Monday, January 29, 2007

Craft and Life in the North

Some time ago I promised myself that when I travel I will purchase only "useful things" -- I count jewelry like earrings, necklaces and rings as being useful and rarely wear a piece of jewelry that doesn't have a story. Although it may have very little monetary value, it has intense memory value ... the store, the bargaining ... the whole trip. However, the "useful" category often means boxes.

These three birch bark boxes are an example. One day when sitting at my work table my eye fell on the small round one, which holds my sewing machine bobbins, threaded and empty. The small oval one holds safety pines which I use for "basting" quilts before quilting them. The larger one holds my postage labels and a few pads of sticky notes. I use all of them nearly every day.

The intersting thing is that the smaller ones were an impulse buy when the group I was with stopped at a tiny village among the vast forests of northern Finland, just before I saw my first group of reindeer wandering through the forest. In the small town a shop catered to tourists. Finland is not a place to bargain, and I didn't feel a need. They were less than a dollar each. LIttle did I know how much I would use them -- I have worn off the little leather loops that were tiny handles on the tops.

The larger box came from an area on about the same latitude but thousands of miles to the east. On the shores of Lake Khosovo on the border of Mongolia and Siberia where the birch trees stood in clumps along the crystal clear lake. One day we went to visit the nomadic reindeer people who come down to the lake in the summer with their tents -- almost exactly like the teepees of the Plains Indians. At the ger camp a group of young women came from the nearest town with the camel hair sweaters, mittens and scarves they knitted during the winter, with carvings and a board game that the locals played during the long winter. One lovely young woman spoke good English which she said he had learned from watching television -- I suspect she studied a bit more seriously than that.

This box,, similar to the Finnish one, has a Buddhist eternal knot carved on the lid. There bargaining was a part of the interchange. The three boxes, so simple, so similar, made from the same materials, are priceless to me because they hold useful items and they hold a sunny day in Finland, a couple of gray days with some sun, in Mongolia ... and those brief memories open out into a whole knitted fabric of memories.

I must relate one mixed memory. At Lake Khosovo we stayed in a ger camp; as always it was run by a group of efficient young women. Each morning, very early a woman slipped into our ger to light a fire in the small wood-hurning store in the middle of the big round room. We had been told not to light a fire ourselves because is sacred and to be respected. Mornings were chilly that far north so the fire was needed, but within fifteen I and the two women sharing the ger were forced out of bed -- or at least from under out blankets -- the ger became more than very warm that quickly. We gathered out towels and toiletries and crossed the grounds to the wash room, glad for the morning chill. It reminded me that in Finland, I shared a sauna with a group of women until we could stand the heat no longer. Those who were brave enough ran across the grassy lawn and jumped into a chilly lake. [I toddled into the shower room, I must admit -- just as I did in Mongolia].

These and a great many more happy memories were triggered by less than $3 worth of little birch bark boxes....

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