DEEPA PREETI NATARAJAN | South Berkeley
In Deepa Natarajan’s backyard, yellow has emerged. It is springtime in Berkeley, and oxalis pes-caprae, a long-stemmed, yellow-petaled flower with clover-like leaflets, has crawled into the interstices of the garden. Most gardeners consider oxalis a weed; it’s relentlessly extirpated as a result. But Deepa has a different approach to the brightly colored wood sorrel. She uses it as a dye plant. “I’m seeing what’s there: I have a garden full of dye. Nature’s providing me with this abundant yellow color,” she says. On a folding metal table nearby, a large glass jar has been filled with a yellow liquid—oxalis that has been soaked in water for several days; a scrunched-up cotton cloth is submerged inside. Oxalis requires no binding agent because it’s rich in oxalic acid, which is a natural mordant, and dyeing with it doesn’t require heat either. Over the course of a week, the cloth has absorbed the flowers’ vibrant yellow hue. “Weeds are the bane of a gardener’s existence,” says Deepa. “But I like looking at plants differently.”
Deepa’s view of plants is largely through the lens of ethnobotany, which is the study of the relationship between people and plants. In other words, how people use plants: for food, dyes, medicine clothing, shelter, ornament, or even musical instruments. Though she grew up in the suburbs of Findlay, Ohio—what she calls “the land of lawns”—, she recalls family trips to India, where she noticed that all the plants around the perimeter of the houses there were actually useful...
Deepa’s view of plants is largely through the lens of ethnobotany, which is the study of the relationship between people and plants. In other words, how people use plants: for food, dyes, medicine clothing, shelter, ornament, or even musical instruments. Though she grew up in the suburbs of Findlay, Ohio—what she calls “the land of lawns”—, she recalls family trips to India, where she noticed that all the plants around the perimeter of the houses there were actually useful: jasmine tree leaves were strung into garlands, dried neem leaves were burned to repel mosquitoes, and holy basil was harvested for Tulsi tea. In college, she thought she would study medicine, but she ended up being drawn to medical anthropology instead. As fieldwork, she immersed herself in the work of indigenous healers from Africa and India, and saw how plants could mend and heal.
Deepa became interested in botanical dyes in 2007, after she started working at the UC Botanical Garden and learned about the annual Fiber & Dye exhibit that happens at the Garden every spring. “My mind was blown,” she says. “I had never thought about plants giving us colors even though I had always loved textiles.” The art of dyeing with plants is ancient of course. Madder root pigments were found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen, and the coveted royal purple used to be extracted from a Mediterranean gastropod mollusk; insect and wood dyes were popular in the 15th and 16th centuries. Discovering the relationship between nature and color was revelatory for Deepa: it became a way of understanding and interacting with plants, a way to savor their power to transfigure and transform. Plants held the possibility of alchemy. “Color is something we take for granted,” says Deepa.
Deepa is currently the public education program coordinator at the UC Botanical Garden in Berkeley, but her work extends far beyond that: she contributes to a grassroots initiative called “Seeds to Sew,” which saves seeds for dye and fiber plants. She also maintains a website called “plantspeople,” which shares her personal knowledge about ethnobotany. Among other plant-related activities, she also teaches occasional classes at Oaktown Spice Shop (chai-making, Indian food-cooking) and consults on landscaping projects. She considers herself more of a teacher and researcher than a dyer: “I really like the practice-with-people aspect. I’m not as much of a maker but I like to share knowledge, and I really love the plants.”
Yes, Deepa is a plants-person indeed, and her approach to plants seems more like a philosophy of life than a hobby or a job. She admires the Zen farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, who emphasized letting nature take its course and allowing nature to remain unaltered. No tilling, no chemical fertilizing, no weeding, and no pesticides were his four principles of natural farming, a methodology that has been called “do-nothing farming.” She references Fukuoka when talking about the abundance of weeds in her backyard and the several jars of persimmon and oak gall dyes that have aged into muddy brown liquids over the course of months. “I allow what will naturally happen to happen,” says Deepa, a statement that is reminiscent of something Fukuoka once wrote: “The human is only a small part of the whole process by which nature expresses its being … How about not doing this? How about not doing that?”