Back in late 2013, I wrote a piece for Book Arts/Arts du livre Canada, the magazine of the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild. The editor wanted a description/announcement rather than a critical review for Decomp, Stephen Collis/Jordan Scott, Coach House Books, Toronto, 2013.

Much about the book disappointed me, but I did manage to find some good things to say because the book was nicely produced by Coach House.

Here’s what I did with the book after writing the piece:

and here’s what I wrote.

Several projects in recent years have involved placing books outside. Some were large temporary installations, like Literature vs Traffic by Spanish collective Luzinterruptus, which appeared under the Brooklyn Bridge in 2010 and in a larger iteration in Melbourne, Australia for a month in 2012. Some involved single books and the photographic documentation of their decay. The largest on-going project in Canada began in 2010: Jardin de la Connaissance, designed by Berlin landscape architect Thilo Folkerts and Canadian artist Rodney LaTourelle, was installed at Jardins de Métis for the eleventh International Garden Festival. Thousands of discarded books were used to create walls, floors, and benches in a forest clearing. The books were inoculated with mushroom spawn and the installation was left to return to the forest.

All of these undertakings used random discarded books, so I was intrigued by the project of poets Stephen Collis and Jordan Scott. They took one specific text, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and placed copies in multiple outdoor locations in British Columbia. These were left to be altered by the environment —weather, wildlife, random hikers— and collected after a year. The books were photographed, in situ where possible, then Collis and Scott wrote poetry in response to the found text.

The result is Decomp. Organised by locale, each copy of Darwin’s book is illustrated generously with colour photographs. The text includes the “readable” portion of the exposed book, diary entries describing both the placement of the book and its retrieval, and the poets’ writings in response to the found text. There are supplementary quotations from Darwin and others, and a foreword by Jonathan Skinner.

Decomp is well designed, a challenge when so many disparate forms of writing need to be brought together cohesively. To my delight, it has one of the best colophons I have encountered in some time. My compliments to Coach House Books on a job well done.

Nailing the book to a tree was most satisfying. It seemed an appropriate destiny for a book based on letting brand new copies of On the Origin of Species rot in various locations. I have been monitoring the book since January 3, 2014, and David and I have photographed it occasionally. Two weeks after putting it out (and after a fairly big snow storm with high winds) it looked like this:

Not a lot of difference — just a bit of rotation, some fanning of the pages, and a few dinged corners. After eleven months it looked like this:

The paper and ink used by Coach House have held up remarkably well. The book continued to change very slowly, but I was waiting for something special to happen. It finally did.


After twenty months of waiting, I got exactly the result I had hoped for: bald-faced hornets are turning the book into something useful. About 12 meters (40 feet) from the book, in a cluster of small branches, they are building a nest.

A really big nest.

I suspect that materials other than Decomp are being used —bits of tree bark, wood, and leaves— but the book is definitely a major source of cellulose.

As I mentioned on last Friday’s post, I have made paper using abandoned hornet nests. There is a possibility that Decomp might experience an even further recomposition.


A later post containing additional information may be found here.


About Byopia Press

I have been working in the book arts field for more than thirty years, and operating Byopia Press with my husband David since the late 1990s. I began producing artist's books and altered books in 2004. I also create prints and drawings that are frequently text-inspired or text-based.
This entry was posted in altered books, art, book arts, Design, publishing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Recomp

  1. mary kritz says:

    What a fabulous way to incorporate nature. Very special.


  2. Judith Hoffman says:

    Excellent post! Great idea, too. I think the chewed paper edges are so beautiful. I can’t imagine how it would be possible to re-create them without hornets.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. lcmt says:

    This is both beautiful and exotic to me, as I have no experience with wasp nests.


  4. lcmt says:

    I also like the white trim on the wasps’ black bodies. Very stylish, very art deco.


  5. vdbolyard says:

    very cool on every level. i have tried making paper from a paper nest…i’ve seen many re-compositions of sections of the paper nests that were glued down to make a new decorative sheet, but i can say that the pulp i made from the nest was more like mud than pulp. completely macerated and fibers so small they couldn’t be caught by the screen on my mould. really yucky. but interesting, i suppose. i put it in the compost.


    • Byopia Press says:

      I have done the collage thing with wasp paper. It was rather brittle and hard to work with. I have also produced the sludge you refer to. (Mine also went in the compost.) My best result was using small hand torn sections of nest as inclusions in paper made from another fibre. I’ll make another batch this winter (after the nest is empty) and write a post about it.


  6. As others have remarked before, the half used, half eaten paper has some appeal, maybe using the remains somehow could be rewarding, too, maybe even more so than using the wasp nest from what I read here about your papermaking attemps.
    Mhm, I have no personal experience with wasp nests. Could they maybe just sliced open, refilled, as used as an artifact container?


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  8. Audra says:

    This post was spectacular and is of particular interest to me – I am a book conservator and my business is named “The Vespiary.” Cheers!


    • Byopia Press says:

      Hi Audra, Glad you liked the post. I haven’t visited your blog for a while. I certainly remember the saga of the shed-to-studio conversion!


      • Audra says:

        Ah yes! It HAS been a while then. Since then I’ve moved out and now my shop runs out of a cafe! I kind of dropped updating the blog, but I do post to The Vespiary’s FB page semi-regularly:


      • Byopia Press says:

        Not sure how a binder runs a shop out of a café (every business now seems to require a coffee shop): large workroom hidden in the back, perhaps? Actually I have checked your blog from time to time since the conversion, but apparently missed the news of the change of venue. Love your work and hope things are going well.


  9. Debi says:

    I love how it appears from your write up that your favorite part of the book, Decomp, was the colophon! 😉


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  14. Brillaint idea, I love it!

    – esme waving upon the Cloud


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  16. Chris Ruston says:

    What an absolutely fabulous process and outcome! It doesn’t get much better than this when working collaboratively with nature 😆. Beautiful.


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