Winter weaving

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Weaving: the word is now three-quarters given over to clichéd usage. However, seeing the world as a woven thing – a net, a tapestry, a basket – is a time-honored insight in many traditional cultures, now given renewed force by the discoveries of modern ecologists. And how is it, I wonder, that a stock metaphor can avoid becoming a cliché in oral societies, and can enter song and narrative as consistently and beautifully as a warp thread? Maybe because, as long as it exists only as sound, language can avoid the impression of lifeless objecthood. Or because, in an oral society, metaphor remains close to the ritual context, in which common things are referred to by special terms designed “perhaps… to impress upon the participants that these common things are not at all what they seem to be but possess a hidden meaning and hence a profound ritual efficacy when they are used in the context of the cult,” according to Victor Turner (Revelation and Divination in Ndembu Ritual).

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The Dogon elder Ogotemmeli, as interpreted by French anthropologist Marcel Griaule (Conversations with Ogotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas):

At sunrise on the appointed day the seventh ancestor Spirit spat out eighty threads of cotton; these he distributed between his upper teeth which acted as the teeth of a weaver’s reed. In this way he made the uneven threads of a warp. He did the same with his lower teeth to make the even threads. By opening and shutting his jaws the Spirit caused the threads of the warp to make the movements required in weaving. His whole face took part in the work, his nose studs serving as the block, while the stud in his lower lip was a shuttle.

As the threads crossed and uncrossed, the two tips of the Spirit’s forked tongue pushed the thread of the weft to and fro, and the web took shape from his mouth in the breath of the second revealed Word.

For the Spirit was speaking while the work proceeded. As did the Nummo in the first revelation, he imparted his Word by means of a technical process, so that all men could understand. By so doing he showed the identity of material actions and spiritual forces, or rather the need for their co-operation.

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Physicist Fritjof Capra, in a 1997 lecture based on his book The Web of Life:

The systems view of life was formulated first by the organismic biologists. It holds that the essential properties of a living system are properties of the whole, which none of the parts have. They arise from the interactions and relationships between the parts. These properties are destroyed when the system is dissected, either physically or theoretically, into isolated elements. Although we can discern individual parts in any system, these parts are not isolated, and the nature of the whole is always different from the mere sum of its parts. It took many years to formulate this insight clearly, and several key concepts of systems thinking were developed during that period.

The new science of ecology, which began during the 1920s, enriched the emerging systemic way of thinking by introducing a very important concept, the concept of the network. From the beginning of ecology, ecological communities have been seen as consisting of organisms linked together in network fashion through feeding relations. At first, ecologists formulated the concepts of food chains and food cycles, and these were soon expanded to the contemporary concept of the food web.

The “Web of Life” is, of course, an ancient idea, which has been used by poets, philosophers, and mystics throughout the ages to convey their sense of the interwovenness and interdependence of all phenomena. As the network concept became more and more prominent in ecology, systems thinkers began to use network models at all systems levels, viewing organisms as networks of organs and cells, just as ecosystems are understood as networks of individual organisms. This led to the key insight that the network is a pattern that is common to all life. Wherever we see life, we see networks.

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Pioneering participant-observer anthropologist Gladys A. Reichard, in Spider Woman: A Story of Navajo Weavers and Chanters:

Much is said [in the book Indian Blankets and Their Makers] about keeping designs open so that the weaver “does not weave her spirit in.” The idea is still believed by some women. Atlnaba makes many rugs with borders. The tapestry of the Sun’s House has a black border. But at the upper right-hand corner she has one gray thread across the border to serve as a “path.” The little red-background rug she made for me also has a black border, but it is unbroken.

From the discussion and criticisms of my [Navajo] guests this day I gather that many designs with openings, especially those that are irregular are really due to miscalculations and ill-adjustments. They may be later rationalized as “sacred.” One figure [in the book] is, because of its age and texture, a beautiful piece; these modern weavers have nothing but scorn for it. The separate motives are not woven regularly, nor are they well spaced. My critics and teachers refuse to make a rationalization for “holiness.” They continue with their remarks, leafing the pages over and over and back again to begin once more.

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