Tolkien and Trees

cypress-trees

The cypresses of Point Lobos

I love trees. Some of my earliest memories are of trees, and my passion for them and fascination with them only deepens with time. In addition to being a literal tree-hugger, I’m also a bit of a geek (no, tree huggers are not geeks–technically they are eccentrics) so you can imagine how delighted I was when I discovered that the Godfather of Fantasy, J.R.R.. Tolkien, was an unabashed partisan of trees.

A couple of quotes from him regarding trees are making the rounds on the internet, but I’ve learned to distrust popular quotations. They are often misattributed or downright made up. So I searched his edited letters for references to trees.

There are many–he always mentions trees when he describes places, has funny things to say about artists who can’t draw trees, and has many trees of significance in his books, which he mentions in passing, but the following are the more direct defenses of trees:

#165 To the Houghton Mifflin Co. , 1955 :

I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals.

#83 From a letter to Christopher Tolkien, 6 October 1944:

It is not the not-man (e.g. weather) nor man, (even at a bad level), but the man-made that is ultimately daunting and insupportable. If a ragnarök would bum all the slums and gas-works, and shabby garages, and long arc-lit suburbs, it cd. for me bum all the works of art – and I’d go back to trees.

#339 To the Editor of the Daily Telegraph

[In a leader in the Daily Telegraph of 29 June 1972, entitled ‘Forestry and Us’, there occurred this passage: ‘Sheepwalks where you could once ramble for miles are transformed into a kind of Tolkien gloom, where no bird sings…’ Tolkien’s letter was published, with a slight alteration to the opening sentence, in the issue of 4 July.]

30 June 1972
Merton College, Oxford

Dear Sir,

With reference to the Daily Telegraph of June 29th, page 18, I feel that it is unfair to use my name as an adjective qualifying ‘gloom’, especially in a context dealing with trees. In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlórien is beautiful because there the trees were loved; elsewhere forests are represented as awakening to consciousness of themselves. The Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries. Fangorn Forest was old and beautiful, but at the time of the story tense with hostility because it was threatened by a machine-loving enemy. Mirkwood had fallen under the domination of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story.

It would be unfair to compare the Forestry Commission with Sauron because as you observe it is capable of repentance; but nothing it has done that is stupid compares with the destruction, torture and murder of trees perpetrated by private individuals and minor official bodies. The savage sound of the electric saw is never silent wherever trees are still found growing.

Yours faithfully,
J. R. R. Tolkien

I say amen to that last paragraph!

And finally, as an interesting aside which may be of more interest to fantasy geeks than straight-up tree lovers, here he is on the Ents:

#163 To W. H. Auden, 7 June 1955

…Take the Ents, for instance. I did not consciously invent them at all. The chapter called ‘Treebeard’, from Treebeard’s first remark on p. 66, was written off more or less as it stands, with an effect on my self (except for labour pains) almost like reading some one else’s work. And I like Ents now because they do not seem to have anything to do with me. I daresay something had been going on in the ‘unconscious’ for some time, and that accounts for my feeling throughout, especially when stuck, that I was not inventing  but reporting (imperfectly) and had at times to wait till ‘what really happened’ came through. But looking back analytically I should say that Ents are composed of philology, literature, and life. They owe their name to the eald enta geweorc of Anglo-Saxon, and their connection with stone. Their part in the story is due, I think, to my bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of ‘Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill’: I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war…

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The Ultimate Earth Bed: A Mattress Made of Sand

sand bed in bedroom

Michael and Stephanie’s sand bed.  Photo courtesy of The Ultimate Earth Bed

In 2013 I wrote a post called “A Homemade Mattress?” It was just an off-the-cuff complaint fest on my part, but the response to it revealed a vast population of deeply dissatisfied bed users out there in Internetland. It remains one of our most visited posts, and the lengthy comment section is filled with tales of people who, in desperation, have made, modified or improvised their beds in an effort to avoid the mattress industry entirely.

It seems many of us are sick of sleeping on these expensive, over-engineered contraptions stuffed full of petroleum-based foam and doused with fire retardants. Worse, these beds are not even all that comfortable, or don’t maintain their firmness for long, and just make the whole experience a little more squalid, when we can’t stand them any longer, we have to drag them to the curb and send them off to clog the landfills for the next few hundred years. No wonder so many of us search for alternatives, from hammocks to Japanese style futons to homemade straw mattresses.

