Savannah Morning News
Nov. 15, 2015
What is it about vowels? They’re just so darn cheerful. Go, be, see, do. Vowels, especially long vowels, are the glue, But what about the color blue? For years (before I discovered red), blue was my favorite color. Now I read the Incas believed blue to be the color of divine knowledge and the higher mind, indigo blue in particular. Go Blue (as we Wolverines from the University of Michigan might say to a stranger wearing blue and gold). In the Middle Ages indigo blue was so valuable if a non-royal was caught wearing this color he or she could be imprisoned.
Arise all non-royals! Your time has come! You too can wear blue and not be tossed in the brink! Better yet you can wear indigo blue. Even better than that you can dunk your stained white t-shirts, faded button-down shirts, dingy old napkins (or a brand new all white Eileen Fisher dress) into a vat of liquid indigo (and then a special fixative) and give your clothes a second and/or more spiritual life.
All by yourself – at the next Ossabaw Island Foundation indigo dyeing workshop, which they hold periodically, with the incomparable Donna Hardy, founder of Sea Island Indigo in Athens, Ga. Donna has been experimenting, researching and growing this plant for eons. It’s her passion. She even has an indigo leaf stem tattooed on her arm.
I resisted the workshop for a long time. I grow the plant (right now it’s about 10 feet tall). I fuss over the plant. (It’s a self-seeder and I always forget to snag the seeds in the fall so come late May I start to worry: will it come back?) I love to point out the plant’s miniature banana-like seedpod and then its pea-like leaf, which gives me a chance to say it’s a legume (long “u”).
But dyeing? Too artsy-craftsy (I never even tie-dyed anything back in the hippy-dippy days). Too complicated (so what’s the mordant again?). Finally, it’s too messy (full disclosure: the outside of your hands, the creases in your knuckles, your cuticles, your fingernails and any part of the clothes you’re wearing will carry the color for days, maybe weeks. But hey, it’s a stain, right?) But that’s why the accessible and knowledgeable Donna Hardy is there, on the island, to lead you through the steps. Seriously, it should be against the law to have this much fun, on a barrier island, yet. You can’t just say, OK, I have to go home now. It’s days like this that make me wonder why we never did things like this in art class in school. Or even in biology. It’s magical. It’s scientific. It’s historic.
In the process you can make fun of what is normally a taboo subject. You can laugh about dying. Oops, make that dyeing. Maybe it’s because so many good people seem to be, well, dying, that I find myself laughing inappropriately when I hear Donna, our leader, say, “Are you through dyeing?” or “It’s a good day to dye.” Or when someone asks, “Can you make a living dyeing?” or, finally, directly from the mouth of Savannah photographer par excellence Robert Cooper, who was on the island with the rest of us mad hatters, when he said, “I’m here to shoot you dyeing.”
How this strain of indigo from Central and South American got to Ossabaw in the first place is a mystery, “probably on a ship from the 1500’s, by accident or not,” Donna said. Maybe from a bird. Maybe in the cuff of someone’s pants. Maybe Marco Polo, who moved seeds and other goods back and forth between continents, had something to do with it. But seeds are full of mystery. Just this week we read about efforts of a seed saving organization to squirrel away and save seeds from war-ravaged Syria, where archeological sites, cities, human beings – and seeds – are being destroyed right and left.
Quite possibly this strain of Ossabaw indigo – initially discovered on the island by the curious and observant late/great Jim Bitler, who lived and worked on the island – is the same that the Picts, an ancient eighth-century tribal people from Scotland, or the warriors in the Mel Gibson movie, Braveheart, smeared on their faces when they went into battle, although I prefer to think of indigo as a dye for fabric.
Donna postulates the seed has been around for 270 years, long enough to move from an annual to a perennial that reseeds itself. Whatever. It’s a survivor. Like Sandy West, about to turn 103 years old. Like Ossabaw.