Mar/Apr 1999 Miscellany

Fibers, Hands, and Fig Trees

by Barbara Lefcowitz


On the island of Barbados I once watched an old woman slowly weaving a basket from the roots of a wamba tree; when she finished her elaborate braiding of the long tapered roots, interspersing them every few inches with coils of a dark green fiber, the basket would be so tautly woven it could hold water. Always I have admired such work, as well the deft finger movements of those who create it, how their fingers dance the same steps over and over without missing a beat.


I talk with my hands. No matter how hard I might try to control their movements, my hands rise, fall, arc, slice and mince the air, sometimes making zig-zags worthy of a stepped pyramid, sometimes waving as if I secretly wished my hands were wings, sometimes performing the dance of a maundering drunk,whirling dervish, or the Hindu god Shiva as he circles in ecstatic trance.


The concentric upward curves of a fig tree's branches resemble the arrangement of Shiva's multiple arms as he dances the Nadanta or cosmic dance. Particularly striking are the bronze statuettes of Shiva cast in the South of India around the eleventh century A.D. The best of these figures suggests a cadenced movement, its turning effect accomplished through the positioning of the arms one behind the other. A similar architecture of branches distinguishes the related sycamore tree (Gr.sukomoros: sukon, fruit of the fig + moron, black mulberry).



Given my tendency to dance with my hands, it's lucky I'm not a Hindu god or goddess though I've always found their multiplicity of hands a most curious sort of icon. Surely the depiction of numerous hands and arms is related to each god's diversity of roles, some even contradictory. Shiva, at times the lord of destruction, at other times the ecstatic dancer, sometimes a young ascetic, and at still other times a most benevolent protector god, has as many as 18 hands.

In a well known statue, his upper right arm holds a drum, balanced by a flame in the upper left; the lower left hand is curved in a gesture that promises relief from pain , the lower right raised in a benedictory position.

Though usually possessing only four hands, several of the savior god Vishnu's incarnations hold in each an object pertinent to Vishnu's powers: the wheel or chakra; the conch shell; the club; and that ubiquitous fertility symbol, the lotus.

But the mystery remains: how come other polytheistic religions, whose gods also play multiple roles—the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Mayans, among others—do not grant their gods the gift of multiple hands, do not, as it were, provide any iconic means for a division of labor?


All fibers have spiraling, threadlike characteristics, whether we speak of bast fibers from the phloem or nutritive tissues of trees and plants like jute, ramie, flax (from Gothic flahta, plaiting) or silk removed from the boiled cocoons of the silk moth and spun many times around a spindle or any of the long filaments that wind through muscles and nerves. Of course the worms that produce silk cocoons are quintessentially spiral, weaving their way through vast quantities of mulberry leaves which they consume almost continuously until ready to spin and be spun .


Fig trees, identified often with the sacred Tree of Knowledge, combine both the masculine and feminine—the leaf associated with the phallus, or at least its shield, and the fruit with the vulva; in Buddhist terms, the leaf is the linga and the fruit is the yoni. But what about the flower?



Rainer Maria Rilke's sixth Duino Elegy begins by invoking the fig tree's mysterious omission of the flowering stage: "Fig-tree, for such a long time I have found meaning/in the way you almost completely omit your blossoms/and urge your pure mystery, unproclaimed,/into the early ripening fruit" (tr. Stephen Mitchell). After associating the fig tree with the fusion of god and swan, he makes an invidious contrast between the tree and our own tendency to "linger" because of pride in the showy blossom, so by the time we come to fruition we are "betrayed." The flowerless fig tree, though still mysterious, thus becomes an ideal for the high romantic hero.


Some fibers weave themselves together naturally, strong enough to use prior to human intervention. I have often admired the rough brown cloth that unfurls from the bark of palm trees, a natural source of raffia for making baskets and a raw version of burlap. Some varieties of seaweed intermesh their fibers into patches suitable for a sea-quilt, and the largest of the green algae, Ulva or sea lettuce, can create ribbons and sheets several feet long. In desperation, one could even shape a shawl from the gulfweed commonly found floating in patches on the Sargasso Sea. And who, if lucky enough to find some, could resist twisting a rope from already intertwined stray hemp fibers?


Palm reading originated in India, back around 1500 B.C. From there the practice and theory travelled east to China and west to Egypt, Greece, and eventually to the dowdy shacks one sometimes sees on the back roads of America, a large sign in front proclaiming EXPERT PALM READING, FORTUNE TELLING, TAROT READINGS, courtesy of Madame Evangelina Sorbet de Savon Yablonka. A clue to the mystery of those multiple hands in Hindu iconography? But then there are the mudras (the Sanskrit word for signs), that vast array of hand gestures in both Hindu and Buddhist art, each mudra expressive of a particular state of being-e.g., the Dharmachakra mudra, hands juxtaposed one slightly below the other against the chest, index finger and thumb forming a circle, a gesture that sets the wheel of dharma (law, doctrine) in motion. Or the simple inversion of the right hand reaching towards the ground, palm inward—a gesture calling upon the earth to witness Buddha's enlightenment.

But every culture has its vocabulary of hand gestures, some markedly obscene—to the potential embarrassment of the ignorant tourist. I've even seen supposedly reserved Scotsmen making gestures with hands and fingers. So I'd be hard pressed to say that an extraordinary interest in hands is particularly germane to the climate, geography, or natural life of India. And if, say, an American sculptor created a statue with three hands, he would likely be accused of an obsession with the grotesque. So the mystery of the multiple hands persists.