Recently a friend and frequent Root Simple commenter who goes by the handle “P” here, sent us an intriguing note. Like us, she lives in the Los Angeles area, and like us, she’s been obsessed with the idea of a mattress alternative for a while. Then she got a lead on an exciting bed option, and she shared it with us, saying basically, “I know this couple that you have to meet. They’ve made a bed out of sand!”

So we went to meet Michael Garcia and Stephanie Wing-Garcia and their sand mattress. They live just a few minutes from our house, in a big, sunny apartment full of beautiful things–and they sleep on a king sized bed which consists of a low wooden platform, a pair of twin-sized canvas mattress casings filled with ground white marble sand, which in turn are topped by an inch thick natural latex mat and a layer of sheepskin.

Version 2

Peeling back the layers: platform, 3″ deep sand filled mattress, 1″ natural latex and sheep skin on top (not pictured).  Photo courtesy of The Ultimate Earth Bed.

They love their bed. The idea for it came them in a flash of inspiration, and it has changed their lives. Stephanie credits the bed with healing the excruciating chronic back pain which she’d been suffering from for seven years.

It’s a great story, and they’re great people– which is why we recorded them for our podcast. They will be on tomorrow’s episode, so stay tuned for more! (The podcast is now up–here’s the link)

But in brief, and as sort of a preview, here’s few points which we’ll be covering in more detail in the podcast:

  1. Sleeping on a firm surface is a well known solution for tricky backs. Many people find that after an (admittedly uncomfortable) period of adjustment, the body seems to stretch and realign against the resistance offered by the firm surface. Using sand as a substrate provides an incredibly firm sleeping surface which is just a tad more forgiving than sleeping on the floor. The top padding provide insulation and a little bit of cushioning for the joints.
  2. The clean, dry crushed marble they’ve sourced makes a bed that is non-toxic, inflammable, allergenic, bug-resistant and deeply recyclable. If the mattress casing can be washed or patched. The sand can be washed or returned to the earth. It is an elemental bed. And theoretically it would last a lifetime.
  3. They’ve found a side-effect to sleeping on the crushed marble sand is that it seems to be curiously grounding and sleep-inducing. They fall asleep fast and sleep hard. I will say that I noticed that while I was sitting on the bed during our visit. Though I was drinking caffeine and conducting an interview–things which would ordinarily have me jacked up like a Chihuahua–I felt like I could just stretch out and take a a quick nap right there.
  4. Erik and I are intrigued with this idea, and are tempted to compare sleeping on this surface to barefoot running. (We’ve done the barefooting, but haven’t tried a whole night on the mattress.)  Both may be uncomfortable at first, but they build resilience, and perhaps, healthier bodies over time. In both cases, we have been told we have to buy complicated “supportive” contraptions made of cushioning foam and polyester fabric to have a good run, or a good night’s sleep. More and more we’re questioning whether that is a good idea.
  5. Michael and Stephanie loved their bed so much that they started to make sand beds for friends and family. The response has been so positive that they’ve started a company called The Ultimate Earth Bed, so that now they can share their idea with you, too.

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How to be a Tudor by Ruth Goodman

goodman
Thanks to reader CW for turning me onto this book!

How to be a Tudor is a book written by a re-enactor about the nuts and bolts of everyday life for Tudor-period people. It is not an all-encompassing encyclopedia, but rather a personal tour through what I suspect are Goodman’s favorite parts of Tudor life.

There is a little something in here for any DIY geek. CW’s recommendation came in reference to homemade beds– Goodman covers them, and she has made them all and slept on all of them: straw, wool and feather, and has some good insights into the different materials. Turns out that maybe you don’t actually have to choose one, but you could use all three to make an ideal bed! This is a definite read for the bed-obsessed, and she conveniently covers beds right at the beginning, too.

But beyond that, there’s so much fun stuff in here. If you’re into brewing, baking, sewing, the practice of apprenticeship, archery, table manners, dance, sewing…whatever….there will be tidbits to please you.

