The man walks toward me on Kalakaua Avenue, a tall man, and straight. His progress is halting. Three steps forward and stop, then another three and stop. His hair is past shoulder length, matted and gray like his beard. His clothes are threadbare, the color of soot, and look not to have left his body for weeks, perhaps months. He comes to rest, as he does each day, beside a big banyan, beneath one of the tree’s descending aerial prop roots with a look that sees nothing.
Around the man, Waikiki pours forth its salad of tourists, a Japanese bride and groom in matching white, their remora-like photographer recording every step of their passage from white stretch limo past 400-pound Samoans, Korean nannies, the statue of Duke draped in tired leis, past noodle shops, and tour-package come-ons, past the circle of non-alcoholics droning mea culpas, and past corn-fed tourists in matching Hawaiiana, their skin flamingo pink, ready for basting. Filipino men wearing sandwich boards advertise the chance to fire Glocks, Berettas, Colts, and all manner of assault rifles at a range upstairs just down the street. Tattooed, Spam-flabbed Hawaiian kids head for the Kuhio pier with paipo boards. A weary hooker shod in the high, clear-plastic heels that advertise her calling clicks along home in the midday heat. The Pacific whispers its small swell to hush a Harley’s grumbling.
The tall man seems rooted, and it occurs to me that whatever his life had been, whatever forms his triumphs, loves, and final tragedy have taken, he is fast becoming more plant than human, and today, this does not seem such a bad thing. A couple days ago it might have, but not today, not since my visit to the Bishop Museum. Hitchhiked there on H-1 with a guy heading for Haleiwa with a new board.
It’s an overused word, epiphany. These days it describes the elation in recalling where you’ve put lost car keys. What I found within the black, lava-bricked Bishop among its trove of Polynesian treasures was more burning bush.
Scales fell from my eyes as I read the caption beneath a display of ancient fishing gear. The hook was bone. The line was made from the bast of hau, sea hibiscus, bast being the inner bark of the plant. The caption said the plant’s stems were allowed to soak for days until the connective tissue turned to pulp, which was then scraped off with a piece of mother of pearl shell called kahi. This freed the bast fibers. Hau cordage had many jobs that included the lashing of outriggers to canoes.
“She rubbed the fibers on her thighs with the palm of her hand and always with an outward motion,” the caption read, quoting someone named Keliikipi Kanakaole. She had told an interviewer in 1930 the way in which her grandmother twisted the fibers into cords.
Although warmed by the thought of womanly palms rubbing beautiful Hawaiian thighs stretching back into prehistory, it was the words, “always with an outward motion,” that provided further evidence in my investigation of un-Googleable truths.
Placing loose fibers in the palm of one’s hand and then twisting them together by rubbing the bundle outward on your thigh creates a right-handed, clockwise twist. It’s what spinners of any material call a Z twist. No matter where in the world rope has been made, and no matter what kind of fiber is used, the process begins almost always by twisting fibers “right-handed,” in a clockwise direction, “with the sun,” as the old sailor says, the way in which the sun appears to move across the sky.
I know this because me and rope have a history. It fascinates me: the genius of its invention, its muscle when working, the calligraphy of its coils, and, especially, the reach of its vengeful memory.
I came to handle, appreciate, and fear rope as a deckhand on an offshore lobster boat that fished 60-pot trawls in 100 fathoms of water. We used a modified timber hitch to dog down the pots when they were stacked on the back deck to keep them from going over the side in heavy seas. Along the sides of the stack lay piles of carefully faked longline.
During one trip in late fall, a bite in the three-quarter-inch polypropylene line nearly closed on my boot as a trawl was being paid off the transom. It would have taken me down like it did the boot-bitten captain of our sister vessel. He was 30 feet down, at night, before he was able to cut the longline with his knife to free himself.
I’ve often thought the bite, that three-foot loop of black rope, would have been the end of me. Perhaps it was. In any case, I’ve never forgiven it. At the time, I wanted to cut it out of the longline to save it as a reminder, or to humiliate it by taking it apart, separating the strands from the lay, then untwisting the strands until the killer’s threads were exposed for what they were, a weak and useless pile of fiber.
On the other hand, laying it bare would have been like dissecting a dog for growling. Until it almost killed me, I hadn’t really seen rope for what it is. I worked with it, tied knots, spliced it, but never realized it was alive in the same way coal is alive, with the stored energy, the soul of stuff that was once living.
Somewhere along the line, toward the beginning, between opposable thumb and forefinger, palm and thigh, and because Darwin’s god told us, of all creatures, to find a way to pull yesterday into tomorrow, someone rolled together veins peeled from the stalk of a plant, rolled and twisted until the fibers became a thread.
I have commenced a series of lectures on the subject for the benefit of a handful of accidental students whom you’ll meet, and for anyone else who happens to be passing by. We meet beneath the aforementioned banyan tree.
“You’re fulla shit” is the critique oft repeated by my most ardent doubter. I’ve taken his words to mean he objects to the bookish tone of my talks rather than to the subject matter. Despite his spitballs, he rarely fails to show up, although at first he spent most of the lectures praying into his iPhone for protection. One day I told him that if it made it any easier, he could think of my narrative as a direct link, a wireless connection to Chicken Little — “someone you can understand. Or,” I said, “you can shove that phone up your ass for deeper insight.” The others laughed. It pissed him off, but he kept coming back.
Let me observe, with all due respect to Henny Penny, that the sky is not so much falling as we’re climbing toward it up the gallows steps, and we’ll keep climbing until the day, not so far off, when the trap is sprung and we bring the heavens down with us.
