In Elsie Davenport’s book about hand spinning she describes working with wool as a ‘whole art’ because nothing is destroyed in the process of creation. This is an idea that is totally new to me, but how fascinating to distinguish between arts that are purely creative and those that require destruction or sacrifice, and to explore the idea of trying to live from whole arts alone.
I suppose for the most part ‘whole arts’ would have been practised largely where there was no choice – there was not an endless supply of cows to kill for leather or trees to fell for beams, so shoes were wooden or woolen and houses were small and simple unless you were wealthy.
What we now call low impact living, sustainability or permaculture was just called being alive until little more than a century ago – but a virtuous life lived in the absence of temptation is not necessarily a sign of virtue, and I have no doubt that our forebears would have been as thrilled as we are to be able to wear leather shoes and live in weatherproof houses.
To me, and to increasing numbers of people around the world, the challenge nowadays is to find the will to say no to that which is unsustainable, even though it is still easily available. And I think this concept of the ‘whole art’ is helpful. It gives a benchmark, a simple ideal that feels pure of heart and full of positive energy: create without destruction.