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Ellen's Communication Diary Day 1 2 3

Day Two

The boiled inkweed was a dark grey-green, not black as I expected. I’ve stirred it quite a bit, hoping that it will oxidize and turn black.

Mike is testing new versions of his pens.

I headed out to the hills in a four-wheel drive vehicle and really needed the four-wheel drive. The sound man with us (yes, we always have a camera and sound crew, plus a director with us) covered his eyes as we wound our way up a steep, narrow road complete with rocky outcrops on one side and a precipitous drop on the other. It really wasn’t so bad, but my driving was honed when I worked in the Amazon regions of Ecuador and Brazil. Slick Amazon clay with 100 ft drops on either side of the road and bridges made of two single logs barely wide enough for each tire were par for the course. They made for nerves of steel.

In any case, we made it into the hills, collected sagebrush, and were about to head out when I spotted cochineal. Granted, cochineal isn’t a plant - it is an insect that lives on certain species of cactus - but cochineal dye has been known for centuries. It was once only second to gold in terms of value. Peru exported 640 tons of cochineal last year as a natural food and cosmetic colouring, as well as for other things requiring a brilliant scarlet red. Female cochineal insects are pretty sedentary on cactus pads. Males have wings, fly around and mate with females, and die after a few days. Females live by sucking the juice out of the cactus with their mouth parts. They are covered in a white, waxy substance that helps hold in humidity, while reflecting sunlight, so they are well adapted to arid, sunny areas.

I collected as many as I could in the short time I had, before I had to get back to the mine. It wasn’t much, but cochineal is quite concentrated. I also collected one cactus pad infested with cochineal to show Kate how they live, though I don’t think I will tell anyone about them until I find out how the inkweed works out. It is good to have a surprise up my sleeve if needed.

I also found a sufficient supply of apricot mallow leaves. It was crazy, going around looking for thin stems with few leaves, but I did find one hardy plant with lots of leaves. I’ve got them in to boil in water for several hours. The liquid should thicken when cooled.

I also ran across tansy mustard in fruit, so I collected its teeny-weeny seeds to grind up and use as a starch-based thickener. We’ll see which one works better in Mike’s ball point pen.

I also collected several Joshua tree leaves as possible nibs for the capillary action. The Joshua tree “forest” (it is actually more savannah than forest) is so striking, the quintessential silhouette of this area.

The sagebrush is useless as an ink.

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Ellen McCallie
Scientist Diaries

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