Thursday, 1 November 2012


Ant on peony bud; Photo credit Karen Thiessen's hubby, 2012
Ants are remarkable creatures. They are ordered, industrious and work together in communities called colonies. Oddly, they sound a lot like Mennonites. For the past fourteen years I've been working off-and-on a sprawling Russian Mennonite material culture project. Early in the project I interviewed elderly Mennonite women about the textiles that they made and used while still in South Russia (present-day Ukraine). I'm grateful that I gathered these interviews (from 1999-2003) because all of the women are now deceased. They told me stories that I never expected to hear. Naively, I thought textiles were a neutral subject. They weren't. I knew that the Mennonites who came to Canada in the 1920s had survived multiple horrors but would not talk about them. When I asked the elderly women about textiles, they unburdened themselves and told me about bandits, hunger, murder, sickness, and fear. Bandits stole clothing, thread, food, and people. They brought typhus laced lice. They raped, pillaged, murdered, burned houses and barns to the ground. To survive, Mennonites revived dormant silk industry skills and started raising silk worms in their kitchens so that they would have thread to mend clothing and knit socks. One woman cut up the skirt from her wedding dress to make diapers for her infant daughter. They made bread from floor sweepings and boiled plum branches to eat. Some survived, some did not. Those that survived carried on and worked together to rebuild their lives, a lot like ants.

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