Friday, August 31, 2012

The Luminous Depths of Black Walnut Dye

A month ago I found a beautiful, branching black walnut tree at the top of a lane called Upton. It dropped its green husked nuts all over the stairs and the ivy beneath, as well as the tops of someone's garbage cans. The squirrels happily munched them from the boughs above me, dropping half eaten husks on the ground. I gathered a sack-full as the sun set over Mt. Tamalpais, beyond the San Francisco Bay, and lit up the roofs with gold.

Balcony doors, flung open to let in the orange sunset.

I poured the sack of black walnuts, husks and all, into a pot, covered them in water, and let them soak for several weeks, following a recipe for black walnut dye found in Rebecca Burgess's excellent book, Harvesting Color. 

Yesterday, I decided it was time to use the dark sludge inside the pot for dye. I heated the pot briefly, strained out some of the walnuts, and lay inside of that vat, like some strange cauldron of transformation, a wet-felted creature I'd made earlier in the day, a black-walnut woman-fool, with three spikes on her head which will become a jester hat of sorts.

There's something alchemical about making beings out of felt, with your hands, rubbing and coaxing until they are the right shape, and then dunking them in a big living vat of walnut dye. It feels like magic to me, and the creature-woman who emerged, well, she's truly alive to me. And, by the way, that wool started out a very bright white.

She isn't quite finished yet, because she seems to belong with this magnificent thistle that Simon brought back for me from the wilds of Tilden Park, where he also found the ruins of an old sanitarium, where rich people once sent their batty relations (in the early 1900's) with "nervous disorders,"or addictions, to drink fresh cow milk, eat pears from the orchard, and have musical evenings.

The old road in. I love to imagine the horse and buggies trotting down it, under the shade of elm trees, bearing someone's mad cousin in the back, with her trunks in a neat stack, as truly wild hills closed all around her. Back then, these hills were quite remote.

Palm trees were planted. Now the mansion has burned, all but the founding stones, but the palm trees are strange and healthy in the thickets of blackberry and thistle.

From the old orchard (see the grand apple tree on the right, half in shade? Still heavy with fruit), the view of the once-oasis, where visitors report having heard strange and beautiful music often emanating from the sanitarium walls.

Anyhow, this is all to say that the strange little felted woman shown above, dyed a truly stunning brown (I never expected the color to turn out so deep), will have a thistle embroidered on her dress, and a small felted fox head emerging from her heart, as a nod to the wild tenacity of thistles, and the beautiful madness of this overgrown place. She has three spikes on her head, meant to indicate a jester hat, like I said, for she is a fool of sorts, dancing between wisdom and madness.

I was so moved by this living, rich, luminous brown, that I threw some coils of raw wool into the vat as well, along with one of my shirts.

These are the browns of living soils, of chocolate, of the dark strong coats of bears and elk, the underbellies of martens. Truly, it is hard to find anything more beautiful than a natural color, once your eyes have been treated to its depth of hue, its nuance, the way the sun takes it in.

And here are the beauties, the nuts, now rotten dark, from whom this color, so full of magic, was fermented and cooked. I am in awe of them.


  1. Sylvia,

    I don't know how the comment got deleted!!! I hate it when the new technology acts like this. Well anyway, I didn't know that you're a blogger!!! I discovered it in a garden shop in SF. The walnut dye is beautiful and very earthy. Keep it up.........


    1. Thanks so much Vino! Were you at the Kingdom of Herbs by chance? That's my partner's mother's shop! :) I'd love to have an early autumn dinner with you when I get back from British Columbia! xo

  2. Hi Sylvia! That is a gorgeous color you achieved... and so beautifully written, and I look forward to reading more of your work, thank you for your craft of color and word

    1. Thanks Rebecca! Your time in Vermont looks stunning! Oh wow, what beautiful things you do. I'm off to try out my indigo vat for the second time- beginning the careful heating process, etc. This time I'm trying good old corn syrup instead of molasses..... Once I finish it i'm also going to finish a piece on indigo time with you in the Capay-- will keep you posted!

  3. I love walnut - and was pleased, when we moved to Germany, to end up in a house with a walnut tree. Not a wild black walnut, but kin nonetheless. Do you know, can the old hulls be used? I've got walnuts from last fall (!) whose hulls I've been saving (oh, the smell is glorious) for who knows what... and maybe YOU know what! I was under the impression that the green ones made dye but how about mostly-dry black ones?

    I thought somewhere I'd read that a hair wash could be made with black walnut "dye" - though I'm not much for coloring my grey...

    Anyway, I peek often at your blog - we have lots of intersecting interests though I'm no longer in my home ecosystem where I too love oaks and hawks, elderberry and elk. Thanks for giving me my dose of home.

    1. Hi Wendy! Thanks so much for your visits. I think that you can use dried husks to make dye as well-- it may not be as strong, but you can apparently keep using them until you exhaust all the color, and you can harvest them from the ground when they are green OR brown to use for your dye. Where are you from in California? Your explorations on your own blog look just excellent, and right up MY alley! :)

    2. I may just keep them in a jar on my desk so I can smell them :)

      I grew up on the south Central Coast (Santa Maria), loved my time in Sonoma and Marin counties, and settled for 10 years in Davis. A bit flat and far from the coast, but I could find wild things between the agricultural tracts.

      Nice to make your acquaintance! :)