A corps de ballet of gold and orange leaves sweep across my gardens in backlit sunlight. A pair of ring-necked doves performs a par de deux among fluttering bushnits and juncoes, while varying hues of grey clouds scud and bunch high above my neighbor’s red maple. Any day now, I expect to hear a formation of geese honking over the neighborhood, louder than the diesels on the highway. One year, their base baritone tubas startled me so much that I ran outside to see what was the matter. To my amazement, two long strands barely cleared the tree tops at tremendous flight speed. The excitement was over in less than a minute.
Last night’s wind storm shook loose brown needles from the back neighbor’s pine tree and laid them across perennial beds and lawns like delicate lines sketched with a brown pencil, nature’s art, awakening vivid memories of our Southern gardens we mulched every fall with pine straw. The grownups would rake it off the grass and mound it at the base of trees and shrubbery, especially acid-loving azaleas and dogwoods, as well as spread mounds down country driveway tire ruts as a shield against mud from winter rains.
Children used to braid the three-prong needles and make bracelets for ourselves. The more creative among us braided bunches of straw strands to fashion a mat, of sorts, the way our grandmothers used to braid fabric strips for chair pads and floor rugs. These grannies hand stitched long strands of fabric, end to end, then braided and shaped the strands into an ever-widening concentric circle until it reached the desired size.
Practicality directed this country artwork as a means of recycling old clothing no longer fit for wear. My mother, on the other hand, cut up worn out shirts and dresses into scrub rags and stored them in an old pillow case hung from a nail in the “washing room”—the proverbial rag bag.
In her later years, my mother bought a machine-made braided rug for her polished pine floors in the living room, adding a sense of coziness in front of her unlit fireplace on chilly fall days. I once found an old one in somebody’s yard sale when my children were small. It was perfect for the family room where they could sit and play when rainy days kept them inside.
Is the hand-braided rug a lost art? Not at all. Begun in England and Europe to cover bare floors in winter, braided rugs evolved from necessity into an art form passed down through generations. The early colonial settlers brought over the craft with them as a way of recycling worn clothing. What began one year as floor covering for the front “keeping room” with its stone fireplace would be rotated the following years around the house, from hearthrug to kitchen to back door or back porch, eventually ending up as winter cover on garden beds. The worn fabric eventually would compost into the soil. This endless recycling kept the rag rug tradition alive, with at least one new rug each year, but not as heirlooms to be treasured and passed down to children and grandchildren. Thus, few samples survive today.