The Softly Kinetic Tch-Tch-Tch: The Tobacco Rattle

A few weeks ago I wrote to you all about the tobacco growing prospects in my backyard and what the history of tobacco had to do with the history of viruses. You might recall that I was counseled that tobacco was a great plant teacher though there was nothing sure what that learning was going to be. Or that I would learn. That said, in the last week or two I have started to harvest my first tobacco. I’m learning about that. The leaves are currently curing in my basement but it is in the harvesting that I have started to wonder about something else.

Since mid-March I have tried to make these newsletters reflective or responsive to what is happening in the world and to somehow connect the ethos of Primal Derma and cultural restoration to that event or occurrence using it as a point of departure. The events of the last week or so in Kenosha, Portland, and elsewhere are hard to ignore and I’m not ignoring them but it is also not easy to bear witness to those events and conjure nifty little essays about culture. But what is happening with the tobacco plants in my backyard is present for me, now. So while rattles might seem interesting but superfluous in a time like this, my wish is that perhaps the small wonders in your backyards might spur a deep green wondering in you. If such homemaking skills were more at hand then maybe contending with the troubles of our time might be carried in a new way. Maybe. I don’t know.

To rattles.

While the oldest rattle in the world is a clay form from a Bronze Age site at the Acemhöyük excavation site in Yeşilova, Aksaray, Turkey and is about 4200 years old, there are other really old rattles that have been found around the world. At the Vengerovo-2 site in Siberia another rattle in the shape of bear head, also made of clay, is just about the same age, 4000 years old. But rattles have been found in Egyptian tombs as well.

Amazingly in New Zealand are the naturally formed Marawhenua Rattle Stones which are spheroid stones formed from two different kinds of rock that have been hollowed out over time by water leaving small stones inside which, indeed, rattle. These stones are rare but prized and were/are used ceremonially by Maori people.

Rattles are also made of gourds and wood and we know that many ancient traditions still use rattles of these kinds but because these materials biodegrade the oldest ones we know of are only a couple of hundred years old. But certainly they are quite old as well.
While many might think of rattles as a diversion for young children nowadays the rattle, in all its forms, is even more widely spread around the world than the drum. But in many places these two are used together in religious or spiritual ceremonies. While the singular low end drum thump grounds the proceedings it’s the high pitched multi-toned percussive tinks and shakes that act as a kind of dizzying uplift of the soul that is entirely different than skin stretched across a frame
Here are two examples of pretty cool rattles
Chincha Ghana rattle

Flower Dance rattle

Why was I thinking about rattles to start with? When I was harvesting the seed pods of the tobacco for next year (all willing we get there) I pulled the stem towards me and squeezed on the thin papery jacketing of the seeds with a bag at the ready to catch them. Inside each seed pod were more seeds than I could ever, ever plant. And with each pod emptied was a puff of the sweetest and most perfect scent of tobacco I had ever smelled. Leathery, grassy, dark, and faintly sweet. But as I drew the stem towards me all the seed pods together sounded like the rattliest rattle I had ever heard. A swishing, rhythmic, softly kinetic tch-tch-tch that I found mesmeric.

Tobacco has been growing in The Americas for at least 8000 years and is revered by indigenous people all over the continents for its medicinal and ceremonial heft and being a unique plant teacher. And rattles are nearly universal in North, Central and South America. Now this part is 100% speculation. 100%. But I wonder if tobacco plants are the origins of rattles in the Americas. I mean, it can’t be, right? And yet it fits because they rattle so perfectly and beautifully that I, myself, thought “how can I get this sound to continue after I harvest the seeds?” Maybe some other people had the same thought and then started to construct different types after harvesting tobacco all those thousands of years ago.

It can’t be right but I do wonder about it.

Regardless, it is this kind of wondering that is central to the purpose of Primal Derma…that the living world might be speaking to us, directing our ways of inhabiting the world, and finding ways of compelling our thumbs and forefingers into making trembling beauty and generational meaning.

If you order Primal Derma in the next few weeks and want some tobacco seed, just put a note in your order and I’ll send some along!

And also if you have any questions or counter wonderings about this post, or any post…do write back. You’ll be responded to!

Thanks for your ongoing support.


Sign up to receive stories, culture, history, and Primal Derma updates:

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.