Border Outpost: Flax: a philosophy

There’s an idea behind growing a crop of flax down at the Acadian Cross site in St. David going beyond simply growing the plant for its own sake. It’s an experiment with a rationale behind it I find appealing.

OK, the Greater Grand Isle and Madawaska Historical Societies are cooperating on a project fraught with its own perils in growing flax to eventually make linen cloth. The last weekend in September saw a small gathering of people harvesting and bundling a flax crop for that express purpose. There’s no certainty of success, but the first objective was reached. Call it a Step One success.

I stick the ‘I’ in this project simply because as an observer and a participant on the periphery, the eye of the beholder matters only from a practical viewpoint. In reality, it takes two villages and several villagers to make The Flax Project.

There are several critical features to the project that form its “philosophy,” for lack of a better term. This first item is: Can a crop of flax be grown on a site that the original Acadian settlers to the St. John Valley would have been familiar with since their arrival and before? That question has been answered in the affirmative. The weekend’s efforts have borne that out. The results are bound and stored in the Cross site’s gazebo for the time being.

By way of background, flax was grown by people living in the northern temperate zones of Europe, Asia and North America as a crop for eventual production of linen cloth and useful fiber. Before cotton became more common, linen was the basis for a variety of domestic and practical uses by cultures across the globe. It was an essential fiber along with wool, jute and other materials for making clothing, insulation, rope and other products used by people living in northern climates. The Acadians used it for a variety of purposes, and so did other cultures living in temperate parts of the planet.

The next question or series of questions is: what kind of process is involved in making linen out of flax? Here, I believe we’re stuck on the word and the idea of “process.” There’s a whole vocabulary to learn along with it with words like retting, scutching and the like leading to the eventual process of spinning and weaving the material into linen cloth.

Here’s where the philosophy part comes in. Why bother? To me, it’s the same idea behind cooking a meal on an open fire. The process of cooking a meal is vastly less complicated with today’s technology than it was 200 years ago. Remember that 200 years ago isn’t even the blink of an eye, historically speaking, and that technology is dependent on thin strands of electrical wiring strung over thousands and thousands of miles. A lot can go wrong and, being a confirmed pessimist, it usually does. We can be thrust back to the Iron Age in a matter of seconds. Hurricanes prove that point on a regular basis.

We humans are not so far removed in time from how our ancestors lived hundreds, even thousands of years ago; though we’ve lost or abandoned the knowledge they took for granted. That’s why the making of linen from flax the old-fashioned way becomes important. It’s a matter of being aware of what it took in time and effort to make things we accept as a given in this day and age.

In a certain way, recapitulating the process of making linen is one reason why historical societies need to exist. They preserve the knowledge as well as the artifacts of our collective past.

Step Two of The Flax Project happens over this winter into next spring. It really gets more interesting …

Dave Wylie’s life and work experience runs the gamut from newspaper editor to carpenter to grant writer to boat builder with lots of other work wedged in-between. Wylie currently is president of a management company that oversees an elderly housing complex and president of the local historical society. He resides in Madawaska.

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