Projects, Quests, and the Intensity of Life (Or Nettles, Part II)


When I was twenty, I took a year away from college. I was a Californian, but I’d been going to a small, extremely intense liberal arts college in the East, and it felt right to leave for somewhere for a while. My first move was to France for a semester abroad. I recall that our main class was on French autobiography, an appropriately self-absorbing topic for our cohort of a dozen college kids. There were also the big classes on pronunciation, grammar, and the most impenetrable, resumé, that is, taking long French passages and making them shorter. When I wasn’t in class or reading Simone de Beauvoir or St. Augustine, I marveled at old tangible things: stonework, tapestries. Especially tapestries. But the semester abroad was intense.

I formulated a question I was driven to answer: Did I want to work with my head or with my hands?

I went back home for the next phase. My parents lived in an old house on a few acres half-way to the top of the clouds. It was on the rural fringe of the Bay Area, and in spite of the elevation, I rode my bike everywhere. I enrolled in community college, and took textile arts. I’d had sheep in high school: Sanacles, Lupine, Yarrow, and Annie. My parents paid to have them sheared, so I had bags and bags of wool, and finally the time to dig in. Textile arts, I learned, was intense.

One day back then I was nosing around a fiber merchant’s, which was a sketchy place upstairs of something else. I came across a plastic bag of stuff that looked like my hair, only less interesting. I’d analyzed my hair color, which is what we California girls would do, because blonde was so important. It had a lighter blonde that overlaid the darker blonde of a honeyed hue with a glimmer between fresh copper and pink. The lighter blonde was a perfect match to the dead stems of Avena fatua (slender oats, a European invasive) that nodded above me where I’d lie on a towel, mostly unclad, to tan. In contrast, the plastic bag contained a nest of dull fiber, uniform, and of the sheenless blonde I associated with teenaged Finnish males who didn’t come by blondeness through work, but rather by being pale. The contents, I learned, was flax, what linen is made from. I bought it. That was 1976.

~ ~ ~

A week ago I got the idea to start weaving the nettle fiber my husband and I have been making into yarn. We harvested it from Summer Creek, removed its leaves, retted it three different ways, dried it, scutched it twice, carded it, and spun it on the drop spindle I hadn’t used since 1976. But when I started to warp my little loom, I used up my spun nettles only a quarter of the way through. So I pulled out the plastic bag, the flax, untouched for forty years. Actually, I lie. I remember my kids playing with it when they were small and wanted to look like Finnish boys with pale blonde sheenless hair.

When I started to spin it a week ago, I was thrilled: it was so easy, so strong, so clean, and so uniform compared to nettles; besides, it was already aligned and ready to go. I removed the nettles from the loom, then warped it with my spun flax, leaving a few stripes for nettles, and then I began to weave.

By now I have a routine. I spin a little flax and weave it in, then I card some more nettles with the three different rettings, and I weave that in. I go back and forth among the fibers, with no real plan. When the loom is full, I’ll be done.

And it’s good fun. My skin’s not tan, my hair’s not an interesting blonde. In fact, it’s not blonde at all. I could analyze my hair color still, I suppose. I’d have to say it’s most like the grain in split wood, with hints of brown and ribs of burnished platinum, and yet it is still more interesting than flax.

~ ~ ~

What have I left out in this story of projects and quests? Oh yes. That I returned quite happily to my small, intense liberal arts college, got a Masters in Alaska, and worked there and in Houston and in New Hampshire. I went to the Peace Corps in Guatemala and to an intense research university for a PhD and to another very similar one for a post-doc, and I got my job. And my job, too, was intense.

And life is intense.

I was married; I am divorced. I have children, two; I’m re-married. I’ve had pets and friends I’ve loved, and avocations. I have family, including parents who paid to shear sheep for a daughter embarking on a quest. Intensity, I now know, means experiencing life. I’ve learned to modulate the intensity over the years I hope.

And whether to work with my head or hands? There is no meaningful distinction: when I’m passionate I work with everything I have as I’m able. It’s intense to know that answer. It just took me four decades longer than I expected to figure it out.

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