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All Tied Up

Wall Street Journal

June 12, 2013

by V.L. Hendrickson

High-Wire Artist Philippe Petit Demonstrates Knot Tying in Bryant Park

For a man who has spent much of his life walking wires suspended hundreds or even thousands of feet in the air, a strong knot is very important. Important enough, in fact, to devote two years to writing and illustrating a book on the subject.

In Bryant Park's Reading Room on Wednesday, Philippe Petit, author of "Why Knot? How to Tie More Than Sixty Ingenious, Useful, Beautiful, Lifesaving, and Secure Knots," demonstrated several of his hitches, bends and splices to a crowd of both aspiring knot makers and passersby on their lunch breaks.

"A lot of the knots are quite amazing or quite beautiful," Mr. Petit said in an interview before the event, which was part of the park's Word for Word series. "All of them have their own personalities." The book was published by Abrams Image in April, and was feted by the likes of Sting (who wrote an introductory poem for the book), Trudie Styler and David Duchovny at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where Mr. Petit has been an artist-in-residence for more than 30 years.

Mr. Petit is best known for his fearless high-wire walks around the world, including over Niagara Falls, at Lincoln Center and, famously, between the two towers of the World Trade Center, on which he based his 2002 book "To Reach the Clouds" (the book was later republished as "Man on Wire" and a film of the same name was released in 2008).

"Why Knot?" is his ninth book, and not only includes some of the author's favorite knots and his own illustrations of them, but anecdotes of his use of knots in his performances and photographs of the spectacles over the years. And it comes with a red rope so would-be knotters can "practice tying right away!"

Red ropes were also distributed on Wednesday, when Mr. Petit, wearing a lapel pin in the shape of knot, led the group in tying square and figure-eight knots (we got the former right away, but the latter took us two attempts—fortunately Mr. Petit went over each knot a few times).

Mr. Petit's knot-tying life grew out of his efforts to "escape authority" through climbing (on the topic of not escaping authority: Mr. Petit has been arrested more than 500 times for street juggling illegally). He would climb trees and use rope to rappel down. And if a person is depending on a knot to keep them from falling from a tree (or onto a Manhattan city street), the knot has to be strong. At age 63, Mr. Petit said he knows more than 200 knots.

"Everyone needs knots," he said, from butchers to sailors to fashion designers. But he added, "The art of knot making is slowly disappearing." Mr. Petit hopes the book will help equip readers with the knot knowledge to go through life.

Does that mean learning 200 knots? Or even 60? No. One could just learn (and practice) the "Gang of Five," an introduction to the five most important knots, according to Mr. Petit. Or, as he told the crowd at Bryant Park: "Learn the knot that you need," whether it's to hitch a camel to a palm tree or keep a man from falling from a high wire.

A version of this article appeared June 13, 2013, on page A24 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: All Tied Up in Bryant Park.