This week we have a beautiful dispatch from Thrums author Eric Mindling about his newest book.
In the simplest sense, my book Oaxaca Stories in Cloth: A Book about People, Belonging, Identity, and Adornment is about what people wear . . . and specifically, what people wear in the villages of Oaxaca, Mexico.
It is a story told through images, both visual and written. I photographed 57 Oaxacan villages, creating the most complete collection of images of the traditional people of Oaxaca and their clothing ever made. But I have a confession: I am neither a textile junky nor a fashion aficionado. My reasons for pursuing this project lie elsewhere, and I think it can be explained by answering this question: What does sagebrush know that tumbleweed doesn’t?
I was born in Reno, Nevada. My mother was born in Los Angeles, and my father was born in Novato, California. My mother’s father was born in Oklahoma, and my father’s mother was born in Chicago. Her father, my great grandfather, Sebastian Tallitsch, whose name I carry, was born in a small town in southern Germany and came to America in 1917. My dad studied at the University in Reno, which is where he met my mom and how I came to be there, though neither of them live there anymore. I studied at University in Arcata, California, but don’t live there anymore either.
I look at this snapshot of recent family history and what I see are so many tumbleweeds blowing westward. A tumbleweed takes seed in a certain place, grows for a time, and then when the wind is right, where the trunk meets the soil, it breaks off at the roots and begins its rolling ways, catching on something here or there as it goes, staying for a while and then moving on with the next big gust. In the American west where I grew up, I don’t think my tumbleweed ways are particularly unusual.
I’ve always longed to know what it’s like to be from a place. I mean, I kind of know, because of course I am from a place. I was born on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada’s where wide and long desert valleys open to endless blue skies, where summer rainstorms walk across those valleys and the sharp, warm smell of sagebrush is the perfume of the earth. This land has marked me forever, perhaps in the way the birth creek marks the salmon.
But I was only there like a tumbleweed; my fast-growing roots soon enough broke off at the trunk and away I rolled. I’ve looked out into the desert so many times and seen the tumbleweeds bouncing by. Yet all around that tumbleweed grows the sagebrush, firmly rooted and solid trunked. I wonder, what does sagebrush know that tumbleweed doesn’t?
What is it like to have roots that go deep into the soil and stay, from one life to the next? What would it have been like to have been born into a family that intimately knew the hills and valleys and streets around and depended on those hills and valleys and streets for their well-being? What would it be like to be fed by generational knowledge about a place? To learn from your parents or grandparents what the clouds mean, why the wind shifts, or even what the changing moods of the sagebrush can tell you. What if you were fed on the stories of your place, knowing all the people, them knowing you? What if the food you ate was a reflection of the land around you, as much a part of you as the voice of your mother, but also as unique to your town as the landscape that surrounded it?
And what if clothing, too, was this way? An offshoot of the land, perhaps of cotton, wool, linen, silk, sisal, and made with colors that could be teased from flowers, barks, and lichens. Would the clothing, like stories about the old timers or the food on your table be another element that represented you, your community and your shared story of belonging to a place and people? Would it be a symbol that said, “I am of We,” and “We are of here.”
What kind of sense of self might this clear connection to a place, a family, a community give you? This is a question I’ve silently asked my entire life. I have had a hunger, a yearning, and a sense of loss, pulling at me, and over time I’ve recognized that this comes from the ambiguity of being rootless.
It is this hunger that is the genesis of Oaxaca Stories in Cloth and indeed, much of what I’ve done in my life.
For me, the clearest, most beautiful way to illustrate this somewhat intangible thing called heritage and belonging—these roots—is through the photos of people and their dress. So yes, this book is about what people wear, but it’s much more about what it means to be from a place and all the stories contained in a face and in clothing.