Ecologist John Gaudet is author of a book about papyrus and the role it has played in the growth of civilization.the washington postSun staff photos can be
Ecologist John Gaudet is author of a book about papyrus and the role it has played in the growth of civilization. the washington post

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John Gaudet looks and sounds like he could have walked right out of a Graham Greene novel, or maybe written one of those classic African explorer books.

Seventeen years on the continent for the Rhode Island-born ecologist, most of it mucking about in the papyrus swamps along the Nile, resulted in his own tome, the just-released "Papyrus: The Plant that Changed the World."

Now here he is, in his early 80s, leading you into a sun-drenched room of his house in McLean, Va., urbane, witty, gray hair combed back, a proper mustache, slight pouches under the eyes, talking about ancient Egypt and the tall reed that sustained it -- but wait.

"Remember the map hidden in the cryptex in 'The Da Vinci Code'?" he says, eyes twinkling.

Of course! It's the key to the entire book and movie. The cryptex was a stone cylinder sealed by an extraordinarily complex combination lock. Inside: a tiny map on papyrus paper, wrapped around a vial of vinegar. If one forced open the cryptex without the password, the vial would break, dissolving the papyrus instantly. Da Vinci's code would never be solved.

"Now watch this," he says.

He takes a slip of papyrus paper -- which he made himself -- on which he's sketched a map to his house. He pours a puddle of vinegar into a ceramic dish and -- horrors! -- drops the papyrus into it.

Smoke rises, you say! It vanishes into thin ... nah. Nothing. It just sits there. The map is fine. The key plot twist to one of the most popular books of the last quarter century is ...

"Not true," he says, laughing now. "Vinegar doesn't do anything to papyrus. They could have opened that thing with a hammer."

This is one of the promotional stunts Gaudet pulls in order to draw attention to the diminishing papyrus swamps of Africa, what he considers to be one of the world's most pressing ecological problems. Scrolls, maps, paper -- Gaudet can make it all, right out there in the garage, just to get people interested.

The object of his affection is a monstrous swamp plant, fast-growing and 15 feet tall, living on interlocking mats of peat with long roots in water underneath. The roots work as a natural filtration system; the bushy umbels at the top are home to birds, both migrating and otherwise.

"My goal in writing this, is helping to save the Sudd," he says, naming the vast swamp in southern Sudan. "It's three times the size of the Everglades, but the wetlands, the swamps, in Africa, they're disappearing."

Gaudet knows this firsthand. After growing up in Rhode Island, he studied on a Fulbright scholarship in India, bounced back to California for more study, then wound up teaching at Makere University in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. This was during the Idi Amin era.

"There were swamps all over the place then," he says. He and his wife at the time lived on one of the hills outside town. At sunset, thousands of bats would come out of the caves on the hillside.

When the Amin regime got too frightening -- torture, murder, political hits -- he relocated to Kenya, eventually working for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Meanwhile, the papyrus swamps were being drained, built over. Nowhere is this more evident than Egypt. No such swamps of any size are still there. In ancient days, people predicated their entire life around the plant.

"The earliest boats, houses and temples were made from the stems of papyrus," he writes. "Papyrus rope was used to move monuments, build pyramids, and craft items around the house. The fish they ate were nursed by the swamps; the wild birds they captured wintered in the swamps. If all else failed, they could use papyrus as fuel to cook with, and if they were hungry they could eat it, and when they died they went by papyrus boat to their heaven: the greatest papyrus swamp of all, the Field of Reeds."

And there was paper.

Ancient Egyptians discovered that when you peeled papyrus stems, then dampened and cut the interior pith into strips about 12 inches long -- then cross-laid them with other strips -- the mat held together as a sheet once the water was pressed out. This gave the Western world its predominant writing material, whether in scrolls or in folded form as books, or codices.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead, the guide to the afterlife, was printed on papyrus, as were the overwhelming majority of Bibles and everything from shopkeepers' bills to Roman government documents. It was used from as early as 3,000 B.C. to the 10th century -- a span of 4,000 years.

Thus, the ecologist's love affair with the plant that has, in its way, sustained much of his adult life.

"I was just always amazed that papyrus was virtually unstudied," he says. "This plant, which has meant so much to the world's history, and no one seems to know how important it is until it disappears."