Life’s a Hammock: Tamsin Blanchard Writes About her Happy Place
The olive branches above me are coming into sharper silhouette as the moon starts to light up the evening sky. The leaves are turning into shadow against the light of the pinky-blue sky and the setting sun. I’m feeling a little midweek-wine woozy, and there’s not much going on in my head…
There’s just the pleasant sensation of swaying ever so slightly from side to side. Hanging in the air, suspended in time and space. This is my happy place.
I’ve wanted a hammock for years, but didn’t have the trees to hang it from. But when lockdown happened, I noticed my next-door neighbour had a hammock stand in her garden and I became obsessed. After a bit of research, I found a stripy, woven cotton hammock and a metal stand, and on one of those warm, early-April days of lockdown, set it up in a corner of the garden, under the shade of the olive tree. The minute I climbed inside, I was enveloped by another world, transported somewhere perpetually sunny, where nothing else matters but being there, in the moment, somehow far removed from problems, pandemics, family life, reality. Hammock life is to suspend reality, to be at one, calm, in the moment.
I’m with Alice Walker when she wrote in The Cushion in the Road: “People who work hard often work too hard […] May we learn to honour the hammock, the siesta, the nap and the pause in all its forms.” Work carries us away, and it can sometimes pull us along in its current whether we like it or not. Having a hammock in the back garden was a revelation. At a time when holidays were impossible, and travel plans on hiatus, this simple stripy cotton sling was all the escape I needed. While life as we knew it was on pause, the hammock became a safe place, a refuge, an instant escape, a welcome break.
There are many ways of being in a hammock. You can just lie down the middle and let the edges close up like a giant shell. You can “diagonalise”, so the hammock holds you taut from head to toe. You can “horizontalise” – sit upright at right angles to the sling. This is the best position for swinging – backwards and forwards like a child in a playground. You can lie on your front, with your head resting on the edge so as not to suffocate. You can wallow, legs out to the sides and planted on the ground to keep your balance. And if you’re feeling generous, you can let someone else in, too, top to tail, trying not to simply squash into a bundle of heaviness, unable to move. Ideally, though, it’s just me and a book. Nothing else matters.
A hammock is like a portal. One minute I am in my small back garden with its messy shed and overgrown pond in the middle of Hackney. I watch the wildlife busy at work, the odd lacy-winged dragonfly landing on the edge of the hammock if I lie still enough, the bees collecting pollen from the flowers, the butterflies fluttering by. Lie back, close my eyes and I am in Paraty, west of Rio de Janeiro, in the tropical courtyard of a colonial Portuguese pousada, taking a few days to explore after São Paulo fashion week, thinking this really is The Life. When the moon is full at high tide, the sea floods into the streets of this National Historic Site, over the famous cobblestones that are so high you risk twisting your ankles every time you set foot outside. There are caipirinhas, a turquoise blue tropical sea filled with brightly coloured fish that swim in giddy shoals, and music everywhere that will heal your soul.
I’m trying to ignore the fact that I am, of course, a terrible cliché. I am not alone in my desire to be horizontally swaying, cocooned in a womb-like, fringed woven sack. I wince as I see the Instagram hashtag #hammocklife and know that there are millions of us, caught up like giant pupae, waiting to emerge with our wings and fly into the light. I see @blondebeachvibes sitting up, swinging in her cream fringed hammock, as the wind blows through the leaves of the two palm trees that support it. There’s white sand and blue sky and aquamarine sea. Are you a beach person, she asks. I swipe and there’s an old man dressed in tweeds with a flat cap on, looking a little like a beached whale in the middle of the woods. I think he’s hung his tent upside down and is lying inside it. I’m not sure he’s ever going to be able to climb out again. And then there’s some extreme hammock-ing shared by @hammockcommunity, whose feed features a picture of more than 20 hammocks suspended from a highline crisscrossed between two cliffs in Uruguay for a festival that seems to specialise in hanging hammocks in vertiginous spots. “Bivouac wherever you want. Respect nature”, says the caption.
