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Can a Papermaker Help to Save Civilization?

22 February 2012

Each November, a papermaker named Timothy Barrett gathers a group of friends and students on the grounds of the University of Iowa Research Park, a onetime tuberculosis sanitarium in Coralville, Iowa, for what he bills as a harvest event. Armed with hook-shaped knives, Barrett and his party hack away at a grove of bare, shrublike trees called kozo, a Japanese relative of the common mulberry. At his nearby studio, which is housed in the former sanitarium’s laundry facility, the bundles of cut kozo are steamed in a steel caldron to loosen the bark. After the bark is stripped from the kozo, it is hung on racks, where it shrivels to a crisp over a matter of days. Eventually the bark is rehydrated and sliced apart from its middle, “green” layer, and that layer, in turn, is sheared from the prized inner layer. It takes about a hundred pounds of harvested kozo trees to yield eight pounds of this “white bark,” from which Barrett will ultimately make a few hundred sheets of what connoisseurs consider to be some of the world’s most perfect paper.