Updated: Sep 14
As I read my colleague Matt’s pieces on knots, I was inspired to reflect on my own relationship with these very handy tools. After all, I camp, run rivers, used to climb, and am now just learning to fish. I’ve rescued, and been rescued. All these adventures depend on knots. The teaching I’ll leave to Matt, he’s far better at that than I am, but for those of you who know me, would I really let the door opened by these bent and twisted marvels pass me by and not tell a story?
So I’ll start with a Type 3 “not-adventure” (sorry) that resulted in one of the country’s best plastic surgeons putting 26 stitches in me, most from the inside out. The stitch line as I was healing was so good, you had to be told where to look for it. Even today most people don’t notice the scar, even though it is right in the middle of my face. It was indeed a very good looking line of surgeon’s knots. Until I ripped it. A little carelessness on my part before my wound had knitted (shares the same root as knot, did you know?), and I had neutered my surgeon’s knots.
Fast forward, and thanks to Matt’s pieces on knots, I realized that my surgeon’s eponymous “surgeon’s knot” was nothing more than another variant on one of the first knots any of us are likely to have learned, and the first knot beautifully illustrated in Matt’s piece https://www.tribepilot.com/post/the-basic-knots. Take Matt’s reef knot (or it’s weaker sibling the granny knot), double slip it, and voila, the humble shoelace tie! Add an extra twist when tying the first row of a reef knot, and boom, surgeon’s knot!
While in honor of surgeons around the globe (I’ve been stitched in a number of countries), I’ve started my story with the surgeon’s knot, I now must pass to other users of that knot, the hunters and harvesters of fish, who gave us another way to knit with knots - nets. (According to ‘Definitions from Oxford Languages, ‘knot string to make a net’ gave rise to the word knit). And thanks again to Matt, who illustrated the Sheet Bend in his article - https://www.tribepilot.com/post/river-knots. Because a net is nothing more than a mesh of sheet bends tied in twine.
Net knitting technology is ancient, we know that the Columbia River (“Nch’i-Wana”) peoples at The Dalles have fished with nets for 7,000-9,000 years or more. In this mid-Columbia region, Sahaptin speakers have a hug
e array of language for seining, dip netting, and set nets, as well as hook and line. This entry in the Oregon Encyclopedia describes seine netting on the Columbia River (Nch’i-wana): “For much of their fishing history in Oregon, Native Americans used hand-operated haul seines. A fish seine is a horizontal net that has floats holding the top line of the net at the water's surface. The net extends down in the water due to weights placed on the net's bottom line. The weighted line can then be pulled, so that the net acts like a purse.
Indian seines were made from wild grasses or fiber from spruce roots. The bottom line of the net's webbing had stones to weight the net, and cedar sticks served to float the top line.” https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/seine_fishing/#.X0ABiihKiUm
Line was also dyed to make it invisible to fish. If the latter sounds like my objective with my fancy fluorocarbon tippet, well yes. And it provides me with a segue into more knots…
I’ve always been intimidated by the array of knots needed to master fly fishing, and because of that preferred to hike or read a book at riverside camps.
Realizing the similarities between knots and how to choose them for the job they do has got me all fired up, and on my last two outings I’ve tied my first nail and surgeon’s knots. It seems obvious now – choose a knot for low profile (not to snag) and stresses taken in the knot (so as not to weaken the line), and you’ll choose a splice such as the surgeon’s knot. For one line to bite down on another under pressure (to prevent slippage), choose a nail knot. Elegant engineering solutions well chosen for the job to be done!
Thanks to the door opened by Matt, and knowing that knots are one of the first technologies developed by human-kind, and employed by various other animals too, I’ve got a whole new appreciation for life’s scientists, engineers and artists who understand which ties will hold, or undo, bite and tighten under pressure, run and slide, or mesmerize with decorative purpose, and how something as simple as a knot can transform items that are standalone useless (ropes, twine, line and fibers) into things functional and beautiful, devices for hauling, tying, lifting, weaving, warming, building, decorating, counting and meditating. So next time you braid your hair, stare at the rug, or slip on a sweater, marvel at the history, and magic of knots.
Additional reading and viewing (all sources accessed August 2020):
Nch’i-Wana, “the big river”: Mid-Columbia Indians and their land. Eugene S. Hunn with James Selam and family. University of Washington Press (4th printing 2001).