I've been reading Weaving a World: Textiles and the Navajo Way of Seeing (by Roseann Willink and Paul Zolbrod) with wonder! All of us have seen marvelous examples of Navajo weaving, I'm quite sure. But this book offers something more than stunning photos or discussions of technique or even art--the authors met with Navajo elders to learn about the meaning of the textiles. They also point out the "hidden" aspects of many pieces; for example, the weaver would often introduce a bit of feather or animal sinew, or create little knots to hold pollen.
I found the discussions of hozho (I'm sorry that I cannot correctly represent the Navajo word typographically here), or "harmony," to be especially beguiling. While the Western sensibility calls for symmetry and perfection of technique, the Navajo outlook is quite different:
"Hozho is not absolute symmetry, though, and to look for such 'perfection' misses the point. Perfect symmetry is to the Navajo vision of the world what a well-managed suburban lawn is to nature. We may long for such ordered tidiness but we do not find it on earth, with its brambles and weeds, or in the sky, with its sunspots and meteor showers. Symmetry is something traders have demanded and buyers often seek. Today's weavers may produce it, but symmetry's static repetitiveness does not reflect the dynamics of order, beauty, balance, and harmony--hozho--in a cosmos constantly in motion. A careful look at a contemporary trading post rug will sometimes reveal a slight variation along one edge or in a corner, all too easily passed off as a mistake in a piece of otherwise absolute precision. In many cases, the 'flaw' identifies the weaver as an elder, steeped in tradition, who wants to sell her work in today's market while averting the deadening symmetry Coyote warns against."
The reference to Coyote harks to this story:
"When Coyote was asked his opinion during the shaping of the fifth world about planting corn in neat rows, he said this in his characteristically garbled way: 'Setting plants in rows, you can see, will not be a good thing, since if at any time one of the plants, or likewise one of those that give birth, should die, there would be conspicuous gaps and passageways between them... Make it so that they exist everywhere on Earth's surface without any special order.' Real harmony occurs only when balance is not artificial."
The idea of dynamic design in response to a dynamic world is compelling. Of course, any feral knitter would respond to this with glee! I want to make sure that my knitting is alive, somehow--that it represents me, what is important to me, just as the Navajo pieces represent the weaver and the culture.
This is reminding me of a poem by D.H. Lawrence (and not a very good one at that) that somehow has stuck with me through the years:
As we live, we are transmitters of life,
And when we fail to transmit life, life fails to flow through us.
And if, as we work, we can transmit life into our work,
Life, still more life, rushes into us to compensate, to be ready,
And we ripple with life through the days.
Even if it is a woman making an apple pudding, a man a stool,
If life goes into the pudding, good is the pudding,
Good is the stool,
Content is the woman, with fresh life rippling into her,
Content is the man.
Give and it shall be given unto you
Is still the truth about life.
But giving life is not so easy.
It doesn't mean handing it out to some mean fool, or letting the living dead eat you up.
It means kindling the life-quality where it was not,
Even if it's only in the whiteness of a washed pocket-handkerchief.