In any event it took the suggestion of vines climbing, snakes mating, and the arc of the sun for primitives to quicken dead vegetation by first twisting fibers around each other clockwise to make a thread. Adding fibers while spinning lengthened the thread. Threads were then twisted counter-clockwise to make a yarn. To finish the rope, three yarns were twisted right-handed, in the original clockwise direction of the underlying threads.
Dried fibers were resuscitated upon beautiful thighs, but the “mistrey,” as the old rope-making guilds called the resurrection of dead plants, lay in the muscular embrace of a rope’s countervailing, clockwise and anti-clockwise twists. The formula extends deep into prehistory back to the world’s Gardens of Eden.
Legends from around the world suggest the inventing of rope took place upon the thighs of proto-humans. They also suggest that the magic of the invention was implanted in the various Eves after they were first rendered comatose by the spinning of their wheels — or, like Sleeping Beauty, by a prick from the fiber being spun. They were then raped either by an inhuman creature or by a prince taking uncivilized advantage — the same sort of thing, wouldn’t you agree? More of that to come.
I’ve concluded the inspiration to spin was the grasses’ own; our precursors having been rather dim. Dim, perhaps, but bright enough to perceive the first counter-twisted yarn as more than a tool. They were made to see it as a new life form with mystical potential. I argue that rope became, in early minds, the serpent that seduced Eve, its maker, into taking that fatal bite of apple from the tree of knowledge — an indiscretion that not only caused us to hide our genitals, but, as you’ll recall, to die. Snakes always coil clockwise by the way. There’s more.
Before plants tricked us into carrying their seed along as we migrated, the world held dozens if not hundreds of Edens, each with its own fibrous plant, its own yarn. I will find them with the help of a grant from the National Geographic Society. They will have received my proposal by now.
It took years to research my history of rope, but no publisher would have it. I told them everything: about Rumplestiltskin, forest god of spinning; about St. Catherine; about the hanging of poor Mary Blandy; about the Russia Company’s hold on hemp; the theft of sisal plants from the Yucatan; Manila’s discovery; the explorations and wars that rope has instigated; the hangings, and how it’s all been done with our DNA’s fibrous complicity, the twisted strands of the old double helix having shown the way to extend ourselves like spiders beyond what we were born with, a thread that’s grown in length and complexity through time.
I told them how the strands of the double helix are twisted clockwise, with the sun, like the passage of time, the rope in question.
We’re doomed. Burnham Wood is marching on Dunsinane — all by itself — but they won’t publish a word of it, frightened of what might happen if the truth gets out. So, fuck ’em. It’s a beautiful day and the trade wind is hot. The pretty Tahitian girl is applying sunscreen as she’s done every day for a week.
A woman rolls fibers along her thigh with the sun, in just the way the yellow-flowered hau had in mind. What’s more, the wind is a woman’s hand. The sea is her thigh upon which waves are rolled.
I watch a man ride a wave, a big left at Publics, the lip of the wave curling over his head as it peels ewa toward the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, pink and cowering in the shadows of tall tourist towers. The surfer’s track is a yarn in the wave’s twining. Interesting how we describe waves as “roping” when they’re breaking well, winding perfectly past a point or across a reef, their clean, ocean-going sine curves of energy stretched into beautiful spirals. Waves are rope. To ride one is to feel the whorl of the earth — our spinning.
You see, I’ve become of two minds. Seems I’ve been joined by a fellow explorer through a wormhole opened during my research. Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward is a botanist and sometime illustrator, a contemporary of Alfred Russel Wallace and Darwin, and the inventor of the Wardian Case, a portable terrarium that revolutionized the transporting of “extracted” plants from one part of the British Empire to another. Twenty thousand tea plants from Shanghai to Assam, India, Chinese bananas to Fiji, Para rubber to Malaya and Sri Lanka, orchids from around the world to tickle Victorian fancies.
Bagshaw and I have begun a quest to search out the Edens, to learn whose idea was the spinning of plant fiber, who or what, its opposing twists. I feel the two of us should also document the ropes that are waves, their various lengths and thicknesses, the reefs and sands that spin them. For this, we must travel the world, preferably by sail to slow the world’s turning, to postpone the inevitable.
From my vantage here on the corner of Kalakaua and Kapahulu, I’ve concluded that Waikiki has no shortage of curbside evangelists, aging acid-heads, washed-up surfers, and combinations thereof. What better place to live with a lost mind, or to search for a raison d’etre. Here, fellow flotsam, we are free to babble arcane epistemologies to the amusement of the throng.
Today, my friend beneath the banyan has the vacant look of someone who sees what I’ve come to believe will be the fate of us all as we reach the end of our collective rope, as we “eat the leek” so to speak, and surrender the Earth to vegetation.
There has been a conspiracy of grasses from the get-go. Ever since the scythe made its first passes, the sheaves have told the Reaper he was harvesting the wrong crop. Teach the people to spin, whispered the freshly mown. It comes naturally. And, when they have given themselves enough rope. . . .
Tourists smirked and chuckled at the rants of the banyan man before the imminence of our fate struck him dumb. He doesn’t speak now but the wheel in his head continues to revolve around the truth that life began when subatomic units of energy were spun into fibrous being and twisted like roping waves upon the thighs of the lovely hau spinner into all living things. He sees the pattern everywhere, as do I, and as he knows scientists will discover when they finally catch up — once they cut him down.
Russell Drumm is a senior writer at The Star and the author of “In the Slick of the Cricket,” and “The Barque of Saviors — Eagle’s Passage From the Nazi Navy to the U.S. Coast Guard.” His new e-book, “A Rogue’s Yarn,” is available on Kindle and other reading devices. “Hau,” the first chapter, is excerpted here.