As the sun begins to ripen, despite the temperature, and the grip of winter tightens and relaxes, tightens and relaxes, we are not yet ready to move out of the inside-time, inside our homes and inside our spirits. For many traditional cultures as well as early modern cultures, this was a time of beauty-making before the pace of spring and summer quickens. It is the period of conception in the cycle of seasonal creativity, as we anticipate the work that lies ahead for this year.
Over several hundred years, we see the evolution of machines taking over human tasks, as progress. Yet, much has been lost. Before the onset of industrialism and consumer culture, people had few daily belongings and tools, each of which were precious. More than that, our tools were honoured. The stone, bone, wood, metal, and fibres were harvested and thus gave themselves to us, to be used to enhance our tasks. They would be asked first if they agree to give of themselves for human purposes. The agreement would be that our tasks would be performed in synchronicity with the cosmic cycles of the heavens and the seasonal cycles of the earth.
For these reasons, tools were ornamented with symbols and stories that expressed the spirit behind the work and behind the apparent world. Then the tools were prayed over, before use. From carved digging tools of the Australian First Peoples to the incising of birch bark baskets of the Ojibway or the painted pottery of early Europeans, from ornamented scrapers and bowls to the ceramic tiles on floors in ancient Greece, these tools and places of work were part of the sacred round, working in harmony with the Earth. Within the last century we still see traces of this, from carved bows of wooden ships to prayer over
lobster fishing boats at the start of the season to
cracking champagne on a new ship or cutting a ribbon for a new building. In all these ways, there is an expression of a deeper purpose at work, a deeper rhythm being expressed.
Even the clothing of tribal peoples, while not much in quantity, was elaborate and conveyed group identity, individual creativity, and belonging to a place, an Earth-based place and an cosmic place. From beaded moccasins and
belts to embroidered blouses and scarfs to woven wool and linen items to handcrafted jewellery, we as humans need to “show up beautifully” before the world of natural beings who themselves are so beautifully clothed (Martin Prechtel, 2012). In this way, we respond in kind to the way the Earth is clothed in grasses, flowers, leaves, serpentine rock and lapping waters. We show up in our gardens and places of work showing respect to the life forms that help us to perpetuate our lives, the purpose of our work.
Our homes have lost the beauty of handcraft as well. We walk into large box stores and pick up home decorating items that match colours or items that may say love and beauty, but they are made by
machines of the cheapest quality, mimicking original handcraft. Most of the home building materials now are composites, as the real materials are dwindling in
Homes are not meant to be showplaces or museums but places where the most intimate of living unfolds and where our hearts reside. Neither do homes anymore have a corner where the sacred is honoured, where gifts are given to the Holy. After travelling and experiencing many cultures, I witnessed many moments when a mother places a food gift on a home altar or a father kneels to light a candle as ritual fire, reminding us that we are not alone in this cosmos and that this deeper rhythm of life-givingness is all about us.
In an industrial world, the art of beauty has slowly eroded to the principle of efficiency. While we like to think we are highly individual, we are all wearing similar factory-made clothing of largely synthetic fibres following the dominant fashions of the day. We see this spreading throughout the world homogenizing the distinctive beauty that has existed for eons in each place. This is why many, including Indigenous people and social scientists, are calling for the preservation of original lifeways. The loss of cultural handcraft is another form of extinction as profound as the extinctions of other species around us (Wade Davis, 2009)
While our bread and jewellery may have the word “artisan” in the title, they are pumped out by machines. There is little that is enduring or truly handcrafted in a throw-away culture. The thinner and more it uses artificial materials, the faster it will wear out and the longer ‘natural resources’ will last in support this consumptive process. When I was growing up, clothing especially was thick, substantial, and made to last. Now, our culture thrives on the perennial ‘new’ to the point of ridiculous, one-time use, excess, or irrelevance. A look at some of the runway fashions quickly illustrate this. Further, thinner clothing calls for layering, and things like multiple eyeglasses in designer colors promote conspicuous consumerism. International fashions do not respond to local conditions, such as belly shirts and flipflops in the dead of Northern winters, or heavy fur-lined boots worn in the heat of summer, all of which I saw in the early days of my university teaching. Fashion simply overrides logic, much to the chagrin of many a parent, including my own.
If we begin to return to handcraft, we naturally have less, but respect it more. If we make our own paper, we use much, much less. We choose fibres other than tree fibre for making it. Even growing our own vegetables, we are more careful how they are cooked and presented with less waste. We eat slower with more enjoyment. What we make ourselves, has far more value. It also responds less readily to quickly evaporating fads of the day. Most importantly, we see our handcraft as an extension of our intentions in the world.
So, in the last of the quiet time, before the pulsing of Spring arrives, we have a chance to look about us and consider how we might, slowly and bit by bit, ornament our tools, clothing, and homes in ways that honour the Holy as well as the sacred round of life. We do this not to impress those around us, but as a way to give back to the beings that have given to us. We can never truly give back in measure all we are given by the natural world, but we must try with the intentions of our heart and hands to make beauty. It may require that we relearn many important skills that are also in danger of being lost.
Beauty-Making for the Holy
In this month of February, choose one item that you use regularly. Itemize all the ‘ingredients’ that have gone into its production. Give gifts to the natural world for these ingredients.
How might you make it beautiful or create something beautiful—your clothing, shoes, kitchen utensils, office items, garden tools, paper or tools of your trade?
How might you ornament it…can you paint, bead, carve, knit, crochet, weave or emboss it?
Do you need to learn a skill to complete this beautification process? For instance, this month I took a woodworking workshop so that I can begin to build items of local “slash” so that our home echoes the spirit of the Pacific Northwest around us, without damaging forests any further. This is our homeplace and so it is echoed in the home we reside in as it is echoed in our souls that feel ‘at home’ here. In this circular way, we honour the Holy here in this place.
For a new little granddaughter, whose feet I want to touch and feel the ground, whom I want to walk in harmony with the Natural by walking in a second skin, to walk according to her own nature, I am making offerings to the animal who gave their hide and then making and decorating moccasins, so trigger the cycle of echoes. What will you do this month?