This week, we’re putting the finishing touches on a forthcoming book about Navajo weavers–one of two new books we’ll be bringing out this fall. One of many memorable stories in the book is about a man who, suffering a terrible illness, commissioned for himself, a rug woven with the Tree of Life design. I’m not going to give the story away, but I will say that I was moved by it and even more by the weaver’s experience of it.
So I’ve been thinking about the Tree of Life, that ubiquitous design in textiles from China to Scandinavia to Peru and most points in between, including the Navajo Nation. And thinking of trees as symbols in textiles, (you see how the mind wends its way), I think of El Mago, that wise storyteller Eric Mindling introduces us to in Oaxaca Stories in Cloth. El Mago explains the symbols in Chinantec huipils and how they are intertwined with the lives of women and nature, all characterized by tree designs. The first he describes is El Arbol Disparramado, “A sprawling, wildly branching sapling,” he says, “what little girls once wore, because they too were wildly branching saplings, running about and stretching upwards.”
He goes on to describe the huipils for successive stages of a woman’s life: Arbol de la Primavera, the Tree of Spring; El Arbol del Compromiso, The Commitment Tree; El Arbol de Matrimonio, the Tree of Marriage. There is also the midwife’s huipil, El Arbol de Las Tres Regiones, that shows three branches coming off of a single trunk to represent the three regions of Chinantec where she would travel delivering babies. And there is the Arbol del Escarabajo, the Tree of the Scarab Beetle, woven to represent the loss of culture, like a scarab beetle eating away the trunk of a tree. El Mago maintains, “But there are those among us who believe that one day we will recover what is disappearing, our way of dress, our stories, our pride. And then this huipil will be woven again, but without the scarabs.”
At the end of Oaxaca Stories, El Mago reveals what seems like the antithesis to the scarab beetle, the Arbol de la Reconstruccion the Tree of Renewal. A tree with no trunk that he interprets as the hope that “our culture will be rebuilt and flower once again.”
A whole life lived, centuries of culture evolving, all captured in the colorful branches and blossoms on the Tree of Life.
Meet El Mago and learn more about the huipils and the living threads of Oaxaca in Oaxaca Stories in Cloth: A Book about People, Belonging, Identity, and Adornment available Amazon, ClothRoads, Search Press, and at your favorite Indie Bookstore.