Friday, July 3, 2015


Walking on the Iron Horse Trail, I pick up oak galls along the way. The galls are created when wasps deposit their eggs in the crust or foliage of an oak tree. The oak, protecting itself, wraps around the irritation and forms what looks like balls on its limbs, like a skin tag, like fruit, but the galls are not edible. Inside they look like the rest of the tree: wood. They are dry and seem to be useless, except that calligraphers have made ink from them for a long time. Oak gall ink was commonly used by monks to write in the Middle Ages. People in that era also used oak gall and walnut inks to identify thieves. They would submerge their hands in the ink, which is hard to clean off. Shakespeare makes reference to the oak gall ink in Twelfth Night:

"Go, write it in a martial hand; be curst and brief; it is no matter how witty, so it be eloquent, and full of invention: taunt him with the license of ink...Let there be gall enough in thy ink, though thou write with a goose-pen, no matter: about it." (Sir Toby Belch, Twelfth Night, Shakespeare, 3.2.42)

Looking at the dry innards of the galls, I wonder how anyone thought that ink could be made from them. Here is a recipe to try:

In equal amounts add chopped up oak galls, water, ferrous sulfate, and gum arabic. Let the mixture sit for a couple of weeks, stirring occasionally.

 The Internet is full of ideas about making oak gall ink. An inventive person suggested using steel wool in place of the iron sulfate (if you have an aversion to using toxic chemicals like I do) or placing the galls and water in an old iron pot to soak. Another alternative would be to soak iron nails in vinegar first and then add them to the mixture.

In folklore medicine, oak gall extract, without the ferrous sulfate, is used to improve woman's vaginal health. But I use the ink to draw with because I love its warm sepia tones.

I walk along the trail collecting the many galls that have fallen recently. The gall's outside is a smooth yellow ochre except where the wasp larvae dug out of their bed. Like an egg, something wonderful, and difficult to paint as you can see from my first attempt.

I'm having trouble making the galls look round and three-dimensional so I draw one because I know I can make that happen with a pencil.

Now at last, I am beginning to realize the shapes. Just a sketch, but good practice:

Today is a day of looking closely at something I've collected, to understand how it is formed and what its uses are. What do you collect that makes you want to know more about it?

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