My favorite might be her description of rush floors. You may have noticed that in historical and fantasy novels the floor of the great hall is always “strewn with rushes”– leaving the modern reader imaging a tangled cesspool of greenery underfoot. Apparently it was actually quite pleasant floor treatment. Reading her description, I realized it was deep bedding for people!!!! It all makes sense now!

Oh! And I almost forgot. Hygiene! Her thoughts on Tudor bathing/non-bathing and resultant stinkiness/non-stinkiness are worth the price of admission alone. Spoiler: no-pooers will feel vindicated.

Also, they cleaned their teeth with soot. And yes, I’m going to try it.

Sometimes she goes off in idiosyncratic directions, such as a lengthy section on how to sew, starch and form your own lace ruffs using heated rods and some judicious dabs of glue. Where else would you ever see that described? Yet somehow, I feel better for understanding the making and maintenance process of these things. Now the ruff seems less like the inexplicable product of an alien civilization.

Elizabeth1_Phoenix

Just think, someone (many someones) made that ruff and all those baubles and do-dads by hand

Did you know folks could change the color of their ruffs in and out by treating them different colored starches? Or that there were colored ruffs at all?  (And yes, she tells you how to make starch, too.) Prostitutes wore blue ruffs. Honestly, who knew?

To go off on an idiosyncratic tangent of my own, a short aside she made about her daughter is really sticking with me. As a child, the author’s daughter learned a craft called finger loop braiding, which produces decorative silken cord. Tudors used this stuff a lot as trim on their garments. She started doing it for fun, as some girls get into weaving friendship bracelets, but she really took to it and sold some to a costumer. Thus encouraged, kept doing it, and as an adult she produces this stuff for high end theater and film production.

Because she has been doing it since she was a child she has tremendous speed and dexterity with the weaving which allows her to not only produce cord much faster than any hobbyist, but also make weaving moves which would seem awkward if not impossible to someone not raised to the craft. Once she was filmed weaving and they had to ask her to slow it down because the eye could not follow what she was doing. (I believe those are her hands weaving in Wolf Hall Episode 4, 55:51)

This made me think about the value inherent in the kind of deep, traditional craft production that starts with the apprenticing of children. We look at old quilted silk waistcoat in a museum or an intricately carved wooden balustrade or a silver tea pot or any number of graceful surviving mementos of past ages and we shake our heads and say, “We don’t make things like that anymore.” It occurs to me that in some areas we don’t because we don’t employ children to these tasks as we used to.

I’m not saying we should set kids to fiddly work so they can end up stooped and half blind by age 15! I’m just thinking about the idea of mastery, and the kind of work and time that takes. As well as just raw hours spent at the task, there is the advantage of asking a body, muscle, nerve, bone and brain, to grow into the craft, to develop into that specialty. We’ve kept up the practice of early apprenticeship in just a few areas, like music, dance and sport–but in the world of craft, we generally adopt our crafts in adulthood, and bounce from one craft to another, because few of us make our living from them–so of course we will not become masters.

Master craftspeople are rarities now, but imagine the streets of London in Tudor times. Every other doorway must have held a master of some craft: blacksmith, brewer, rope maker, dyer, tanner, painter, tailor, bookbinder. And heck, every good housewife had to know how to do a whole lot of stuff, from sewing to cheese making to brewing, and was a master of those crafts as a matter of course. How wonderful it would be to walk those streets and watch it all going on! For those of us who like to engage in this kind of wishful thinking, Goodman’s book is a close second to a long visit.

Note: She’s also written How to be a Victorian. There’s another rabbit hole for you!

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The problem with polar fleece: it’s in the ocean, it’s in sea creatures, it’s on our plates

Every earth-crunchy, green, neo-hippie, tree-hugging, back to the lander type (like myself) seeks out natural fibers when buying clothes, understanding them as the healthy, sustainable choice. Yet at the same time, outdoor apparel companies who cater, to a large extent, to people who love being out in the healthy pristine wilderness, specialize in selling us expensive specialized clothing made out of artificial fibers in the name of performance and even safety. (Remember kids, cotton kills!)

The ascendancy of the tech fibers has made it difficult, and expensive, to find natural fiber alternatives in the field of outdoor clothing. And admittedly, these materials have their strong points: they are lightweight, durable, non-itchy, moth proof, easy to wash, etc. And while this stuff can be expensive when sold by specialty retailers, over the years cheap fleece goods have become ubiquitous at chain stores, in everything from baby clothing to home decoration.

