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This Work Was Made By Human Hands

Updated: May 1


The paper is cheap and wrinkles under my fingers. My printer is old and coughs as it spits out several drafts for letters and my illustrations of both Brigid and the Divine Mother of Herbs. Cats crowd my desk so I am stationed at the kitchen table, cutting uneven circles around pages of words, taping them to the art. I have made many zines, fliers and posters over my decades of adult life, beginning when I was a teen. Booklets on recycling and organic foods, my senior capstone project a collaged poetry chapbook titled “In the Margins” with writings and art found in the literal margins of my college notebooks, and even a full-length handwritten tome crafted over years. I have always preferred the touch of paper to digital clicks when it comes to the process of creation, but now in the AI futurescape where all photos and illustrations feel a little too perfect, where text is a little…disconcerting in its made-ness, the tactile seems less optional, more essential.

 

It is surprising, how long it takes to make an invitation with paper and tape. The process of collage is not difficult, but it is time consuming. At first the text doesn’t fit, details are omitted, the printer decides to take a pause. I am not anti-tech, I am clearly using technology now, but I am a fan of what Willa Cather names as “the irregular and intimate quality of things made entirely by the human hand.”

 

Once we were surrounded by such things. Every aspect of our lives touched, crafted, by another. There was little anonymity in the creation of everyday objects. We would know the source—whether local or traded from afar—and we would know how to make many, if not most, of our own tools, too.

 

In my study of ancestral traditions one of my favorite books is Irish Folk Ways by E. Estyn Evans. Evans was a Welsh geographer and archaeologist, who moved to Ireland in the 1920’s. He began to record and preserve a fading way of life. “…it seemed to him a short inevitable step to attempt recovery of its rapidly disappearing peasant culture and folklore.”[1] Published in 1956, Irish Folk Ways is a synthesis of the sacred everyday, the made things that once rounded a life, and the daily, seasonal tasks that gave meaning and purpose to homes and communities. Evans documents with his own detailed illustrations toothed sickles, roof thatch, querns, cooking pots, chairs and seats, light holders, churns, gateposts, bog shelters, spades, ploughs, shovels, lazy beds, creels, turf baskets, ropes and mats, flails, salmon spears, fishing nets, Briget’s crosses, cursing stones—and these are just a rattle in the (handmade) crate of goods he details. Along with the illustrations is text that values and admires these traditions of craft. He writes in the introduction, “However interesting we may find “bygones” for their own sake—and most of us take a natural interest in the way our forefathers lived—there is a need to know not only how these relics were made and used but also what beliefs were held about them…There is a clear relationship between the ways in which men’s basic needs are satisfied and the social organization. Nothing less than the whole of the past is needed to explain the present (ix).”[2]

 

I wonder what Estyn would make of our world today, where we are so disconnected from nearly every aspect of our material needs. In America, where I live, many people do not even cook their own meals, let alone grow their own food or even know where their food is grown. Likewise we are far distant from the manufacture of our clothes and shoes, furniture and utensils. We do not pump water from our wells, or cut wood for our fires, or make candles for our lighting. These hard divisions from the sustenance of life become evident in natural disasters, where few among us have the tools or knowledge to keep ourselves fed, warm and clean. We are entirely dependent on new technologies, municipalities and global systems whose delicacy is daily ever more evident.

 

But it is hard to think of such things when we are exhausted, overwhelmed and terminally distracted.

 

There are, of course, movements humming below the surface—homesteading, preparedness, primitive skills—that are re-sourcing ancient knowledge, ancestral ideals of self-sufficiency and empowerment. These often feel exclusive though, especially to people with little experience, caregiving obligations, economic vulnerabilities, or who, like me, have health issues that limit their physical capacity. Camping for a week in the desert at an outdoor skills fest while learning how to brain tan hides for clothing sounds great, for those who can take a week off work and have the gear, the income, and the bodies, to sustain them. I know few people in that category.