First the rippling, then the retting, the breaking, and the scutching: even the words suggest a process far more harsh, indeed near-violent, than the image of smoothely woven cream-color linen napkins, each folded under elegantly aligned and gleaming silverware at a formal dinner party. Yet the transformation of flax fiber into linen begins with pressing the stalks through a coarse metal comb whose long sharp teeth remove seeds and leaves. Then the rippled stalks are ready to be decomposed or retted: either by immersion into a tank of hot water which is allowed to stagnate, encouraging bacteria to consume some of the stalk's chemicals and thus break the inner fibrous core from the outer layers, or by dispersion of the stalks on the ground for six weeks so the combination of dew and bacteria will accomplish the same end.

Voila! Time to dry the flax and pass it through long fluted rollers so any hard, scabby excrescences will be crushed away. All the better to enter the surviving fibers into a scutching machine. ("Scutch" derives via French from the Latin word escutere, to shatter.) Purpose? To beat the hell out of them so the long bundles will emerge thoroughly purified and ready to be spun, cut, stitched, dyed, pressed and perhaps folded carefully onto a formally set dinner table so someone might have the liberty of staining them red with spilled wine or making them sticky with buttery fingerprints.

The rustling music of a silk kimono or gown may suggest a Zen-like calm, but the transformation from silkworm to silk thread is anything but... First the picking and plucking of the firmest young yellow worms; after they form cocoons, the boiling, at which point women traditionally retrieve the hot threads with their fingers, twist and join them to be spun on spindles or reels. At this point the women, at least in modern Indochina, eat what's left of the cooked worms.

After the spinning, the drying of spun threads in the hot sun. In the words of Katharine Wardle, the threads at this point resemble "coarse blond hair," eventually to undergo a metamorphosis into raw silk, subsequently knitted or woven into textures with names like chiffon, charmeuse, matelasse, shantung, and peau de soie... and draped around the expensively perfumed bodies of expensive women, their silk gowns making a gently rustling music.

And let's not forget the Silk Wars, the thirty centuries of fanatic secrecy on the part of the early Chinese discoverers of silk; the incursions of the Indians and Japanese; Emperor Justinian's invasions of China to steal mulberry seeds and silkworm eggs; the 17th century silk rivalry between Italy and France.

In Bursa, Turkey, Ibrahim Sansar calls the silk caterpillars " voracious as locusts." His wife keeps the larvae behind a dark curtain to protect them from the evil eye.


I am not aware of any superstitions about hands intertwining fibers but know a few linked with the intertwining of a hand's fingers themselves. Nearly universal is the notion that crossing one's fingers can bring about good luck, while clasping the fingers of one hand with those of the other may ward off punishment. Remember when you had to sit at your school desk with tightly clasped hands lest you do something naughty and invite the wrath of the teacher? I believe the practice is much less common nowadays, but people of a certain age might identify with my own memory of clasping so firmly my hands seem to have converged into one and I would never be able to pry those interlocked fingers apart.

A hand with an eye embedded in the middle helps ward off the evil eye, particularly in Islamic cultures; sometimes called the talismanic hand, it also signifies clairvoyance.


Fig trees fare poorly in the Gospels. In the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree (Luke 13:6-9), the tree represents the Hebrew rejection of Jesus. After pleading with the owner of the vineyard to leave the barren tree alone for a year to give the Hebrews time to repent, Jesus eventually condemns the tree and orders it cut down. In Mark 11:12-14, Jesus curses a similarly fruitless tree: "And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it, No Man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever..."

Shortly thereafter, the fig tree dries up completely, roots to branches. Once again, the lack of fruit is interpreted as lack of faith in the teachings of Jesus.



Figs and fig trees play an essential role in several mysterious transformations. While sitting under a fig or pipal tree, the Buddha attained enlightenment; Mohammed swore by a fig, thus transforming it to a sacred fruit to which he attributed an intelligence nearly on the level of an animal's. In both Italy and parts of Africa, women are anointed with the milky sap of the fig (and sometimes tied to a fig tree) in order to encourage fertility. The milk of the wild fig in particular has been widely savored for its curative properties. Folk tales tell of magical figs that bring on sleep or cause horns to grow on the heads of people—is the latter a veiled reference to cuckoldry, the adulterous escapades of the errant mate having taken place while the husband or wife was deep in an enchanted fig-sleep? And let's not forget the particular association of a basket of figs with woman as earth goddess or mother.


Baskets themselves have a long history related to the use of fibers, especially reeds, roots, grasses, and raffia. Celebrations of the Dionysian Mysteries involved baskets covered with ivy which contained both fruit and a concealed phallus. Ceres often carried a basket. No one knows who made the basket used to rescue the infant Moses though he was not the only person to be so rescued. Thinking back to when I watched the woman of Barbados weaving wamba roots and reeds into a basket, I wonder if it was ultimately used to hold an infant, a supply of wheat or barley flour, stray threads and buttons, mangoes or starfruit. . .Or perhaps she used it as a receptacle for various fibers gathered until she had enough to transform them into yet another basket?


In ancient Hinduism, nine basic types of handicrafts were not only deemed honorable by the divine artisan Visvakarman but considered part of any worldly man's education. To manipulate a particular material or substance in its raw state and transform it into a thing of beauty, utility, or both, was thought both morally and intellectually worthy; many treatises laid out the rules for the various crafts. Among the nine basic crafts is the hand weaving of not only cotton, silk, and wool, but coconut fiber into textiles and rugs. "Stem-working," or the twisting of fresh stems into garlands and joining of reeds to create rush mats and baskets, was considered important enough to warrant a separate category.


Perhaps the next time I catch myself talking with my hands I will make sure to have some string or threads nearby. Maybe even reeds, wamba roots, coconut fibers, fig roots. Then I can transform my words into something beautiful, useful, or even both.


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