When I’m describing the steps involved in extracting fiber from a fiber-plant such as flax, people often ask, “How on earth did anyone ever figure that out?” I have thought about this question a lot. I have many ideas about it. Some can be backed up with references and citations, and some are just hunches based on my personal experience.
I believe that we humans come from a long line of brilliant thinkers and observers, experimenters and creators. The human use of flax fibers in Europe dates to at least 34,000 years ago. Humans and our human-like relatives and ancestors have been really smart and really creative for tens if not hundreds of thousands of years. Furthermore, primates in general are really smart, so I am happily willing to accept any kind of habitat-modifying, tool-using, culture-teaching behaviors dating back 2 or 3 million years, at least. Which is all very deep. It is admittedly hard to have a clear mental picture of what life might have felt like for a hominid so long ago.
But lately I’ve been thinking that the answer to the question, “How on earth did anyone ever figure that out?” isn’t mysterious or inaccessible at all. With regard to fiber, at least, I actually think the answer is really straightforward:
People look around and notice things.
There is fiber lying around all over the place. I catch glimpses of it whenever I go for a walk… laying on the ground, tangled in a bush, climbing up a tree, hanging out in someone’s yard, or on the side of the road. Seriously, I can hardly walk anywhere without running into a tempting fiber source. Within walking distance of my home in western Massachusetts, there is literally fiber everywhere.
Here is a springtime tour of my plant-fiber observations. The first one is a photo I took along the dike in Hadley the other day. This is an old milkweed stalk that weathered away through the winter. The fiber is too weak for cordage at this point, but it certainly catches the eye with its glistening sheen:
Here are a few photos of fibers in a vine that I am pretty sure is bittersweet, also along the dike. The touch of blue in the right hand photo is the Connecticut River. Bittersweet may be hated and vilified for its vigorous growth habits, but it sure looks promising for fiber:
Here is a close-up:
Here is another example of milkweed just lying there, right in the path, over at Amethyst Brook conservation area in Amherst. I took these photos yesterday:
These are from a walk today. This is yucca on the side of Route 9 in Amherst:
And this is more milkweed at Wentworth Farm in Amherst: