This has been a most unsatisfactory week. Among other life-changing crisis’ (crisises? crisi?) is when I discovered a nice, big, fat, thick book I had been reading and enjoying didn’t have a three week lending period, but a two week lending period. Drat! I was just getting to a good part, too. It was called Woven into the Earth, by, um. . .I don’t have the book to check it against. Else Ostergard? I suppose I should look it up. Ha! I remembered right. Here it is. I actually find that the best thing to use Amazon for is to keep feeding its preferences so that it starts recommending you books that you never knew existed but desperately need to read. That’s how I found this book. (And then I inter-library-loaned it. And it was out of system. And they wouldn’t let me renew it. And I think they place a two-month restriction on getting the same book out of system. It’s sad. Really sad. A tragedy, almost, I think.)
Anyway, so this book is about the clothes they found when the excavated old settlements in Greenland. Greenland, they say, was settled during a warmer time, and lasted for only a brief 500 years. And I get all caught up in how sad that is, that a little civilization was just a blip on the timeline, only a mere 500 years. And then I remember that the US is only 230 years old, give or take a few decades depending on who’s counting, and that people think the original pioneers are an ancient people, and that anything from the 1990’s is vintage. And then I go to see if I really remember how old the US is, and then I realize that, duh, it has nothing to do with when the first European settlers/immigration started happening (if only the natives knew about border security), which really started back in the 1600’s, which would be, like, 400 years ago. (Ya think we only have another hundred years to go?) And that if you try to do an internet search on things like that, everyone is more interested in telling you how Columbus wasn’t the first, and the first settlers weren’t either, and besides, real Americans were mound builders and crazy people living in Alaska, or anyway, the land we call Alaska now, even if that wasn’t what it was called then, and if you want to know anything about the Mayflower, all they can tell you is the complete passenger list and genealogy of everyone descended from the Mayflower, well, not the Mayflower, exactly, because that’s a ship, but anyway the descendants of the people who came over on the Mayflower.
Where was I?
So Iceland got over populated, and there wasn’t enough land to support everyone, and so people started dying left and right. Then a bunch of people thought to themselves, “Hey, if we stay here, we’re going to die. If we build a ship and sail off into the sunset, we might die, or we might find some place where we can live and not die. Any chance is better than no chance!” And away they went. And they found Greenland, which was green at the time, but is now quite icy, thank you very much. So was it a weird 500-year warming? Or did we go into an ice age, and now we’re returning to normal temperatures? Was it just the auto-thaw feature of this world? It’s kind of hard to believe in global warming when you’re digging old civilizations out of the ice, you know.
Wait, never mind. Pretend I didn’t say that. I can be plenty controversial all by myself with out getting started on controversial subjects. Let’s not go there.
Anyway, the point is, they buried people in the ground when it was thawed. Then it got cold, and basically put the whole area in the deep freezer. So what garments that were buried are still quite well preserved. This book is all about the clothes.
It’s about what fibers they used, and how they twisted them (s twist or z twist?), and how they wove them, and how they dyed them, and how they sewed them, and lots of other stuff. They scrutinize things so carefully, it makes me feel rather embarrassed. Imagine having your sewing literally taken under the microscope! Other times, the hypothesizing of the writers made me feel embarrassed in a totally different way, a la Motel of Mysteries. There was one point where they were saying (basically; I no longer have the book in my hands to properly quote it), “In this house in one of the back rooms, we found a whole sack full of what looks like the loom weights we found in the other houses. But they can’t be loom weights, because the loom was in the front of the house, and this was a much smaller room with a lower ceiling, and in the back of the house, probably a bedroom. So we don’t know what these things are that look like loom weights, because they’re in the wrong room.”
Anyone who currently has an item misplaced or stored in it’s “improper” room, please raise your hand!
