Springtime in the northern woods is amazing. I hope a lot more folks are getting to enjoy it as the world slows down and we try to stay distanced. In Vermont, the spring ephemeral wildflowers are simple joy embodied, along with birdsong, glowing green moss and hints of tree leaves popping out. This is also the best time of year to forage windfallen lichens for dyeing, after winter storms and ice have dislodged many from the surfaces they cling to. As I go on long wanders in my surrounding woods, I’ve been picking up bits of Parmelia sulcata and Hypogymnia physodes to mix together in a dyebath. These “boiling water lichens” or “crottles” in their Scottish vernacular, dye lovely rusty browns and golden oranges when extracted with simmering water, but you need a very high ratio of lichen to fiber to get the richest colors. I haven’t used them much because of the difficulty of sustainably gathering the quantities needed to dye enough yarn for a project.
I want to share an exercise that I used to start off the foraging part of my workshop in August. In thinking about what would be valuable for students to take away with them, I reflected on the things that foraging and growing natural dyes has taught me beyond the practical steps to transferring color to fiber, such as: new modes of being in the ecosystems around me, a way working with the sensitivity I have always felt towards non-human forms of life, and an intention to remain open to the possibilities of learning from the organisms that provide my dyes. These lessons mirror and support a whole philosophy of living slow, observing deeply, and exploring not just a creative practice, but an ethical and socially engaged life as well.