Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Making Indigo Dye Out of Words

Welcome to The Indigo Vat, where words and tales and dreams are fermented and transformed into sturdy creations that are green as they emerge and turn blue as they hit the air. 

A colorfast blue dye made from plant matter has always been very rare and therefore very precious. Indigo cakes, wrapped up in string and cloth, a condensed and processed form of the plant genus indigofera were traded along the Silk Road. There’s a reason blue was considered royal, for pharaohs, for kings.

The most mysterious and unfathomable things in the world to us are blue: the sea and the sky. These are places of magic, of power, or of something terrifying: the home of Rilke’s Angels, perched between beauty and terror.

The process of making and writing a story, a poem, a novel, an essay, is like dyeing with indigo. You start with a seed.  You tend it like your own blood. You harvest leaves in the heat of summer. You ferment them in a big vat, mixed up with such things as wheat bran, madder root and wood ash. The lid is on, so nothing else can get in or out. The magic of yeast takes over. The whole mass bubbles and rots and melds, letting the blue pigment out. This is the only way to let out the blue. It starts to stink. That’s when you open it up, stir in your skeins of yarn, your silks, your old white pillowcases. You leave them in as long as you want, letting them get bluer and bluer. Then you lift them out with a stick. When they hit the air, they are green. Then the oxygen begins to act. Breathe. The green turns to blue in front of your eyes. Blue for magic, for the deep mystery of the world, for the source of all creation, for stories told in the dark of night. For our blood, before it hits air.

Stories ferment, oxidize and come alive like this.

I’m growing nine starts from seed of polygonum tinctorium, Japanese Indigo. They began by the heater, then moved to the window, and finally outside, where the sun filled them up and they grew sturdy stems and big leaves. They are still young, only in one-gallon pots. I tend them like babies. The first tiny seedling popped its head above the soil on my birthday. I was taken by surprise at the depth of my excitement. It felt like a holy experience. I’d never tended seeds so closely, with such purpose. The sudden miracle of life itself was upon me, how a seed might become a perfect green leaf and a neck pushing up through dirt, completely and utterly new. The only constant on earth is creation.

So, this is a long way of saying that here on The Indigo Vat I will post my newly “dyed“ stories, as it were, for others to read. They need air to turn from green to blue. Stories and poems need eyes and hearts to consume them before they come alive, before they turn rich and blue as indigo robes.

You may also find here, from time to time, forays into the literal fiber arts— my adventures with natural dyeing, felting and spinning. I believe in a deep and creative reclamation of these traditionally female crafts. So, expect both literal and figurative yarns being spun, cloth woven and dyed with local materials.

Finally, I believe that all writing is rooted in place, like indigo roots in soil. Like the indigo plants growing in my Berkeley backyard, I am not native to this land, but it is my home, and has been since I was born (save a few years on the east coast for college). I think that as writers, as creators, we have a duty to the land we live on, its wild creatures, its redwoods, oak trees, thistles. We have a duty to their stories and languages as well as our own—after all, our earliest letters were based up the tracks made by animals in sand and snow.

These are the Indigo-Seedlings, my magical and mysterious charges. I'll show you more photos as they grow and are processed into dye. 

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