Although it was fascinating reading, it was also rather melancholy. They talk about cracking open the bones to eat the marrow, and using stale urine to treat the fabrics for dying, and taking all the pen cleanings, cutting it into chunks and using it for a fire. I know all these things. I’ve long known that if you’re starving, you’ll love eating the marrow out of bones. I’ve known for ages that urine was frequently used in treating fabric. It’s well known fact that dung has multiple uses. I know the old adage that every animal has “just enough brains to tan it’s own hide”.
But it’s melancholy because it speaks of a daily struggle just to stay alive, to feed and cloth the ones you love. Nowadays, people don’t even know what they’re saying when they say “what do you do for a living?” They think they mean something like “what meaningful contribution do you make for society?” or “what do you do besides eat and sleep?”, but no one really means “what do you do, in order that you may live, and not die?” Nowadays, people consider living not as a privilege or something earned, but as something they have a right to. They don’t believe in the “right to pursue happiness”, but the right to be happy—something they are owed, something they reasonably expect to have. People not only believe they have the right (that is, if need be, everyone else has the responsibility to see to it, if they aren’t) to eat and be clothed, but that they have the right for medical care that someone else pays for. They deserve it. It is only reasonable. It is what life should be like.
But this book speaks of a different type of world, a world of which I sit at the cusp. I can see into it, just as I can see into the world where people clamor for things they think they deserve even if they don’t pay for them.
I don’t provide food for my entire family from the labor of my own hands and the sweat of my own brow. But I’ve made enough meals, worked enough ground, gutted enough animals that I can taste the effort that goes into it. I can guess all too clearly what it is like, the quiet anxiety in the back of the mind as you put the garden in, that it will fail; it won’t produce enough. I know what it is to put away food in hopes of sustaining people in the winter. I know what it is to feed people who are exhausted in every fiber of their body. All too clearly I can feel the hopes of the women, weaving hoods as tight as they might—not out of pride, or amusement, or entertainment, but out of a strong urge to protect. The tighter they weave, the warmer and drier their loved ones will be. Every stroke, every effort, is not some meaningless occupation but provision and care for the men and children and elderly they love. Every action has behind it, driving it on, love for those who will be on the receiving end of those actions.
I can see, in bits in glimpses from my life, my imagination, things I’ve read, things I’ve seen. I can imagine spinning, spinning all the time, hands working independently of anything else. I can see people working together, laughing and coordinated, young with the old. I can see truly working for life.
But only in bits in glimpses.
Because I have yet to see it fail. I have held many children in my arms, but I’ve yet to lay one in the uncaring dirt, dead and no longer anything but an empty body. Sometimes, after reading disturbing things, I have actually dreamed of holding dead children, children I know and love. But I have never felt life stir within me, set my hands to spinning, and then weaving, and then sewing—and knowing with each inch of progress that this work will clothe my child. I have never put hundreds and hundreds of hours into the work of making a child’s clothing—clothing that is meant to carry the child on in life—and then, seeing it have no use but to carry the child in death to the ground.
You see the perfectly preserved clothing for a child, the child itself long gone, and you wonder what the cause was. Did it get too cold? Did it get sick? Did it starve? Did it have a freak accident?
And you know you are no better. If it was you, and your hands—nothing except your hands—could you have kept it from dying? Could you even have kept it alive for so long! Stupid mistakes are so fatal. They say the first person who tried to settle Greenland forgot to gather hay the first summer he was there; and naturally, the animals starved and the people were quick to follow, though I believe it said some were able to escape, to flee back to populated land. Could you learn quick enough, hard enough, fast enough to keep your loved ones alive? Or would you have to watch them die at your failing?
How hard, how hard to live each day as a struggle for life, but how much harder to struggle and fail.
And that is the end of my blitherings for now, though I have a lot more to say on the matter. If I was proper, I’d edit this thing down from a ramble and try to knock it into a shape that vaguely resembles an essay, but the hassling week is not yet over, and I’ve things I must do before I sleep, so I can do things as soon as I rise tomorrow. It’s not quite so brave as struggling for life, but it must be done anyway, and so I go.