Saturday, January 25, 2014

Winter fabric

Our winter exercise routine includes a brisk walk along "Sentiers Hibou Blanc" or "White Owl Trails" in Cap-Pele.  The forest trails are immaculately groomed by a man on a snowmobile who drives around first thing in the morning raking ridges into fresh snow, adding a zen-like pattern to the path.  It seems a shame to tread on such perfect artistry, but we do, leaving our ragged footprints for the groom to erase the next day.  We are grateful for this careful manicuring of the wild woods; without it, we would be stuck in knee-deep white drifts.  

Groomed snow
In his book "Winter" (CBC Massey Lectures) Adam Gopnik describes the romantic Japanese view of winter as an exquisite, but impermanent effect.

"In the Japanese vision of winter, in Japanese poetry, and above all in Japanese prints - particularly those of Utamaro, Hiroshige, and Hokusai - in the imagery of the "floating world," there's no notion that winter has in any way fallen from the hand of God, or is in any way evidence of cosmic organization.  The Japanese idea of winter simply speaks of winter as simultaneously empty and full; the emptying out of nature by cold, it's also the filling up of the world by wind and snow. Winter in the Japanese aesthetic is above all modish, it's above all an occasion for sensibility, it's a season that, in every sense, suggests not the enduring mysteries of "natural" meaning but the beautiful transience of creation - snow arrives, and then snow passes, just as a fashion does, or a love affair."

Hiroshige, "Evening Snow at Kanbara," 1834, woodblock print on paper

The Japanese harness the characteristics of winter in the creation of a fabric called Ojiya Chijimi. Choma, a native plant fibre is bleached by exposure to the sun and the release of ozone from evaporating snow. The resulting hemp fabric is lightweight, absorbent, dries quickly and is prized for making summer kimonos.   In the novel "Snow Country" by Yasunari Kawabata, Chijimi cloth is used as a symbol for beauty and purity.

"The thread was spun in the snow and the cloth woven in the snow, and bleached in the snow.  Everything from the first spinning of the thread to the last finishing touches was done in the snow. "There is Chijimi linen because there is snow," someone wrote long ago. "Snow is the mother of Chijimi."

"From ancient times there were houses that specialized in bleaching.  The weavers for the most part did not do their own.  White Chijimi was spread out on the snow after it was woven, colored Chijimi was bleached on frames while still in thread  The bleaching season came in January and February under the lunar calendar and snow-covered fields and gardens were the bleaching grounds.  The cloth or thread was soaked overnight in ash water  The next morning it was washed over and over again, wrung and put out to bleach.  The process was repeated day after day and the sight, when, as the bleaching came to an end, the rays of the rising sun turned the white Chijimi blood-red, was quite beyond description."

Laying Chijimi fabric out on the snow for bleaching

"The thread of the grass-linen, finer than animal hair, is difficult to work except in the humidity of the snow, it is said, and the dark, cold season is ideal therefore for weaving.  The ancients used to add that the way this product of the cold has a feeling cool to the skin in the hottest weather is a play of the principles of light and darkness."

The White Owl path takes us through groves of birch and maple, stands of cedar, pine and balsam fir, areas of dense growth where each frozen branch is draped with a layer of snow.  It's a landscape full of contrast, empty of sound, hardened by brutal cold and softened by a swath of white corduroy under foot.

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