I made my own ink for the apocalypse

Meg Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley. Her debut novel, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, won the 2014 Philip K. Dick Award. Its companion, The Book of Etta, is now available. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes like she’s running out of time.

As an author of apocalyptic fiction, I get letters from all over the globe from people who are more prepared for the end of the world than the average individual. Many of them focus on the more popular aspects of prepping: growing and/or storing food, conserving water and even building their own cisterns, and weapons training and storage to be ready for the worst. When I first started writing in this subgenre, I thought about my own odds of survival in the worst sort of worlds. Nobody really survives nuclear war, so I didn’t build a bomb shelter. I’m not the fastest of my friends, so I hope to provide means of escape for them by being tasty zombie food. But those slow apocalypses allow for me to examine what my own role might be in another kind of world. The question is: would writers still write? Could I, if I had the time?

In my second book, it’s been a century since Bic and Parker and Pilot shut down. There are no new pens and ink isn’t as simple as one might think. In most cases, it’s a complicated combination of pigments, fixatives, and preservatives. When imagining a post-industrial future, it helps to examine the pre-industrial past. What did people do before pens and ink were cheap?

In my research, I found that most inks start with a natural source of pigment. Many plants like berries and grasses have a little color, as anyone who’s ever stained the knees of their jeans can tell you. Better still are the inky secretions of deep sea creatures: octopodes, squids and cuttlefish. However, these are deep sea creatures and even though I live on the Pacific, I’m not sure how I would catch one. I dug deeper.

In a public library’s photo archive, I came across high-quality digital images of letters written in the nineteenth century in the U.S., many of them around the time of the Civil War. Their homely ink was brown, not quite opaque, and seemed handmade. A little more digging led me to fascinating descriptions of how walnut hulls (the fibrous material surrounding the shell of a walnut as it grows on a tree) could be boiled to produce this black-brown colored substance that was passable as ink and was commonly used to hastily dye clothes into mourning-dark hues. In isolated and rural places, where true black was costly or inaccessible, everything was rendered in this dark brown by careful work.

From the pages of a 250-year-old diary, I found instructions. Gather walnut hulls from a tree; even better if you can pick up slightly rotted ones from the ground, for these are darker. Boil in clean water for half a day, until liquid is reduced by half. Lit sit overnight. Strain, and add a dash of aged spirits, for preservation. In my case, I used 100-proof vodka.

On the website for my city, I found historical markers for walnut and oak trees that were over 200 years old. It wasn’t quite a walk back in time, but I did go out gathering after dark. That felt more like a dystopian adventure. I found the rottenest hulls I could, largely piled up in the gutter near the tree. I put them on the boil and left the stove on overnight.

In the morning, I strained it and added the vodka. When the slightly thickened mixture had cooled, I had two small bottles of brown, sour-smelling ink. I used a dip pen with a fine nib to test it out and found that it printed clearly and stayed visible even after drying. It didn’t clog my pen or bleed out into the paper. I could make it with what was lying around; I could even brew my own spirits if I had to. (That, too, is another common way to prepare for the apocalypse; scratch the surface of a home brewer or distiller and you’ll find paranoia running wild and deep.)

Writing is a luxury born of a leisure class. In most apocalyptic scenarios, people will need to scramble for food, shelter, and safety as life resumes it nasty, brutish, and short default settings. Any world’s end that offers us the time to brew ink to tell our stories is a good one. But like those preppers who write to me from their carefully cataloged canned-food empires, I am ready. I am prepared to keep telling stories long after the world that gave them to me is gone.


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