As a result, at this point, only the most militant lentil eating do-gooder, the most pure of the pure, do not have at least one polar fleece (polyester fleece) pullover in their wardrobe or blanket on their bed. I have a few polar fleece items, and as with all artificial fibers, I knew when I bought them that these things will never decompose, will clog the landfills along with all the other detritus I’ve generated throughout my life. But really, what is a fleece beanie in comparison to the foam and polyester monstrosity which is our mattress? Or what about the long chain of discarded electronic devices trailing in my wake? Fleece pullovers seemed such a small sin in the greater balance of things.

Now I’m not so sure.

classic-1Turns out that polyester fleece (and probably all synthetic fabric, more on that later) sheds teeny tiny microfibers in the wash water, and that passes through the waste treatment plants and ends up in watershed, where they not only add to our terrible problem of plastic pollution in the ocean, they are also consumed by marine life. They enter the food chain. Confused bivalves and shrimp eat this stuff, and we eat them. In short, we are eating our fleece jackets. And nobody knows what health impacts all this ingestion of microplastics will have for us, or the sea creatures.

The news first came to me, ironically enough, via Patagonia, purveyors of very expensive polar fleece. They’d commissioned a study on this, which showed that all fleece sheds significantly in the wash. High quality fleece sheds less initially than budget fleece, but they even out as they age, and aged fleece sheds significantly more than new fleece. They also found that puffy fiberfill jackets are significant shedders as well–apparently the tiny fibers migrate out the seams. Currently Patagonia is puzzling over how to weave non-shedding fleece, or perhaps convince washing machine manufacturers to install better filtration devices on home machines.

I’m going to point you to this Outside Online article for the details–it’s well worth the read.

Patagonia certainly did not break this news–I just stumbled on it via their recently released study. As the article above describes, the first whistleblower may have been marine biologist Mark Browne. Environmental organizations focused on ocean health, like The Plastic Soup Foundation and Save the Mermaids have been working on this problem for a while now, and they produced the cheeky PSA video above for a European audience back in 2015. (It’s worth noting that you pretty much have to offer a striptease to get the average viewer to sit through a video about ocean health.)

Though the Patagonia study focused on fleece, it seems all synthetic fibers shed and add to the problem. This is mind boggling when you start to think of everything in your household which contains synthetic fibers and which may end up in the wash now and again–from fleece blankets to underwear to stretchy jeans to stuffed animals.

What to do?

I think the quick take-away here is that your instincts about the superiority of natural fibers were always right and you should stick with them and phase out synthetics as much as you can, at least until we either figure out how to make a non-shedding synthetic or figure out how to filter waste water more effectively.

I find it interesting that none of the articles I’ve been reading are presenting this as an simple solution to the problem. But there it is.

According to the video above you can lessen the shedding by using liquid detergent and fabric softener in a cold water wash, but this is not a solution, just a mitigation.

It turns out that over the years here at our house we’ve sent a good deal of these stray fibers into the soil around our house, since we’ve been using a greywater system. I’m not sure what to think about that. I doubt that the fibers are as disruptive in the soil as they are in a marine ecosystem, but still, it’s not good, and I don’t like it.

Thinking about my own household, I’m targeting certain items for disposal. I have some very old fleece in my life: a 15 year old bathrobe, a blanket and a throw of nearly same age. These are things I have no special love for, and yet must be major shedders when I wash them. Rather than give them to the thrift store (because their new owners will continue to wash them), I’m going to consign them to the landfill. This makes me unhappy, but it was always their ultimate fate, anyway. I have wool and cotton things to take their place, and in the future, can continue to use natural fibers for these purposes.

I have a few other items which are newer and don’t really need to be washed for a few years, which I’ll keep for now, like a fleece vest and hat, but one day they will go to the landfill as well. I’m going to transition more to woolen outdoor items, even though they are expensive. Despite the fact that marketers have convinced us we can’t go outside without being all geared up in high tech fabrics, our grandfathers were happy enough tromping through the woods in those snappy plaid wool coats, and early mountaineers did impressive climbing in wool knee socks and knickers.

