from “Euclid’s Orchard”: a work-in-progress

“As I said earlier, we ran strands of wire covered with green plastic, stapled to 4×4 posts set into earth with great difficulty, some of them fitted onto pins in plinths created with big boulders and cement (these in areas where the ground was too rocky to dig). We ran strands of barbed wire between these after deer kept getting in between the green wire. We ran strands of wire connected to an electrical source after the deer persisted, and the bears. We bought rolls of chicken wire and unrolled these around the posts, stapling the 8 foot high sections as taut as we could. There was that gate, generously wide so we could bring in our truck, with big baskets for when the trees produced the harvests we thought might be possible. I filed recipes for apple preserves, for plum jams, for bottled cherries in exotic liqueurs.

Finally we gave up, though the chicken wire and the green-covered wire still surround the trees, gaping in places where the animals muscled their way through. We returned the battery, almost unused, because the bears didn’t care about electric fences any more than they were afraid of barbed wire. They didn’t give a fig – and when they discovered the fig tree by the house, they ravaged the young fruit until the tree grew too tall for them to reach and because the trunk grew against the side of the house, they didn’t care to climb it. But down in the orchard they’d eat every pear on the trees and then shit out golden pulp as their own parting barb. Some mornings in summer I walk down the driveway and see the lattice of chicken wire strung with dew-covered spider-webs, glistening in the sun.

The chicken wire is composed of cells like the hexagonal cells bees create from wax taken from abdominal glands of the worker bees and softened in the mouths of house bees. The wax is shaped by their bodies into circles which quickly form into hexagons. Mathematicians such as Pappus of Alexandria attributed this to “a certain geometrical forethought” on the part of the bees — Bees, then, know just this fact which is useful to them, that the hexagon is greater than the square and the triangle and will hold more honey for the same expenditure of material in constructing each.– but modern physics suggests that it is less calculated than that. Bees make cells that are circular in cross-section, all packed together like bubbles. Surface tension in the soft wax pulls the cell walls, as the wax hardens, into hexagonal, threefold junctions. I think I am with Pappus on this one, though. Try dropping circles of wax as close to one another as possible onto a flat surface and watch what happens. I’ve done this, several times, dropping wax from a beeswax candle (for authenticity) and the result is not hexagonal threefold junctions.”


notes from a work-in-progress

Anyone expecting to see regular updates on my Euclid’s Orchard quilt and essay must be thinking I am very lazy indeed. And in a way I am. It’s been a long process to figure out how to translate the material I am working on in the form of this essay to actual tangible quilt blocks. I’m not much a seamstress although I’ve been sewing since grade eight when we made aprons and jumpers in Home Economics. I was careless then, in a hurry to finish so I could have an actual made object in my hands, and I’m careless still. I’ve made more than 25 quilts and the sewing has never progressed to the point where anyone looking at them ever comments on the actual stitching. But never mind. I love the process and if you kind of squint when you look at one of my quilts, you might mistake it for something accomplished.

The problem with this quilt is that I am using images from textbooks, many of them graphic representations of particular mathematical theorems or ideas. I’d thought of simply trying to draw them onto white cotton and then embroidering them to highlight the parts that are relevant to the ideas I’m pursuing in my essay. But when I tried to do the drawings, they were lopsided and I knew that every step along the way would compound this problem. And let’s face it: a person who is careless at sewing isn’t going to be any better at embroidery.

I’ve seen quilts with computer-printed images on them so that seemed like a good solution. I thought I could design the blocks on my computer and then take the files somewhere to be printed. That didn’t work. The place I thought would do it, wouldn’t. So then I planned to print them myself, backing cotton with freezer paper which supposedly makes it possible to use it in a printer. But ours is a  a laser printer, a good one, and those won’t work. (They generate too much heat, apparently.) Finally, after some more weighing and pondering, I ordered an ink-jet printer (which seems like the height of self-indulgence) and bought four packages of specially prepared ink jet printable fabric.

Then I looked at my images again and they seemed awfully busy. I wanted one element to travel from one block to another, to provide continuity. But what could that be? Because this is an essay about mathematics and ideas but also about a real orchard, ours, which is fenced with chicken wire, and because one section of the essay is about bees and how they construct their honeycombs in hexagonal cells (which Pappus of Alexandria attributed to “a certain geometrical forethought”), I decided to use a simple model of those cells which echo the pattern of chicken wire. So here’s one block, just printed, the one I chose to accompany the section of the essay which meditates on inheritance. This uses a graphic representation of dominant and recessive phenotypes:



Something else will happen to this block when the entire quilt top is completed — and so think of it  bordered with Moravian blueprint cotton, brought back from Brno two years ago, and maybe embellished with beads and gold thread among those cells. There will be 14 blocks altogether and I hope I have enough of the blueprint for the top. If not, there will have to be more improvisation…

 When I first began to work on this essay, I wrote this little aria, which I think I posted ages ago. But it’s still at the heart of this work I’m doing, so I will conclude with it.

Aria leading to summer

“Yes, but what can I say about the Parthenon – that my own ghost met me, the girl of 23, with all her life to come…” (Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary, April 21, 1932) How I felt that as I looked at our photographs of White Pine Island – Brendan and Angie in their little bathing suits, Lily on a log, Forrest rowing the boat away from us, my parents smiling the summer of their 40th wedding anniversary. All the years of our family, the warm days, the smell of pine, the silken texture of dry grass flattened under our towels, taste of lemonade from the River Trails thermos jug, all of them collapsed into an hour, a moment, held in my hands, water falling through my fingers. How do I keep my memories intact, how apart from this, a brief time in the middle of the night, darkness pressed to the window by my desk, myself reflected in glass as I sit in my white nightgown, every cell in my body yearning for those I have loved, still love, though the only one left in the sleeping house is John. Whom I have loved, still love.

Emboldened by Virginia, I think of what I want to say, not what form it must take. There will moments when I embellish, or downright invent; there will be brief arias, phrases of poetry, the instructions for making a quilt, for working out the puzzle of Mendelian genetics.