Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

November 25, 2007

John McMaster’s Ink

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:40 pm

 Although it seemed to take longer than usual, the terminal stage of autumn has finally gripped the landscape. A majority of the deciduous country trees have converted to their sparse gray winter persona – leaving the evergreens to liven up the scene. As deciduous trees, the oaks should be shedding their leaves as well, but even a cursory look at any local woodlot will reveal that they are stubborn in this regard. The oaks, represented by many different species, now stand out against the woodland profile as the trees clothed in ruddy foliage. As you drive past newly cut cornfields and gaze across the distance at the passing woodlots, the members of the oak clan are easily spotted. Now, more than ever, you can gain an appreciation of just how “ubique gentium” – widespread or universal – they are.

  Being surrounded by oaks is a good thing, by the way, and I have often waxed poetic on their qualities (using dead languages in the process). The distinctive color of their tenacious November leaves is an additional praise-worthy feature. If it hasn’t been done already, I’d like to name a paint color called “toasted oak leaf” in honor of the dead oak leaf. If the Crayola Company wants to add this shade to their new line of crayons, I’ll not stand in their way (although I might ask for a free box of crayons as payment).  This is what “Toasted Oak Leaf,” copyright 2007, looks like.  I’m talking about the hearty nutmeg leaf shade that takes on the appearance of the well cooked edges of a pumpkin pie. In part, this strong oaky color is imparted by a chemical known as tannin.  While the tannin found in oak bark has long been a crucial element in animal hide processing (thus the use of the word “tanning”), the brown leaf tannin has worked itself into another essential part of our past lives. Allow me to explain.

  I recently picked up a copy of “The Rudiments of the Latin Tongue” by Thomas Ruddiman.  This weathered little tome was published in Philadelphia in 1798 and was originally owned by somebody named John McMaster of Canonsburg, Pennsylvania.   John was apparently very proud of his name because he wrote it dozens of times throughout the book.  I know that he bought the book on January 2nd, 1802 because he wrote that down multiple times as well.  I even know that he paid 50 cents for it and that January 6, 1803 was part of a “cold winter”– he only wrote these things once.  Neatly written across the bottom of two pages, our repetitious name dropper penned the words “John McMaster – Aug. 10th, 1805- wrote this with ink of the ink ball” (see here).   This last phrase returns us to the subject of oak leaves.

  Later on in the book, Mr. McMaster awkwardly repeated the same claim at the bottom of the page with “This is the ink of the Ink Ball which this is wrote with” (See here). Somehow I believe that phrase would have looked better in Latin, but I something tells me that John wasn’t paying too much attention to his subject. The point here, and there is one, is that the ink used to deface this book with gentle brown scribbles is derived from oak leaves.  

 From the Late Middle Ages through the mid 19th century, the best quality writing ink was the so-called iron gall ink.  It was made using the concentrated tannin found in Ink Balls, better known as Ink Galls or Oak Apple galls, which are only found on oak tree leaves. In North America these structures are usually found on members of the Black Oak family. A tiny wasp (see here) begins the process in the summer by laying her eggs on the mid rib of the developing oak leaf.  The egg laying location swells up to form a round apple-like gall about 2 inches in diameter (see here) and the grub lives within a capsule at the very center of the gall (see here). Eventually the grub burrows his way out and the gall lies empty by the time fall comes around. As a reaction to the presence of this invader, the leaf concentrates bitter tannins into the structure.

   The old time ink makers gathered these galls and pulverized them. Fermentation or boiling was used to produce the best quality inks. The tannin rich powder was mixed with iron sulfate and Gum Arabic and dissolved in water. The result was a permanent ink that flowed neatly off the end of a quill into such words as “We the People” or “John McMaster, His Book.”

  The gall ink writing that survives to the present day appears brown – just like the new trademarked “toasted” color of the oak leaves, but it was originally black.  John liked his name in black, not subtle brown. Oak gall ink fades to brown over time and slowly absorbs into the paper to form a halo.  Often the acid content actually eats away at the paper and has to be neutralized by museum curators.

  All of this leads us back to the temporary nature of nature itself. Now is the time to appreciate the November oak leaves before they bleach into March blandness. Perhaps this will lead to a small bit of thinking about how different our written history would have been without them. Finally, the sight of these oaks should cause us to cringe as we recall the inane graffiti that we put into our own schoolbooks with fountain, ball point or glitter pen.  Let’s hope you wrote something other than “I’m bored.”

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