The concluding novel of the Textile Trilogy, Oil & Water invites the reader to the first oil wells on the planet in western Pennsylvania and New York and pits two visions of the future against each other: synthetics and authentics. These novels have been written at a time when the petroleum and other extractives, along with the chemicals that have been developed, have taken our species down a century-long destructive cul-de-sac. How do we devolve the consequences of what has occurred? Do I need to enumerate them or will a couple of instances serve to represent the whole—the chemicals in our flesh that cause an epidemic of cancers, global warming caused by CO2s in our atmosphere, blights causing mass extinctions of species we have evolved alongside.
All of the damage that the nineteenth century wrought and the twentieth century nailed into place, can be remedied, if we have both will and vision. Earth herself has proven to have strong powers of regeneration. Will we die as a species because we cannot moderate our consumer culture, the glut of which is choking us?
We already have the positive elements of reconstruction in place.
Mixed-blood cultures have long been acknowledged for their vibrancy—a blend of dissimilar people producing new cultures, like la Créolité which ranges over the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, where food, music and dance, dress and even religion are born freshly out of the mix of racial types. In Burning Silk and Linen Shroud, we see how the métises, of native and European stock, could have harmonized the disruptions of colonial conquest had they been allowed to continue on their path toward creating a new People. Instead, a different breed of European pioneer took charge, one that styled native peoples as savages to justify land grabs. To our loss, these conquerors applied a policy of extermination rather than diplomacy.*
These European colonizers failed to appreciate that the matrilineal societies they first encountered among Eastern tribes are not hierarchical like their own Judeo-Christian-Muslim patrilineal cultures. This single difference caused much misunderstanding, for matrilineal cultures are not the inverse of patrilineal, with one gender dominating the other. Parity between the genders, each gender with its particular role, harkens back to pagan forebears in Europe before Roman conquest, but it was not recognized or understood by the European conquerors of the Americas. With their patrilineal blinders on, Europeans could only see the native men sent to negotiate with them as rulers, the final word. They could only see the earth itself as a resource to own and portion out into private reserves rather than commons to share and use sustainably.
In addition to the serious disruptions they created on this continent, much of which we are still dealing with today, Europeans did bring some constructive aspects of their way-of-life to the Americas. In Linen Shroud we see how communities were organized into guilds around craft cultures that included textiles, basketry, tanning, and pottery—the more decorative and practical products of daily life—similar to how some native cultures structure their societies. While one cannot overlook the fact that the guilds were part of a caste system that held individual initiative in check, they were nonetheless preferable to a more destructive force: the factory town. During the nineteenth century, and again, starting in the 1960’s, utopian communities have risen up against the industrial model, hoping to reimagine and restore possibilities envisioned for this new nation. Historians on the side of the victors, the mass culture, have long ridiculed groups who fully imagined another path forward. The so-called Luddites, saboteurs, and hippies have been grossly misrepresented in our formal histories.
And yet the values and practices espoused in the Sixties and Seventies have infused our mainstream culture. Freshly re-imagined architecture, food, medicine, education, birth, and death have been agents of transformation. Resistance has been resurrected as an honorable path. The best of the traditional ways, the ones we evolved with, are being restored.
We no longer have the luxury of time to explore more dead ends, as we did in previous eras. With solar technology now coming fully of age, taking its place alongside water and wind to generate the energy of commerce, will we be able—creatively and with full engagement of our will—to sequester those parts of modernity that allow us to invent and thrive while jettisoning the synthetic industrial world, including the “miracles of chemistry,” whose petrochemical consumer products are, in fact, killing us?
The idea that individual rights should be privileged over the common good is so pervasive in the short history of this country that it will take great efforts to change the tide. War, as a route to dominating extractive resources, can be seen differently, the potential damage to all cultures involved—victor and victim—stepped around with human tools like diplomacy, international law, gun control, mediation.
Putting this vision for the future is now a matter of life and death. But perhaps we had to be brought to this point in order that we might listen to the whispers of our hearts. What compromises can we live with? What must we do so our species doesn’t have to die, taking this beautiful, diverse world with us?
What keeps me writing this history of the nineteenth century, set precisely at the time when we first embarked upon the path that has led us into the dead end where we currently find ourselves? My hope is that the Textile Trilogy will ensure that these women, my forebears and yours, will not vanish as if they had never existed, buried by patriarchal reckoning that values the contributions of one gender over the other. We owe it to our female ancestors—the generative half, the sustaining half—to remember: what we have imagined can still occur.
* For this and other atrocities, we offer the deepest apologies to our native brothers and sisters.