TEXT: NANCY PENROSE
Here, on the Oregon coast, a few miles south of Newport, Catharine and I have rented a condo for four nights. I’ve driven south from Seattle; she’s flown west from North Carolina. I picked her up in Portland.
At low tide, we walk the beach at Seal Rock and come upon clumps of sea stars in hues of tropical orange and grape purple. Pisaster ochraceus, the species most common here. They are like sequins, stuck to exposed gray rocks set within gray sand, gray cloud and ocean. We gently drag our fingers across the hard bumpiness of echinoderm arms. We admire the entwined masses surviving this spell of saltwater drawn back, the twice-a-day ceremony of moon’s pull on ocean.
Among the other disclosed and clinging animals: heaps of mussels, limpets, barnacles.There are sea anemones and an organism with a flat segmented shell I guess to be a chiton. We are staggered by the density of life.
Catharine urges me to take a photo of a low-tide tableau: sea stars on a jut of rock; below, in a pool of clear water, green sea anemones open like flowers. Mardi Gras colors she calls them. Purple, green, and gold. In a way she is right, and she is the expert on color, a long-time weaver and dyer. Why do I not quite agree? Perhaps because I grew up in Oregon and lived six years in New Orleans where I often pined for the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps because here, among the spit and spats of cold rain, wrapped in the sound of waves exploding against offshore rocks, the analogy thuds into a dissonance of place. I cannot map New Orleans onto my home ground of Oregon.
Tint and Shade
We walk the nearby forest in search of lichen. We gather three types as Catharine identifies them: a fruticose form (Usnea or beard lichen); two foliose forms (lung lichen and an unknown). They are not moss. They are not plants. They are fungi and algae, or sometimes cyanobacteria, joined in a symbiosis, a mutualism that benefits both. Back in the condo we boil the lichen, one form at a time, in water in a pot on the kitchen stove. Fragrances of forest and ocean rise as steam. Catharine is giving me a lesson in natural dyes. What am I meant to learn? How some lichen become colorfast brown on the protein fibers of swatches of wool? We dip, cook, stir on the same burners as dinner. Natural. No toxins.
We examine the tints and shades that emerge from the pot, colors from an Oregon woods: cinnamon, camel, milk chocolate. Catharine tells me that the famous fawns and browns of Harris tweeds come from lichen called crottle.
Our children are cousins; their fathers are brothers. This is the scaffolding of our thirty-three years of friendship. Here, on the coast, within a delicious saturation of time together, we have met in search of collaboration, at least a beginning. Writer (text); weaver, dyer (textile).
I sit at the oak table with my laptop and notebook open. I write. I research. We talk. Catharine sits on the couch facing the fireplace, hand stitching twelve pieces of cloth she has woven and dyed in her studio. Each is a tableau: the grasses of Cape Cod, the blue edge of the Atlantic, her mother and father, now both passed. She has searched her home ground for the arc of story and mapped it within the structure and color of cloth and memory. She is translating her life into a text of unseen words.
How is writing like weaving, stitching, dyeing? What do I mean by structure, by collaboration? Perhaps there is the possibility of joining fiber and color and seen words to reach reader, viewer.
Exploring the origins of textile reveals roots in text, from the Latin textus, for texture, structure, content, a thing woven; and in texere, to weave, construct, compose. So whether an artist uses fiber or words, the result is woven language. Poet Robert Bringhurst writes: “An ancient metaphor: thought is a thread, and the raconteur is a spinner of yarns – but the true storyteller, the poet, is a weaver. The scribes made this old and audible abstraction into a new and visible fact. After long practice, their work took on such an even, flexible texture that they called the written page a textus, which means cloth.”
On our last day in the condo we explore words for the colors of the low-tide tableau of sea stars and anemones. We reject “grape” as a confusing synesthesia with fruit. On the website of a colleague of Catharine’s, we study smears of purple from the glands of a Mediterranean gastropod, Hexaplex trunculus, also known as Murex trunculus. Think ancient Phoenicians, think dyeing cloth purple for royalty. Among the color harmonies that range from lilac to dark violet, we find the sea stars and are satisfied. As for the orange, maybe ochre yellow or gold. The sea anemones we name chromium green. You might call them something else. Celadon, perhaps, if you are familiar with that Chinese glaze for pottery. But here, on the Oregon coast, Catharine and I agree on these: Murex purple, ochre gold, chromium green.
A Sad Addendum: In summer 2014 the sea stars on the Oregon coast that Catharine and I had admired were hit by an epidemic called the sea star wasting syndrome; populations from Alaska to California have been affected. Scientists do not yet understand the cause of the disease and have never seen anything of this magnitude before. Localized extinctions are possible. Let us hope for recovery. (More information is available at http://www.eeb.ucsc.edu/pacificrockyintertidal/data-products/sea-star-wa…)