 

So, for some of us, home fest it is. But that doesn’t mean we can’t reclaim the ancestral, learn new skills and craft a life of more intentionality and self-sufficiency. As I make my paper invitations, I am doing just that. The bar is pretty low right now, since the pandemic nearly everything is digital. In the past year every platform I use for work has incorporated an AI assistant, to make your illustrations or write your text for you. If we thought it was strange and semi-false to spend all day on Zoom and have an entire circle of “parasocial” relationships and online only friends, now much of the content we read and watch and admire is curated by algorithms and made by computers. We drift further from the real.

 

This disconnect shows. It crops up in our lack of faith, our disappearing communities—two central aspects of our very tactile human past evident in Evans’ work. It is reflected in our discontent, malaise, lack of purpose and direction, feelings of grief, loss, burnout, depression, anxiety and despair. Not that people in the past didn’t experience these things, they did. But largely they did not have time to dwell on their feelings, so consumed were they by efforts to survive.

 

I often hear my ancestors laughing at me when a mood lingers and I am morose for more than a day.  Come on, they say, you have light at the flick of a switch, water pouring from a tap, an indoor toilet, heat or cool whenever you wish it, food at the ready, more clothes than many of us wore in a lifetime and you can read and write and antibiotics are cheap. Your life, in comparison to most of ours, is not so hard.

 

But psychologically, I do think we are in a time of great hardship. We are missing something of life, something essential and central to our humanity. And I think that something is not transcendent, though a very real faith community is, many studies show,[3] extremely helpful for both happiness and life satisfaction.  I think what we miss, what I miss, is connection.

 

And it is that, with these invitations, I am attempting to reclaim.

 

I say reclaim because I have not always been so isolated, so dependent on technology. (How about you?) I grew on twenty-four acres outside of Wimer, Oregon, the child of hippie homesteaders from California. For a while we lived without running water and electricity—this meant, for the uninitiated, hauling water from the creek in garbage cans and heating it on the wood stove for bathing, purifying water for drinking, kerosene lamps and candles at night, a harrowing dark journey to the outhouse for eight year old me. It also meant a sweet night quiet, with stories and stars, a warmth at the center where the light flickered at the table, laughter as my dad squeezed himself into the tiny tin washtub for his bath, and a different kind of power, freedom from grid and bill.



A creek valley surrounded by mountains with a garden and pasture.
View from my childhood home in southern Oregon

My parents raised animals for meat with varying successes, grew and preserved a lot of our food, and as a result I learned many skills—cooking, cleaning, chopping wood, sewing, baking—from them both directly and peripherally. I also learned that such a life was possible, saw it and touched it and ate from its table. This, I believe, is the greatest gift my parents gave me, second only to their love. To know, a little, of how to live with the earth.

 

When we did acquire electricity and plumbing, we still were rustic. Our TV required an aerial antenna, which sometimes allowed it to broadcast one station but other times required my dad to hold the antenna on the roof so we could see a clear picture. Needless to say we didn’t watch TV much. Our telephone was a party line, meaning (again, for my children’s generation) we shared the line with our neighbors and had to wait our turn to make a call. The big change in my childhood was the advent of a VCR which allowed us to rent movies on the weekends. Going to the movies, or out to eat, or even wearing new clothing was pretty rare and not a focus at all. We were cash poor, lived miles from the nearest store and few of my friends had new clothes, either. My days, when not in school, were spent outdoors with my horse, a couple of sheep, our dogs, cats, and the creek, all infused with my own imagination. My best friend, Amber, lived a few miles away. Sometimes when I went to visit her we had to first “do work,” with her dad, moving wheel lines and stacking firewood before we could play.


My most beloved outing was to the local library. The librarian made a special agreement with my mother, opening the lending limit and letting us keep books for a month instead of two weeks since we lived so far out. I would bury myself in books—novels, poetry, reference. I was, and still am, an indiscriminate reader, willing to read almost anything and often shuffling through multiple books at a time. When we would return from the library my parents would smile over the dinner table and whisper that I was, “going into hibernation.” For days after, if I wasn’t outside, I could be found immersed in books.