Even more tricky are items that just don’t translate well into natural fibers. We can wear baggy underwear held up by drawstrings, but do we want to? What about tights and socks? And I don’t know if anyone wants to go back to the days of woolen bathing suits! Erik suggests we all start bareass swimming, which is the aquatic analog of barefoot running.

Indeed, maybe we should be like the Greeks and exercise naked and barefoot, removing whole categories of unnecessary clothing and equipment across the board. Although I have to admit that a vision of naked yoga gives me serious pause. However, no ancient yogi every wore cute stretchy pants and a strappy top to do his practice. Yoga wear, like most athletic wear, is about fashion, not necessity, and we could do most of our exercising, whatever the type, in cotton, hemp, linen or wool.

Realistically, no matter how strict we try to be, I believe will always have some synthetics in the mix, in the form of elastic if nothing else, but if we are conscious and careful, the amount that ends up in the seas, in our food, in our bodies, it will be a far cry from the amount of pollution we are causing right now, out of pure ignorance.

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As a side note, this plastic business brings up two ongoing projects of mine which regular readers will know about, and may be wondering what’s happening with them.

The first is homemade mattresses. There are developments on that front, and for the moment all I will say is a teasing more soon!

The second is my quest to develop a sort of uniform and make my own clothes. This project is going slowly, but I have to say that all this inspires me to work harder. I want to have very few clothes, but those I have should be well made, and made out of well sourced natural materials. I do not have to sew them myself, but I do want to sew the more simple things, and source out complex items–like wool coats. I think this is possible, and even affordable if a wardrobe is considered to be a very small collection of treasured investments.

In Praise of Turkish Towels

turkish vs. terry towel

Turkish towel above a terry towel of the same size. I like to store them rolled, as on top.

I’m done with terry cloth towels. They’re too bulky, take up too much space in the cupboard, the laundry basket and the washer. And while a soft fluffy towel warm out of the dryer is indisputably a very pleasant thing, a stiff, scratchy towel off the laundry line is not–and we do all of our drying by line.

Furthermore, I think the quality of terry towels is dropping in general. I’ve been very disappointed with my towels for years. The most recent ones began fraying after their a couple of washings. (They were from Target, FYI.  Serves me right, really.). Meanwhile, I have as exhibits of quality textiles one baby blue towel Erik brought into our relationship and which was a hand-me-down from his mother’s house. I know it must date from the 60’s or 70’s, due to its un-ironic raised paisley pattern. It reminds me very much of my childhood. And while it is worn around the edges, it is still strong and whole. I also have the bath towel my mom bought me to take to college, and while that towel does not date to the Nixon administration, it is older than I’d like to consider and still holding strong. These two venerable old towels I will be keeping, out of respect more than anything else. All the crappy new towels have to go, and they will be replaced with Turkish towels.

I’ve been using a couple of Turkish towels as my bath towels for a year or so now and I really like them. Turkish towels are thick woven cotton sheets. Lacking the tiny, thirsty loops of the terry cloth towels, they are not as instantly absorbent as terry, but they work—it just feels different on your body. After a few disconcerting  mornings spent missing terry, I grew used to them, and then fell in love. I love them because:

  • The are not as bulky as terry, so wrap and tie around the body more more easily
  • They roll up into neat little bundles and take up very little space in my bathroom cupboard
  • They dry more quickly than terry towels
  • They don’t hog the washer
  • They’re not heavy when wet
  • They dry quickly on the line and feel soft afterward
  • They make good beach towels, yoga towels, chair covers, picnic blankets, etc.
  • After a year of hard use they are showing no signs of wear.

Where do you get them? Well, one of mine I purchased online and one was a gift. Sorry I can’t be more helpful than that. I have seen them in a hipster boutique around here, which means I may be disconcertingly surfing the edge of some new artisanal towel trend. They are fairly expensive, but I think I’d rather have 4 of these guys and nothing else than a cabinet stuffed full of low quality terry. I expect they’ll last a long time.

Incidentally, those big white bar towels used for drying glassware– also called flour sack towels–make good hair and hand towels. If you have lots of long hair they probably will not be absorbent enough for you, but I like them for the same reasons I like the Turkish towels: they take up little space, they dry fast, they are well suited to line drying. They are also quite inexpensive.

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