This chapter is about physically joining things together in the world, and how the metaphor of weaving and tying can help us link into the web of life in a real and practical way.
Seeing the links between disparate objects and events can be very difficult these days. The world we live in, and are part of, has become very ‘large’. We are no longer living in small clans or village communities that provide us with everything we need to survive. For most of us who read this book the ‘things’ we have in our everyday lives are sourced from all over the globe and not from our immediate surroundings, as they were a few hundred years ago, so the effects of our actions are not so easily noticed. For example, when we buy a book it may have been printed and bound on the other side of the planet from the original timber from which it was made and which might have been logged a thousand miles away from the printing press, whilst the printing might have used inks made from GM soya beans in yet another part of the world. The energy used to print and transport this book to you will have come from fossil fuels or renewable energy. Whichever it is, there will be a whole gamut of effects on the environment, locally and globally.
It is very difficult to see the actual effects of the consumer choices we make. By encouraging joined up thinking, we encourage our children to see the world as a plethora of interwoven systems, not a bunch of objects and events isolated in time and space. We can encourage inquisitiveness by tugging on a strand of the web of life and asking what happens if I do ‘this’.
For example, let’s consider a lime tree, Tilia cordata, for example. A tree is just a tree? No, it is an ecosystem, providing habitat and food for a whole host of organisms from bacteria to birds. How could a tree such as a lime tree have affected humans? Surely it is a separate object and if we have no reason to have a relationship with the plant now, what has it got to do with us? What are the links?
There may be a clue in the name cordata - lime trees make excellent cordage! By making string from the plant, we begin to see how the strands of circumstance relate to our lives. The inner bark, or bast, has been used by humans for thousands of years to make string and rope of many thicknesses. It could be that some lime-bark cordage was used to bind the fletchings of an arrow one of your ancestors used to kill a deer that sustained her through one tough winter. Without that meat and hide she would have died and you wouldn’t be here now. Perhaps one of your ancestors made a raft of wood lashed together with lime bark rope and that raft made it to the island your other ancestors lived on. It may be that now you drink some kind of relaxing herb tea, with linden blossom in it (Tilia species blossom), to help your mind unwind from business so you can sleep peacefully and therefore cope with the next day. Perhaps the honey you eat is partially made from nectar that bees have collected from Tilia trees. Who knows how many links you have with a lime tree, past and present. If you start tugging at the web of life, you will soon see that all things are connected…
Stephen Harold Buhner is an ecologist who has been studying the effects of the medicines we humans use to heal ourselves on the environments we live in. In his brilliant book on the ecological importance of plants and plant medicines to life on earth, The Lost Language of Plants, he reveals some of the incredible ways natural systems are affected by the chemicals we, and other organisms, produce. Buhner suggests human kind is at a very interesting point in its history in that we are making so many profound and invisible changes that we cannot possibly keep track of them. We are loosing the thread, so speak, of the effects we have on the world around us.
Cordage, be it a sewing thread or a thick mooring rope for ocean liners, is made from many separate fibres, all wound together to produce a cord, turning a chaotic bundle of fibres into a yarn made up of plies, twisted round and round each other. DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid), is a double helix made from simple chemical elements wound round and round each other. Up close, it looks like a two-ply yarn. DNA makes up hereditary material present in the nucleus of cells, the building blocks of all living organisms.
Humans all over the world, for thousands of years, have made cordage. Cordage making was one of the first craft processes to be industrialised. Cloth making was a significant driving force in the industrial revolution and subsequently the way the first computers were designed. We humans would not be who we are today without this ability to turn the ‘chaos’ of nature into all kinds of clothes, chemicals, and machines. It may be that our ability to turn nature into order might, in turn, spin our civilisations back into chaos.
Making cordage by hand involves repetitive movements of fingers and hands. Some people say crafts involving repetitive movements with both hands develop links between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and strengthens the myelin sheath. The myelin sheath is an insulating material essential to proper functioning of the nervous system in vertebrates (animals with backbones). It helps signals travelling along axioms, (a very long thin kind of nerve cells), to stay on track as they weave through the nervous system. This in turn helps with the deliberate, ordered movement required to operate a large body with many moving parts.
Repetitive crafts like cordage making, weaving, spinning and knitting seem to bring order to the psyche too. Many people will tell you it makes them feel peaceful and relaxed. While teaching, I have noticed that once people have learnt how to make cordage or weave willow, a peaceful atmosphere permeates the camp, with people quietly nattering away to each other. It is also said that knitting is the new yoga!
Single flexible strands, woven together bring strength and stability.
All the remaining tribal groups, which have needed an incredible internal, flexible order in their communities to survive the ‘guns, germs and steel’ of industrialised cultures, have strong cordage and basket-making traditions. Making baskets and string enables people to sit and chat. Time spent with others in this ‘crafty’ way binds communities together just like the interwoven strands in a basket. I would argue that we westerners really benefit from picking up some simple crafts to rekindle our own community spirit.
Knot work in art and jewellery, involving seemingly endless interwoven yarns, can symbolise the interconnectedness of life. One of the simplest ‘Celtic’ knots (more accurately Christian Saxon manuscript decorations), symbolises the interconnected and inseparable triune of mind, body and spirit, or perhaps of head, heart and hands.
Learning and teaching how to physically tie knots and lashings is one way to start the process of connecting ourselves to nature, thus joining up our thinking. It is important understand the metaphor and hold the intention of connection in your mind as you are teaching. As with healing, one of the most important parts of the process is of the intent of the healer to heal.
A true listening heart may be a more effective remedy than a pill prescribed in haste as surgery is closing. So I suggest it is important to know why you are teaching something, on as many levels as possible. For me, teaching knots is about weaving us in to the interconnectedness of life. It is a good opportunity to remind people of our connections with nature, and there is no better way to do this than to tell a story, (or spin a yarn:-) at the same time!