Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Megan Heeres invites locals to pitch in to transform unwanted shrubs and grasses into paper.
You might find Megan Heeres steaming woody honeysuckle stems or chopping handfuls of garlic mustard. That’s the first step towards turning the stubborn invasive plants into sheets of paper.
The daughter and granddaughter of gardeners in Battle Creek, Michigan, Heeres worked on urban gardens after moving to Southwest Detroit. A few years ago, she paired up with the national Student Conservation Association to weed out invasive species encroaching on Belle Isle, a 985-acre park in the Detroit River. The island is a prime spot for invasives. Each year, the city’s Department of Natural Resources recruits troops of volunteers to combat thickets of honeysuckle and patches of phragmites, a perennial grass that grows in wetlands.
But Heeres wondered what became of those unwelcome stems and leaves once they were removed. “It feels like a letdown to see the stuff go to waste,” she says. Instead of discarding or burning the uprooted plants, she decided to transform them into something else. They contained cellulose, she realized. They could become paper.
Heeres first cooks them with a base to remove lignin, which keeps the stems rigid, holding the plant aloft. Once the plants are limp, she adds lye or soda ash, then rinses the mixture so it’s safe to touch. Then she macerates it until the fibers yield into a pulp. She pulls the pulp into sheets of paper, then presses them to wring out the moisture.
The chemical process neutralizes the invasives, eliminating the threat that the paper will shed seeds that might mar the landscape or threaten native wildlife. But the finished product doesn’t erase all traces of the plants’ presence. Identifying characteristics still come through: Paper made from invasive grasses feel straw-like and dry. The shorter fibers feel stiffer and less supple. They hold their color, whether it’s yellow or nearly red. Herbaceous plants tend to be greener, Heeres says.
Heeres also views her paper-making project as a way to encourage people to reconnect with an art practice that may have fallen by the wayside they age and redirect their attentions from creative pursuits to attending to the business of daily life. In hosting pop-up workshops, she aims to encourage people to wade back into creative hobbies in a way that feels comfortable and accessible. “Paper is a material that people can really relate to,” she says.
Kids also appreciate the gross-out potential, she says: they sometimes playfully recoil when they stick their hands in the slimy mixtures. In July and August, she’ll work with high-school students during a residency at the Brightmoor Maker Space, a former auto garage that’s re-launching as an incubator and workshop facility, backed by funds from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and the Knight Foundation.
Sometimes, the paper bears at least a metaphorical resemblance to its former incarnation. In an installation last year, Heeres strung the papers from the ceiling, where they looked not unlike fluttering leaves or arching branches. The studio became its own landscape, she says: “It’s an urban forest people have made with paper.”