Getting Ready to Grow Woad Blue

Last weekend, with the help of the whole family, we got to work setting up for growing a new batch of woad here in Conestoga. Using old tires from the garage beside my studio, we set up fifty planters for what I hope will create an ideal place for last year’s woad seeds to grow. It was an amazing day—and each of the children worked hard! I’m so grateful for the family’s help and enthusiasm with my work. And, I’m excited to see what the blue harvest will be like this fall …

All this work preparing for growing woad got me thinking about what I like about blue, and especially what I love about indigo blue. Blue is the colour that comes last to the artist’s palette in history—in mankind’s development it’s the final hue added to the artistic canon of paints. It’s also the last local colour I’ve found for my studio’s local colours in Conestoga. But, for me, indigo blue from woad weaves a whole spectrum of stories and experiences.

The history of blue intrigues me. For most of history people ignored blue (for instance, it remains unnamed in all of Homer’s works …) and early on I was prepared to do the same in the studio. While some adjustments were necessary in my iconographic depictions, often there was a meaningful precedent. If you go back far enough, the Virgin’s robes revert from today’s bright, heavenly blue to a sober black—the Mother of God abdicating her rule of the heavens to dwell with us here on earth.

Our modern love of blue fits well with our infatuation with what we see. When we’re outside blue is often two-thirds of what we see above the horizon, but it’s a colour that is always beyond our reach. We can grab the yellows, reds, and browns of the soil, as well as the myriad of greens found in plants. My fingers associate the light humus of rich soil with the fertile brown that stains my hand after digging in the garden, and nothing smells more green than the brilliant buds of spring on our linden trees … But, what does blue feel like on the hand, or smell like to the nose?

Just like that day not so long ago when someone pondered the endless colour of the sky, a little while ago I began to feel a need to add blue to my palette. There are a few places in Canada where the earth will bestow blue if one makes the pilgrimage, but these are all in the far north (I secretly suspect this is because at the top of the world the sky is still closer to the earth …). Over time I read about the blue rocks of the north—the lapis lazuli found on Baffin Island, receiving a beautiful specimen from Jurate Gertzbein, author of Common Rocks and Minerals of Nunavut and of the azurite found outside Dawson City in the Yukon, but both territories are a long way from Conestoga (and I’ve never had the heart to crush Jurate’s sample to extract the beautiful lapis lazuli anyway …).

Searching for blue for the studio linked me to an ancient, otherworldly pigment, indigo blue. I was surprised when I found this blue pigment in such an unusual source—plants of the indigofera tinctoria family. There are plants around the world from this family that have been used for centuries to create a blue pigment. The oldest plants harvested for indigo grow as tall as a person in tropical Asia and Africa, but in the north the woad plant is its tenacious, smaller cousin—used for centuries to create northern blues.

With our tire garden created and our seeds sown, I am now waiting for the woad seeds to germinate. If all goes well, I hope that another brilliant indigo blue harvest will follow this fall!

Family photo of myself and my helpers.
A job well done! We’re now ready for the woad to grow.

An Origins of Blue Story

So, how did blue come to the earth, you might ask? I have a story about that which I like to tell this way:

The world began when God spoke six times, and breathed seven. The mountains and hills were called first, and are the oldest parts of creation, while the trees and plants only heard later and began to grow. It was only with the last echo of his words that a man and a woman answered.

Back then, exploring the world meant tasting it, and by doing so making a piece of that thing a part of yourself. The mountains were so old that they had long ago stopped eating anything, and the trees were old enough that they only drank the rain and tasted a little soil, but mankind was new and curious, and explored the earth by tasting everything. In this way our great, great grandfathers and great, great, grandmothers knew what every bit of the world tasted like—every animal, every plant, and every rock. Nothing in all of creation was more curious or knew the world more intimately than our forefathers.

It was back then, in the beginning, that a woman named Hæwen climbed up the tallest tree in the forest and tasted the blue of the sky. Back then, the sky was much lower than it is today, and occasionally people sat on high branches and tasted the sky. This bright blue was sacred, and usually only tasted once in a lifetime. But, Hæwen liked the taste so much that she began to taste the blue of the sky every day. At first, she just put our her tongue and lick the sky, but after a while she began to dunk her whole head, gulping and chewing as much as she could. This gorging made a horrible mess, and the blue ran down her chin and chest, dripping onto the plants far below on the forest’s floor.

One day, as the wind was dancing across the tree-tops, she tripped in the hole that Hæwen had made and twisted her ankle. For weeks the wind could not dance, so the sun’s fire wasn’t cooled and rain’s water wasn’t herded by following her movement. It got so bad that the mountains began to sweat away their snow, and the trees began to dry out.

So God pulled the sky away from the land. But, after the tremendous roar of pulling the sky higher into the heavens had subsided, he heard the quiet weeping of Hæwen. No longer able to imbibe the taste of blue, she could not be consoled. So, God taught her how to find blue in the plants onto which the sky had dripped by way of a secret process. It involved a great deal of work and skill, but Hæwen’s labour was a blessing in another way, too. For before God left he also showed her how this blue could be known in new ways—and the whole world around her—with her nose and fingers. And, with Hæwen’s help, mankind learned to know the world through all their senses.

But, after the sky was pulled away, most people couldn’t touch, smell, or taste it anymore, and the colour blue was eventually forgotten by most. Thankfully, Hæwen and her offspring never forgot, and to this day they help others know blue fully in making indigo pigment.

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