About a month ago, I found myself not only writing an essay, “A Dark Path”, but also thinking about how and why I wrote it. This is not the way I usually work. I mean, yes, I write, and yes, I think, but I don’t often see the process that takes me from one to the other so clearly. Or at least not while I am in the heat of writing. Writing is a very intuitive process for me. I don’t start with a plan. I don’t think I’ve ever made an outline. You might be thinking, Well, it shows. (A book of my essays was once turned down by a publisher who scolded me for what he sternly called “a scattergun approach.”) I’m not making an argument for all writers to work the way I do. But I also feel confident (or as confident as someone can be, at this moment, knowing that all the other uncertainties are part of my writing life too) that I’ve evolved a method that is true to what I need to do.
I’m working on a series of connected essays, of which “A Dark Path” is one. I didn’t begin this body of work thinking that I’d be writing individual pieces. I’d thought I was going to write a memoir called Blue Portugal, an extended single text, probably book-length, about family history, wine, genetics, and the colour blue. Blue Portugal? It’s the name of a wine we drank in the Czech Republic when we were invited to teach a short course about B.C. literature at Masaryk University in Brno. I was discovering something of my grandmother’s past when we were there. I’ve written about this before. But I wanted to immerse myself in what I knew, what I could discover, and everything in-between, because it seems to me that part of what we do when we write about the past is to imagine how the spaces might be filled in. The wine seemed like a good touchstone for this investigation because the grape, called Modrý Portugal in the CR, Blauer Portugiese in Austria, Portugizac Plavi in Croatia, Kékoportó in Hungary, and so on, was thought to have come to Austria from Portugal in the 18th century. But recent research by scientists at the Julius Kühn-Institute (JKI), Institute for Grapevine Breeding Geilweilerhof, Siebeldingen, Germany determined that the origins of the grape lie in Lower Styria. I read a paper on this research and was fascinated by how much the work of contemporary ampelographers resembles my own obsession with the early lives of my grandparents, and theirs, and theirs. The paper concluded:
The knowledge about grapevine cultivars progenitors discloses the genetic composition and geographical origin of cultivars, assists to trace back migration routes and to estimate their distribution and importance in former times.
As I’ve been working on Blue Portugal, I find myself taking side-roads. Sometimes those side-roads don’t want to return to the main road. One of them has become “The Blue Etymologies” and it’s the one that calls to me in the night (though luckily not last night because honestly I wanted a whole night of dreams, not a few hours here, an hour there). I’ve been writing about the process of dyeing with indigo and woad and then was surprised that another thread entered the essay in early December after I’d fallen and damaged my retinas. When my ophthalmologist told me that the visual patterns I’d been experiencing, both as a result of the injury and during the examinations with bright lights, were called “entoptic phenomena”, that led me to find out everything I could about the various forms of the phenomena and also what they meant to people who experienced them. That side-road led to others—trails leading to caves used by paleolithic artists to record their own experiences of entoptic phenomena, paths to rooms where people experimented with psychotropic mixtures to summon the phenomena, and even, through Derek Jarman’s sublime Chroma, the urge of artists to use colour to map the soul.
And all the while, writing this essay, I’ve also been sewing, working on two quilts, one “A Dark Path” and one a small indigo-dyed panel I’m quilting with spirals. In one of the books I’ve been reading, by the archaeologist David Lewis-Williams, I was startled to learn that my work with spirals can be interpreted as a valid response to the damage done to my retina:
The exact way in which entoptic phenomena are ‘wired into’ the human nervous system has been a topic of recent research. It has been found that the patterns of connections between the retina and the striate cortex (known as VI) and of neuronal circuits within the striate cortex determined their geometric form…In Stage 2 of the intensified trajectory, subjects try to make sense of entoptic phenomena by elaborating them into iconic forms.
So a road becomes a series of tracks, byways, trails into the mystery. Sometimes I feel as though I’m sewing a map to my own history and sometimes, well, I have no idea where I’m going. I close my eyes. There’s light, spirals, stars falling from winter skies. And blue, so much blue.