This is the indigo dye vat of a few years ago. I’m getting ready for another dye session, perhaps when my daughter visits in July. It’s a pull, a yearning. To prepare the materials, to mix the powders, to plunge tied bundles into the vat once, twice, four times. To unwrap and drape on the clothes line. A deeply satisfying thing, the creation of pattern on a plain surface, and then to stitch the finished cloth into something else, quilts mostly.
This weekend I read Sara Baume’s handiwork, a book about writing and making. Her particular handwork is the making of birds from plaster moulds. Photographs throughout the book show these elegant creations, painted and smooth. Accompanying the descriptions of working on them are meditations on bird migration, the importance of tools, the legacies of our parents and grandparents in our bodies and our daily work.
If my granddad was wood and my dad was iron, then what am I?
My father was a radar technician and a gunsmith. He had tools in his basement and he spent hours at his workbench, polishing the beautiful woods he used when he restored stocks or made new ones himself. I remember being about 10 years old and feeling drawn to his workbench, wanting desperately to make something myself. There were the chisels, the drillpress, the fragrant oils. My hands wanted to know how to hold them, how to smooth the wood and oil it and bring out its grain. My dad had the patience to take a radio apart and put it together again, to make a rowboat, to teach himself celestial navigation in his later years, but he didn’t have the patience to teach me how to use his tools. Did I ask? I don’t remember. But I remember watching him, wanting to know how things fit; I remember sitting on the basement stairs as he sharpened his chisels and knives, the sound of the whetstone, and the scent of the oil he used for honing. He wouldn’t have understood why I like indigo dye and the whole process of not knowing the results. That would have puzzled him. Sara’s dad was puzzled by her art school sculptures but he converted an old greenhouse into a studio for her. My dad was reluctant to share his typewriter, bought at Goodwill, and used to keep careful records of my older brother’s hockey team statistics.
Last night, reading handiwork, I heard loons down on Sakinaw Lake. It was a lonely sound but also self-contained and comforting. As I am self-contained, though lonely, when I dip my tied bundles into indigo dye on calm mornings. I felt that old compulsion: how could I make something to hold everything I knew, everything I loved, that would allow me to use my hands and follow their instinct, on paper, with cloth and thread. To include somehow the return of the tanagers, the first morning of birdsong, the high cry of snow geese flying south in autumn. The fish in Haskins Creek. The grace of swallows around me as I swim each morning. The kingfishers.
William Morris–artist, designer, writer, activist, socialist–agreed that hands know what they must do without instruction, that the objects shaped by their ancestor’s phalanxes and phalanges and metacarpals for thousands of years remain in the memory compartment of their tiny brains, in the same way as birds know which way to fly without being guided or following a plotted course, without a book that provides detailed drawings and plans with parts and kits to accompany it.
I put handiwork on the bed beside me last night and thought about how Sara Baume has written a book that isn’t one thing or another. It’s not a book of writing rules or etiquettes. You won’t learn how to shape a bird yourself using plaster and knives and paint. The photographs of birds held up, their beaks poignant, their paint glossy — what are they anyway? She doesn’t say.* This is a book about mysteries and an admirable attention to them. How a bird flies from islands off the Northumbrian coast to Antarctica, and back, adjusting its navigational compass to account for winds, and how somehow the act of making can echo that, pay homage to that.
The wonder and awe, the catharsis and reassurance–the guilty bliss– of a fresh small object placed into the world; some entirely unique, inimitable thing that didn’t exist just a couple of hours ago, and which I have brought into existence myself–alone and utterly. A trail of progress I can see; I can feel; I can place; I can move around in a shaft of light; I can hold aloft to the damaged planet.
Some days I think, Why bother? Why bother with writing books that get lost in the ebb and flow of the literary conversation, their voices a little quiet and timorous for these times? Or quilts, because honestly does anyone need another one in a world filled with stuff? But my hands need the work, my mind needs what happens when my hands find their way to loop and tie and dip and stitch. The way I find myself weeping when I see the cloth hanging on the clothesline, the books arriving in a courier’s van. See, you did this. It’s not quite what you meant to do (is it ever?) but you did this. On the cover of handiwork, a whole little flock of painted birds, ready to fly.
*Actually she does say. I didn’t see the note at the end of the book in which she lists the species. Not the pages so you sort of have to count and hope that you’ve actually found the hooded crow, the pied wagtail…