Soil to Sky

I remember it was warm enough for Sharon, David and I to be sitting on the balcony when we began outlining this project; we had begun dreaming of something warm and blue-skied, something that would be light-hearted and whimsical and capture imaginations, as well as pose a bit of a technical challenge and highlight the incredible range and depth of skills in our community. Lanterns? no, there are others in Vancouver who have that covered….
What about…. kites?
Paper, string, bamboo…. could we do all that?
We have the flax for linen string, and the bamboo from Means of Production Garden, and we know some papermakers….

But could we make something that actually flies?

The biggest hurdle to being a community-engaged artist working with natural materials  is that the level of practical skills and knowledge held by today’s people is so low compared to previous generations; as a community we can’t make gains on, or even approach, the basic level of skill of our ancestors. My technical skills are esoteric, meant for specialists such as myself — if not outright obsolete — in our age of miracles. But that’s the crux of the social good that accrues from my getting out there and doing it: every time I teach another ten year old to tie a knot and tell him stories about our paleolithic ancestors and the First Nations, we’re keeping alive the embers of the skills that were fundamental to human life for millennia, connecting to the past and to the land, and shining a light on how homo sapiens’ powers have brought us to where we are, out of balance with our planet — and yet, that we have the capacity to heal.

Another challenge in working with natural materials — and comparing ourselves to our ancestors — is that our ancestors were just as picky about the quality of their materials as we are, and just as interested in making a product that is as functional and beautiful as possible. The difference is that we have a lot of really, really phenomenal man-made materials to choose from — which we invented, often, as a solution to the limitations of natural materials faced by our ancestors, either in supply or performance — and that we have no skills, or even knowledge of production. And because the man-made materials are often cheap, and mass-produced, we tend to treat them as disposable (check out George Monbiot’s 2012 article The Gift of Death). So, we take for granted the revolutionary qualities of the man-made materials; we choke on the amount of work it takes to create materials from scratch; and we don’t have the skills to create materials that match our performance and aesthetic expectations, even if we wanted to — even if we were making man-made materials, for that matter! Machines and chemicals make modern tissue paper and plastic, not people.

Soil to Sky was a crucible for exploring some of these aspects of cultural cognitive dissonance. Sharon and I planned a very intense schedule of research and development, booked respected community knowledge and skill holders to lead sessions in their areas of expertise; and then convened a pool of committed community members to participate in the process.  Over the course of about six weeks we learned about kite design, splitting bamboo, spinning linen, and making paper and natural glue — using materials that were almost all grown or gathered in East Vancouver (except for the glue, made from rawhide from a sheep from Langley, and some supplementary pulp for the paper). Our participants included members of the BC Kitefliers Association, preschool and elementary educators from a local outdoor preschool and Strathcona Elementary, Environmental Youth Alliance staff, EartHand members, and folks from Hastings Learning Garden and Hives for Humanity. We wanted to see if we could, together, turn materials grown and gathered in our neighbourhoods into kites that would actually fly.

Most of us were already biased toward using local, natural materials and to accepting the limits of our skills and the materials we have to work with (which aren’t necessarily premium natural materials, just local). The biggest surprises for me were that rawhide glue is awesome, and that we could actually make some half-decent tissue paper. Though there were very few spinners who were able to produce kite-worthy line from our local linen, our Kiteflier friends approved of most of our paper and bamboo struts. In the end, I think the approval we got from Dan Kurahashi, our bamboo maestro and most dubious participant, suggested that our efforts were not too bad after all:

Nobody cut their fingers; you people are not all ten thumbs. Some people surprise me; you cannot tell by looks.

When Sharon and I developed the project, we had envisioned a group of participants who would take the skills that they learned and practiced as part of Soil to Sky back to their own classes and groups; we wanted to create a ripple effect, so that the knowledge and skills developed as part of the Soil to Sky process would expand and become part of a larger story of education and engagement in East Vancouver and beyond. This did indeed happen; and Sharon, David and I took the story of Soil to Sky to classrooms and events, hosted further workshops, and heard back from our participants that they were doing things like making paper with their students. What we didn’t expect was that the Soil to Sky experience would have such a strong, positive effect on so many of the participants individually, and as a group — and to me, this became the most important and moving aspect of the project. Here are some excerpts from my notes:

It’s been really nice to come here and be reminded that I’m smart and capable, and I can do this stuff; but also to be learning alongside others who are also learning. And it’s sparked curiosity in me to come and learn more; like, everything I look at, I can probably do something with; so it’s cracked open this little part of my brain that I want to explore and expand.

This project was special because it was like community self-care, it supported those of us in social justice and activism who are on the front lines. The only way we can provide good experiences is by knowing what it sounds like, looks like, feels like. You can do that for a little while, but if you don’t get refreshed it becomes inauthentic, and burns you out. I appreciate the people who did fund this project for having that insight, that the ripple effect is far greater than just the workshops, skills, or products. We’re actually practicing collaboration, instead of just talking about it.

Yes, absolutely we can make kites out of natural materials; that’s how it was always done up until the 20th Century, and kites were developed thousands of years ago. I never really had any doubts! But now I can see the connection the process of kitemaking has to the past, before modern times, because there were kites long before plastics came out of factories. My biggest concern is paper strength and waterproofing — but then, durability is a modern concern.

Martin Borden captured the Soil to Sky project in a short documentary film:

In the end, our East Van kites — made with small sheets of uneven paper, maybe slightly crooked bamboo, and  linen string — will never resist moisture or perform with the precision of a modern plastic-and-nylon one.

But we made them together, and they do fly….
and unlike their plastic-and-nylon relations,
they will also return to the soil.


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