We stayed this night in the medieval town of Santillana. This town became wealthy in the Middle Ages from the wool and linen trade, linen being made from flax fibers. Two days ago, as we left the most excellent albergue in Guemes I spied a few flax plants growing among the roadside weeds. I pulled them and began extracting what fibers I could. Like many fiber plants, other than cotton, the useable fibers lie along the inner “bark” of the plant’s stem. With a bit of experimentation I was able to extract some strips of fiber mixed with some of the outer bark which gave it a green color. The fibers themselves were pure white and only two inches long or so, but the outer bark came off in strips which held the fibers together enough for me to play with them. To make linen thread, the flax requires “retting,” a process of rotting away the outer bark and sap from the strong white fibers. Then some kind of pounding and carding process to remove the woody inner stem. But for now, I contented myself with making some very strong double strand twined cordage. It is quite beautiful.
This simple activity, which I worked at slowly while walking the paved roads to the beach cliffs, has taught me a lot about flax and has caused me to reflect on the other fiber plants I have played with and used – hau, nettle, red cedar, milo. It has raised questions about what the old tools and processes were for the production of linen, which I may learn about as we explore the town museums today.
But most importantly it has deepened my friendship with flax and the kind of understanding that comes from friendship. It is hard to explain this at the deeper level, and it is something that I often struggle to express with others when they ask me why the the hands-on learning part of nature awareness mentoring is so important. You can read all about a person, even an entire biography, and learn all about a person’s life, b ut there is quality of knowledge and understanding that you can never gain unless you become their actual friend in real, three dimensional, fully sense experienced life. It is just like that with plants, animals, birds and insects. The quality of the bond of connection is altogether different when you take the time to interact, to make a friend. This is the heart of nature awarenes mentoring, and the deeper reason to learn the primary skills of fire making, cordage, shelter, wild edibles and medicines, weather, animal tracking, bird language, etc. is really very simple: friendship with nature. And not friendship in an abstract and general way, but in specific and definite ways. Friendship not just with “nature,” which is a concept, but with an actual living landscape, a place and with individual plants, animals, birds and streams and mountains.
From friendship springs care and understanding, and from care and understanding springs the will to take care of our friends. This is the most important force that humans must harness at this time in history, toward nature and toward one another.