Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

An excerpt from the the sassy new book,
Red Boots and Attitude

Read more about the background and passion behind the Red Boots and Attitude book, here

'Round the Mulberry Bush
by Jan Epton Seale

Today I found a long white hair woven into the sleeve of a silk dress bought to wear to my son's wedding. For a moment I was startled. How could this be? I checked the label: "Made in China." Of course. It happened when a woman bent over a loom, tending the skeins as they became cloth. She is a widow. She has one son. She lives with him, his wife, their one child in a small apartment. Her name is . . .Li Ping - because I once knew a woman by that name.

In my first grade classroom at J. Frank McMurray Elementary School was a four-foot square wooden rack built of one-by-fours with a screen fitted over it. Each fall, Miss Ruth Garvey filled it with silkworms: Bombyx mori. It never occurred to me where she got them; the box was loaded with caterpillars at the beginning of school. She also provided a painting easel and a reading corner. If you finished your seatwork, you could paint a big juicy picture or read a more interesting book. Or you could go look at the silkworms. Miss Garvey was a progressive teacher.

Once we passed her first grade, we were invited year after year to come back and gaze at Miss Garvey's silkworms. She would even remind us, if she saw us on the playground or in the hallway, that she was counting on us to come check their progress.

Miss Garvey never married. She lived with her father in a neat white Victorian house with a beckoning porch on a street that I traversed to school each day on bike or foot. Many's the time I ran up on Miss Garvey's porch, seeking sanctuary from a vicious chow dog or a couple of bullies. Her porch always worked: no one except the legitimate would dare mount Miss Garvey's porch.

My sister and I played a piano duet at Miss Garvey's father's one hundredth birthday celebration. In the middle of our rendition, Father Garvey bawled out, "When is this going to be over?" Too late, Miss Garvey rushed to his side and put her hand over his mouth. Shortly after that, my sister refused to play the piano anymore. I should have.

Miss Garvey's current first-graders had dibs on caring for the silkworms. She regularly issued an urgent call for her students to bring mulberry leaves, though I think secretly she had a bountiful supply from her backyard trees. Nevertheless, we faithfully brought the bulksome branches, fresh as possible, from our yards. Several times a day, it was possible to go stand at the frame and, after a moment, perceive with a delicious shock the vast quivering movement of leaves as the silkworms on the underside ate their voracious way through the day's supply. It was better than a magic show, and we could cause it just by our willingness to stand still and look.

A weekend would pass and on Monday morning Miss Garvey showed us proudly that small cocoons had begun to form from the sticky threading of the larvae. We weren't to touch, just look, at those hairy ellipsoids growing larger each day. Some morning, when we'd started to get bored with staring at silent gray cigar-shaped objects in a box, Miss Garvey, right after lunch count and with a mysterious smile on her face, would ask, "Has anyone seen the surprise yet?" Then she'd call us to gather around the box, where we'd watch one or two wet silkworm moths laboring mightily to exit their prison chambers.

I think that all the moths did not come out at once, like cicadas or May flies, but that we had a surprise every few days. And I do not recall what happened to the moths. Did Miss Garvey take them home? Did she release them outside? Did they flit around the box and finally die? What, then, was the lesson we learned, returning year after year to experience Miss Garvey's silkworms?

For me it wasn't any lofty spiritual or ecological object lesson. The larvae were redolent in distaste, silent greedy munchers. The cocoons were teasers, requiring agonizing patience not to touch, just look, day after long day. And the butterflies didn't last.

Nor am I sure Miss Garvey ever pointed out to us the fluid nature of the creature inside the cocoon. Did she tell us that when the larva had completely spun itself a covering, and was on its way to pupahood, that it became soup-yes, soup-completely liquid, for a while? And then, and only then, did the pupa begin to form?

What Miss Garvey did was to give us ownership of those silkworms. They were ours, forever and ever, because she had us wag branches to school for them and sprinkle water very gently into their enclosure. Because she compelled us to come back, year on end, even when we felt entirely superior to her baby first-graders, to view her silkworms. She taught us the power of patient observation. She taught us that nature had its own timetable and its peculiar gifts. She made us look at something long enough to love it. Miss Garvey was confoundedly, eternally excited about silkworms - thus, so were we.

Li Ping, whose white hair came across the world embedded in my silk dress, I know that I wear this particular dress because of you, a poorly paid Chinese worker, a woman probably my age, one who has borne children, cooked morning meals, prayed at night before sleep.

If I grow still and think truthfully, I also understand that my pale silk three-piece dress from Stein Mart originated by the sacrifice of hundreds of silkworm pupae, killed by dipping them in hot water before processing their dried milky skeins - this, after each has blindly spun as much as three thousand feet of silk thread. Advertising bills silk as natural fiber, like cotton or linen. I will be cool in it. If I am greatly sorry for Li Ping, and a little sorry for the silkworms, should I not also be sorry for the cotton stalk and the flax? Life feeds upon life.

Teresa of Avila used the silkworm in her "Interior Castle" to illustrate to her followers the complete enclosure of the soul, the sealing off of one's self from the pleasures of an exterior life in order to emerge as a higher being in the will of God.

So it is, that by a simple white hair, unnoticed, falling onto the loom over which a worker halfway around the world bends to achieve her daily quota, I come to a larger world.

We humans have our opposable thumb, our language, our tools. We also have our conscious will to remember.
Silkworms, Miss Garvey, Li Ping, St. Teresa, and me. A barren maiden-lady schoolteacher, a middle-aged Chinese factory worker, a mystical sixteenth-century reformer, a mother of a groom. . . .

Things really do go round, come round. Like larva equals cocoon equals pupa equals chrysalis equals moth. Like cocoon equals thread equals cloth equals wedding clothes.

Like stray hairs are links. Like memory of one's first grade teacher equals love passed on to bride and groom.

Held, bonded, we are all of us dressed in each other's silks, woven together across time and universe in a garment of existence that assures us we are not alone.

Excerpt courtesy of Eakin Press and used by permission. All rights reserved.
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