“This house was built with one old-growth tree in 1871,” said the owner of the old 4-acre farmstead we were looking to buy. “Sold” I immediately thought to myself as we toured the house with my realtor friend. She had mentioned this house to me a few weeks before, and I could not get the thought of it out of my mind.
Twenty-twenty would be a decisive year; I would finish school and begin a new life and livelihood. After 18 years working for a big corporation, I had been laid off and decided to go back to college and chart my destiny. I started at the bottom of the company and worked my way through every department and ended with a job looking at spreadsheets all day and was ready for something using the right side of my brain.
“You know we could have lost mom,” my oldest son said to his younger brother once I had returned home from the hospital while I recovered from surgery. In 2015 my husband rushed me to the ER as I felt pain in my side. Appendix safely removed, I had a renewed sense of wanting to do something meaningful with my life, I wanted to create. I began to play with fabrics and dyes.
Growing up in a conservative and religious family, I never felt like I fit in. At age 12, my uncle gave me his old portable black and white TV. My favorite show was “Lillias Yoga and You” on the local public channel, this was the 1970’s, and I had never heard of yoga but was intrigued by its alternative approach to health and healing. In the summer of 1978, my grandmother took my family on a road trip to my father’s birthplace near Little Rock, Arkansas. In an empty lot next to my aunt’s house, we picked weeds for a “poke sallet,” it was fascinating and delicious. The experience always stayed with me. When I went off to college, I felt displaced. Having been the first in my family to enter university, I had not been faithful to my desire to go to art school. Funding for school dried up, so I put school on hold. In my twenties, I loved being surrounded by the smell of burning incense, the taste of vegetarian sandwiches, the sounds of creative laughter that resonated under the Burnside Bridge in Portland, where vendors sold their handmade goods at the local Saturday Market. In the eighties and having moved back in with my parents and feeling lost, marriage followed, and loving all things spiritual, we got involved in an alternative church. Trusting God meant no birth control, and so was blessed with two beautiful sons that I named after my favorite prophets.
During the eighteen years of an unhappy marriage, there was this recurring dream. My beloved great-grandmother would lead me up a winding staircase of an old Victorian house where one room would lead to another. I finally received the message and found the courage to start over with my sons. I tried school again but working full time and being a single mom with two teenaged sons proved to be too challenging, so the dream was on hold again. Through a friend, I was introduced to my ‘heart of gold’ that I manifested talking to my mother on the phone one day. “My future husband is in construction so he can build or renovate a house for us, I joked…he’s been married once and has a son that’s older…and oh…he has a heart of gold, just like the Neil Young song"…it was uncanny, we married in 2009. It was at the old beach cabin that my husband had inherited where I found solace working with dyes. Every summer, I would spend a week tie-dyeing t-shirts, socks, and then scarves and began giving them as gifts to my family and friends. Working with my hands in the summer sun in the cool sea air brought me to my happy place. When I realized the toxicity of the synthetic dyes I was using, both to myself and the environment, I looked for alternatives and stumbled upon natural plant dyes. I have always been an 'armchair herbalist' fascinated by the properties of plants and by their history of medicinal use. It was the experience in the empty lot in Arkansas the genesis all those years ago.
Last summer, we moved into the old farmhouse amongst the temperate rainforest of the northwest coastal range, lichen falling off the trees that I use in my dye pot. I forage the local landscape for fallen leaves, walnuts, dandelions, and mushrooms for the dyes and inks I create. We are knee-deep in renovations, building a greenhouse and a large garden with dreams of an art studio where I explore the local landscape, honor the seasons and the plants’ wisdom.
My grandmother said goodbye to me in a dream the morning that she died. I stood at the top of a staircase and turned to see a long hallway lined with doors. She was a beam of light and acknowledged me as she entered through.
Grandma would plant her seeds by the moon phases as her grandmother had taught her, her Walla Walla onions bigger than softballs. She would plant garlic around her roses to keep the insects away and could use a willow stick to find water. Thoughts come to me as I walk this land and realize she must have driven by this house many times on her way to the river where she loved to fish.
I hope to honor old traditions and ancestral wisdom to revive a lost art using the plants as our guides. Join me as I share my experiences with you as I explore the alchemy of plant dyes and textile design.