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Outdoors: Declaration

oak gall-4th of July.jpg

The ink used to write the Declaration of Independence comes from an oak-tree-produced ball, the oak gall.

On July 3, back in 1776, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.”

Adams was explaining that the Continental Congress had approved a resolution for independence and, he continued, “it ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”

The next day, July 4, the wording of The Declaration of Independence was adopted. And this week, throughout our nation, Fourth of July festivities far exceed anything Adams could have imagined. But perhaps over the holiday weekend, you might want to avoid the crowds and noise. Take a walk in the forest, and perhaps, kicking through the dead leaves under oak trees, you might find a few little brown spheres with historical significance.

Understand that the Declaration of Independence was not signed until August 2, 1776. Timothy Matlack, a clerk in the Pennsylvania State House, had to find a large piece of fine parchment, plan the spacing so there would be room for signatures, figure out how to make the lines straight and acquire black ink.

And that ink – the ink which spelled out the words “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" – was made from oak galls.

An oak gall is an oak tree’s reaction to having an egg laid in a leaf by a little wasp. When the egg hatches, a tiny insect larva feeds on the juicy leaf and then releases a secretion that causes the leaf to grow a protuberance – a little ball. This ball, called an oak gall, protects the immature wasp from predators and also provides food in “climate-controlled” comfort until the larva becomes an adult and leaves the gall through a tiny hole.

A gall is filled with tannic acid, so ever since the time of the Roman Empire, people have collected galls in the forest and pulverized them. After adding water, gall powder was boiled and filtered to render a liquid that, when combined with iron sulfate (which can be scraped off an old nail) and a binder called gum arabic, results in a long-lasting ink.

On the days around July 4th, or better, all through the year, finding an oak gall on the forest floor should remind us of the inspiring words which changed the course of history and gave us our precious democracy.

"Outdoors with Coggin Heeringa" can be heard every Wednesday on Classical IPR.