The Tie that Binds

Lee Foote
4 min readFeb 4, 2023

Rope and the average person

Bowline on a bight

What do you say to a respected elder’s advice to “Never cut a rope”? Never? Really? How the hell does one ever end up with a short piece of rope then? It took years for the metaphorical gravity of his advice to land but why couldn’t he have just said “Keep your options open” instead of me tying sacks of grain closed and having to coil 20 feed of excess, un-cut rope.

No questioning the saying “He reached the end of his rope” and in the prologue of Wagner’s great opera Götterdämmerung, the snapping of a rope indicates the arrival of an anticipated fate without another word spoken. We have worked rope into our lexicon of imagery and metaphors. Even romance and safety as the Cowboy’s lariat is a romantic touch and the horse-hair rope used by range-sleeping cowboys to encircle their ground sleeping pads was reputed to repel rattlesnakes. This is probably a myth though as heat-detecting pit vipers would quickly identify and avoid a large warm body that could easily kill them.

I created my own metaphor from gross circumstance with a very thin rope (dental floss). Upon seeing my dog swallowing a length of floss I was presented with what I call “The procrastinator’s dilemma”. I could deal with the outcome both simply and immediately or buy myself 10 hours of procrastination and deal with a less desirable floss presentation at the other end.

We count on continuity and work-along-its length as rope features. In contrast, Arthur “Bugs” Bayer characterized un-requested marital advice, as “It was as helpful as throwing a drowning man both ends of the rope.”

Does it seem rope is getting a hard ride through no fault of its own? Rope just is. Not unlike language, rope is actioned by the uses to which people put it. The rope itself is as dependable as a dog. For example, so enamored was my father with the bowline (shown in the opening photograph) knot’s non-slipping, ease of release, and high breaking strength, that he insisted all his sons learn to tie it. I swear, he imbued it with such virtue that he might have used it on his shoelaces.

The perfect rope response to a poorly contextualized inquiry is the rhetorical response “How long is a rope?” Again, the rope itself is the foil.

Un-cut rope figured large in my childhood as we built rope bridges across creeks, had a homemade zip line with a 200-foot saggy manila rope and a pulley pilfered from an abandoned lumber mill. We made knotted climbing ropes to access the “boys only” tree house thinking erroneously that it would deter the lithe spider-monkeyish Cheney girls down the street; the same girls who as teenagers we tried to “rope into” late night trouble.

I still feel the pull of a coil of rope and as a young professor, I distinguished myself by bodily climbing into a snowy dumpster behind the University gymnasium to retrieve a perfectly good 150-foot length of 1-inch thick hemp rope. A treasure! Initially I was unsure what to do with it; I figured something would come to me. It did. I took it on family camping vacations and tied a jungle gym obstacle course between three big pine trees. The various moms looked on with trepidation but the under-10 crowd spent hours mastering and re-jigging it. Simple entertainment with plenty of blisters, jute splinters, and an occasional self-inflicted bumpy fall — just what children need!

Now inspired, once back home I tied an old tire carcass up with 40 feet of rope to our front yard Elm tree’s upper limb. Properly flung by the “tail” of rope hanging below the tire, the swinging arc of that tire swing would carry the rider well above the mid-line of the street. This caused plenty of drivers to slam on their brakes as a child Peter Panned out above them. The city really didn’t like this and had to look long and hard to find an ordinance to shut me down. I mean really, if something was that much fun, it HAD to be wrong somehow, right? What did it? The city arborist claimed the rope could damage the bark of the Elm tree and create an entry risk of Dutch elm disease. Whew — talk about a flimsy excuse! I might have been able to move down to the Green Ash next door but I suspect he would have played the Ash Borer risk on that one.

Darkly, Friedrich Nietzsche quipped about the unctuous among us, saying “There are slavish souls who carry their appreciation for favors done them so far that they strangle themselves with the rope of gratitude.” Groveling bastids! And more light-hearted is the joke about the rope that got tossed out of a bar that refused to serve ropes, thus, the rope tousled his fibers, bent himself into loops and returned. When the barkeep asked “Hey, aren’t you a rope?” The reply came back “Nope, I’m a frayed knot”.

So, in review — Rope informs options, fate, safety, procrastination, advice, utility, context, exclusion, entertainment, unctuousness, and humor. Maybe rope has something to teach us after all.

Ropes can be party to tightropes, nooses, knottyness, tug-a-wars, or tangles. Still, we seek out the linearity, strength, flexibility, connectedness, and security of rope in our lives. Just don’t cut them.

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Lee Foote

Southerner by birth, Northerner by choice, Casual person by nature.