Another wonderful experience at the Weave a Real Peace conference earlier this month was the opportunity to meet kindred spirits. Aaron Burmeister is one of those people. He welcomed us to Decorah with warmth and affable cheer. He contributed significantly to the meeting by organizing our Seed Savers tour and sharing a meaningful presentation about seed stewards and their stories. That he is also a Thrums Books fan was icing on the cake. Enjoy this thoughtful reflection Aaron sent to us about his experience reading our book Oaxaca Stories in Cloth. Thanks, Aaron!
I think this is a pretty universal experience: You choose something—or choose to do something—on the basis of what you feel is a reasonably well-informed supposition. You bring the puppy home or sign up for the class, feeling confident in your expectations about the outcome. But sometimes, the thing you think you’ve chosen and the thing that it actually turns out to be are not one and the same.
A year or so ago, while browsing the book section at a fiber shop, I came across Eric Mindling’s Oaxaca Stories in Cloth. At first glance, I thought “This looks like a lovely coffee table book.” It had all the hallmarks: the oversized format, the gorgeous color photos, the minimal text, and the topic presented in a reader-friendly survey. I thumbed through it, skimming bits of text but mostly gaping at the photos, and thought “This book isn’t for you. You’re not a coffee-table-book person. You don’t even own a coffee table.” But in the span of only a couple minutes, it had claimed me, and I brought the puppy home.
What had caught my attention were the exuberant colors and the photo portraits that all but speak out loud. But what made me want to own and encounter the book more deeply was the author’s stated purpose: “I would share the living heritage and stories by creating contemporary portraits of traditional people . . . I wanted to honor the people who are ambassadors of their community’s legacy.” And I actually thought I had a pretty good idea what that meant and how it would go.
One year later, and I still don’t know what this book is. The truth is that it’s many things, some of them seemingly contradictory. It’s both lament and celebration, challenge and comfort, grieving and hope. At times, Mindling sounds like a prophet, not in the sense of foretelling the future, but in the way that something or someone compels him to speak, regardless of whether or not anyone hears or, even if they hear, whether or not the hearing can alter the inevitable outcome. At other times, he’s a preacher. And the sermon’s a good one: “If we placed greater value on the well-being of people and our planet, our work would matter but not consume us; our lives would be interconnected with family and community: and our impact on the environment would be measured and limited so that nature would continue to provide for our needs.” From a broader view, Oaxaca Stories in Cloth is almost journalistic. It reports on the loss of cultural diversity, effectively making the reader a witness to it, but leaves the response entirely up to the reader.
But, this doesn’t quite get at it either. There’s too much obvious affection in the photographic and written portraits to be journalism. Is it an ode? Sonnet? Elegy? Mindling clearly loves the subjects of his survey and what they represent. And the reader can’t help but be drawn into this relationship.
It ties me in knots to read stories that move inexorably toward unhappy endings. Oaxaca Stories in Cloth is not a tragedy. The story-portraits themselves are not unhappy ones. It’s the book’s honest contextualizing of these stories that leads to a complicated, sad even, realization about the present and future of indigenous Oaxacan cultures.
Actually, there are two futures here, not mutually exclusive, but short and long-term. Mindling acknowledges that we may not see the restoration of these traditional cultures and their accompanying textiles in our lifetimes. Two or three generations from now, that’s the future to hope in. Or, as Martín Prechtel writes in the book’s foreword, the cultural legacy of the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca “is a spiritual thing that cannot be killed, nor does it really disappear; it is the people who walk out of it . . . it is still hanging around close by, waiting for the people to walk back in.”
It turns out that this is exactly my kind of book: real, complex, beautiful.
Aaron Burmeister works for Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit organization that combats the loss of biodiversity; preserves, documents, and shares the plant varieties of our gardening heritage; and reinvigorates that heritage in the present. He’s also a weaver.