of these extracts reunite at the letterpress, where they get a value-added boost before they enter the marketplace to help finance their own removal.

I left the traditional farm while still a child, but have, in the urban landscape, reclaimed my birthright as a reaper, tapping into a rampant bounty of odd crops that require no cultivation, only harvest.

Image: 11-Stem Note (Weed-wood soot and Multiflora-Rose-stem inks printed from a Norway Maple printing block onto paper made from 11 stems of Garlic Mustard pulled by volunteers at Croydon Creek Nature Center, Rockville, Maryland. Project funded by a grant from VisArts of Rockville, with proceeds of the sale of the print going to the nature center and The Stone and Holt Weeks Foundation.)

Patterson Clark is a visual journalist at The Washington Post, where he writes and illustrates the weekly local natural history column Urban Jungle, http://www.washingtonpost.com/urbanjungle. He posts the produce of his harvest of invasive plants at http://www.alienweeds.com.