This is not my idea of hammock-ing, but it takes all sorts. It turns out the highline hammocks are made by a company called Ticket to the Moon, and are designed for hammock campers who need their hammocks to be strong, light and to pack up small. They are made from parachute “silk” in Bali and fit into a small pouch to hang from your rucksack. This all seems a little too alpha adventurer to me, far away from the original spirit of the hammock, which was more about disabling you from moving too much than setting up camp in the most precarious location you can find.
There’s something very democratic about a hammock. They are universal in their use, the lounging equivalent of the blue jean. I read that Mark Ruffalo has not one but two, one Mayan and one Guatemalan – “both family size because I like to lie in them perpendicular. When I’m working on a character I lie in them and daydream. They’re the best tools for working that I have.” So he has been able to lie around, idling, and somehow managed to convince people that his hammock time is productive. He has probably even been paid for it. We so rarely switch off and, often, it’s the moment that you close your eyes and let your thoughts drift away that you have your best ideas.
Hammock making (and lounging) is an ancient craft. Mayan hammocks are handwoven, like string vests, in a diamond pattern that makes them soft, strong and super-light. The weaving of hammocks was mastered by the Mayans on the Yucatan Peninsula and passed down through generations. It’s thought they were invented by the indigenous Mayans in the Yucatan as well as Central America more than 1,000 years ago, and that they were made using the bark of the hamack tree (hence the name hamaca), which sounds a little scratchy; later, it was replaced by sisal fibre from the plentiful Agave sisalana plant. They were referred to as the “cradle of the gods”, the perfect bed, as you could sling them between trees on a warm night and be raised above the creepy-crawlies below and able to catch the cooling breezes while you slept.
When Christopher Columbus landed in the Bahamas in October 1492, he wrote that “people were sleeping in nets between the trees”. He and his men gave the Americas smallpox and measles, and took gold, spices, slaves and the hammock in return. The hammock was to revolutionise the life of sailors, as they soon became commonplace aboard ships, separating the men from the filth and vermin of the deck, and letting them fall asleep to the movement of the sea. Imagine the transformation that must have made to their lives! The hammock is one of the earliest commodities to be culturally appropriated by the western world, the weavers exploited for their artisanal skills and uncompensated for this most clever of ideas.
When we buy hammocks today, we should consider their extraordinary cultural heritage and either buy direct if you happen to be travelling (and don’t haggle over the price!) or from Fairtrade-certified sources, so that artisans such as Mirna Hernandez, whose hammocks are sold on the Unicef Market website, are paid a fair price for their work. “Our Nicaraguan ancestors dedicated their lives to hammocks and other kinds of handicrafts,” she writes. “My grandfather taught me as I watched him work. Later on, my sister Gloria trained me.” If possible, Gots-certified cotton is worth finding, too. Cotton has been used for the past 60 years, with nylon – also used to tie the hammock “wrists” at each end – being used since the 1980s. Sisal hammocks, it seems, are no longer made.
The more colours in a hammock design, the longer it takes to make. A hammock uses about a mile of cotton string and the process involves a vertical loom, with the posts on both sides often tree trunks or branches. In Yucatan, the ancient techniques are still used by women who are skilled in ensuring the tension is consistent throughout. The more strings, the tighter the weave and the stronger it will be. The thread is woven using a netting needle, which is also used for making fishing nets, and for Mayan hammocks, there is a triple-weave technique that results in a diamond shape when stretched. A multicoloured Mayan hammock is a beautiful thing indeed (and what I am lusting after in place of my slightly more prosaic Brazilian hammock, which is more conventionally tightly woven like a regular piece of cotton cloth). Mayan hammocks are generally agreed to be the most comfortable – the attention to detail in the rhythmic criss-cross of the weave allows the user to feel weightless, which of course, is the dream.
So this is my happy place. When the winter days drew in, the hammock was put away. I thought about bringing it inside, and am envious of those I see suspended from beams or hanging nonchalantly in the most bohemian of homes. But I think if I did, I’d never get out of it. So roll on the warmth of spring. I’m looking forward to more travels in my hammock, listening to the birdsong and watching the butterflies and dragonflies once more.
Photography by Tamsin Blanchard. Taken from Issue 66 of 10 Magazine – MY, HAPPY, PLACE – is out NOW. Order your copy here.
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