 

Maybe some of you had similar childhoods, or an experience with a family member or friend or summer camp where tech was at the edges only, and the primary relationships were between people, the earth, animals… When I taught at Pacific University my first year seminar class was titled Discovering a Sense of Place. I found that nearly all of my students, even those with extremely urban childhoods, had an experience of connection—however temporary--to people and the earth, and were marked beautifully by it. Remembered it with joy. Longed for its medicine.



A group eats and smiles gathered beneath the trees.
Picnic in the Woods, 1917, Wikimedia Commons

It is not an accident that we are here at this time, in the throes of addiction and dependency on technology, further and further away from the reality that anchors us to our bodies, families, communities and the rhythm of the days and seasons. When we are disconnected from the earth and each other we are more likely to be discontented, seeking connection elsewhere. Advertisers and marketers use this desire for connection to develop “emotional connections” between consumers and brands, playing off of our often unconscious desire for belonging.[4] Simply put, when discontented we are vulnerable and may be manipulated into false connections so that we buy more things, surrender more readily our time, energy and privacy to corporate entities and, in return, trust the output of those entities rather than the messy daily challenge of in-person human doing.

 

It is pretty gnarly. And very intentional.

 

This dance has been going on a long while, but the pandemic was a final slice for many threads of in-person connection. In just my limited circles, support groups, book clubs and neighborhood meetings ventured online never to return.

 

E. Estyn Evans wrote in 1957: “But it is the changes which are taking place today…that are finally extinguishing the prehistoric traditions. Mechanization and mass production are invading the remotest glens, and things which were the commonplace of fifty years ago are becoming as remote to the young as the Middle Ages. Knowledge of ways of life that have altered little for centuries is passing away; skills whose loss the practical countryman may have cause to regret are disappearing.”[5]

 

My work in this life is crafted by hand. I am an artist whose painstaking and rare creations (because they are so labor intensive) represent many hours of effort. I am a writer whose words generate from hand to page—sometimes via a screen, yes—but they are all my own words. And this feels important to me, to not use AI in my craft.

 

I also cook, clean, sew, mend and make where and what I can by my own efforts. And I make an effort to touch—physically--what I offer up to give from coursework to dream pillows. I leave in typos and smudges—in these invitations there are embedded bits of red thread, stuck to the tape, a word misspelled and corrected in pen, places where the copy printed uneven. All of it is part of the imperfect intimacy that in this moment only I can make.

 

There are no mistakes. Not the scraggly stitches on my jean repair, or the slightly burned enchiladas we are eating this night for dinner. All of these are part of the joy that is living, in this body, in this day, and making, in the best old way of our ancestors, however we can, a life.


Women preserve food together outside.
Food Preservation Outdoors, Wikimedia Commons

 

My greatest wish is to return to community. I seek it now in person—thus, the invitations—a hope that some of the folk from my online classes over the years, who live locally or are willing to travel, will come and share an imperfect meal and celebrate the publication of my latest—also imperfect and intimate—book.

 

In the vision I see us at the edge of the river, laughing into the wind as we eat something from chipped plates and drink fresh water drawn that morning from a spring to the East. One twines yarn through her fingers like hair, another has in her lap a twist of nettle, the next carries seeds to share with us for autumn planting. Somewhere someone picks up a guitar and a song begins, easy as the river, open as the wind.

 

This is a life my grandparents would recognize.

This is a life made by hand and shared in kind.

By this and every effort, may the balance be regained.

With love.


[2] Evans, E. Estyn. Irish Folk Ways. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London 1957, xi

[5] Evans, Ibid. x



This is the book we will be celebrating together at two live, in-person events near Portland, Oregon this May and July. For more information and to connect in community, you can find on Patreon full details, invites and more.



The Year of the Dark Goddess book is a rite of passage process drawing on ancestral traditions for integrating difficult life transitions. With handmade illustrations, seasonal practices and mythic medicine, the guide can help anchor and empower you through life's challenges. Learn more and explore a copy here.


Thank you for reading and supporting this handmade, human work! <3<3<3

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