Woven Beginnings: My First Wild Willow Baskets

Homestead, permaculture

Oh the slow chilled winter daze! It feels like winter has finally hit! We had our first snow a few days ago and temps have dropped. The Canadian enjoys this weather much more than I do. Feeling like my bundled child self when I do go out, I mainly only go outside to adventure into the woods and to the creek or to make it from point A to point B. Aside from indoor projects (like tiling) and Ini’s work on the Welcome Kiosk, we are turning our sights inward, reading much, and spending time indoors. 
As previously mentioned, this winter I wanted to teach myself to weave with native materials. I started off looking into the river cane, an incredible native bamboo beloved by the Native Americans who lived here previously. Yet, I feel I need a teacher to move forward in this craft — or perhaps I am trying to peel the cane in the wrong season? Nevertheless, there are some Native teachers I may seek out in Oklahoma- especially if they have a workshop on cane material prep and weaving this year. Instead, I have turned my sights onto other materials and I’ve made two baskets!
My first basket – what a thing! Though I did it with a library book tutorial, each step is new and one doesn’t know what one needs to do until ya do it for the first time. It’s cool to already see progress on basket #2 – simply because I knew more about the nuances of the materials and what needed to happen at each stage. Still, the first basket, a true experimental labor of love, is in use and am somewhat charmed by it. However, this second basket.. Ini and I aren’t really taking our eyes off of it! 
Far from perfect, my second basket is USEFUL. It is this that has me deeply enamored with this process. 
The indwelling magic of taking nothing but materials from here to make a useful object with them. As I wrote last night in reflection:
I finished a basket tonight that’s already holding our cedar kindling and sitting next to the fire. It was definitely a life changing moment seeing it there. Somewhat of an epiphany. So outside of capitalism, untouchable. Made completely from this land I love only using secateurs, following a book from the library, a transmission of a skill long held by humans. Something untouchable by the system, made from here, by my hand & serving a purpose… weaving purpose with the land. 
Truly I am enamored with this process and its implications. In a throwaway culture to be able to take a wildcrafting jaunt, especially down by wild water hearing the sounds of the fluid creek as I gather willow, sycamore, bramble and other vines, and harvest materials for a much needed basket… this is really something else. Of course something quite old, but marvelous to my modern self. We’ve been needing a kindling basket for quite some time and we love the look of it sitting there holding the freshly split cedar from our land that we use to start our fires. It beautifies and enhances the whole place. And just looking at it.. the hues and textures, knowing it is born of the river, carries the energy of flood and heron, sunshine and the constant gurgle of spring fed creek… but most of all that it didn’t pass through the hands of commerce and I made it! And I can make more! 
I would like to next perhaps work on a basket with a circular base. It is a bit tricky with the materials I have because they are note uniform “farmed” willow (though I think I will order some of these cuttings to root in the spring so that I can have some cultivated “basketry willow” which is longer, stronger, uniform and comes in neat colors! Yet making these “wild” baskets is a fantastic first step and I read somewhere, and was thinking this too, that if I can weave with the irregular funky pieces, I will cultivate my skill well for when I do have the long ones. And I do love the funk! 
Happiness is making practical objects which escape the economy, made from the land which we love and tend, adding beauty to our abode. I’ve read a lot of books lately on indigenous stories and I am feeling inspired — and also that sick/raging sadness of the destructive march of civilization/modern culture which erases and kills it at every turn. Yet these are skills that bring life and we are all connected to the land, and can be more aware and more connected if we put more time/attention into it. 
Blessings,
Wren of Mountain Jewel

Book Review for Paw Paw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit by Andrew Moore

Uncategorized

The long quiet nights of winter are an ideal time to catch up on books. Last week I finally indulged myself and devoured Paw paw after yearning to read it for months.  For anyone with even a moderate interest in native plants, wild foods, agriculture, culinary curiosities and all the intersecting cultural elements of this continent this book is a must read.

Paw Paw reads like a story, a conversation even at times with an old friend as the author recounts his travels and experiences across the paw paw belt. It is quirky, personalable, engaging, insightful and deeply inspiring book. Moore weaves a tapestry that connects this unique fruit and the culture surrounding it across it’s native range from past to present and into the future.

Paw Paw is more than a fruit as it strikes some deep resonant chord for many paw paw nuts that fall in love with this delightful and enticing plant. I count myself in that camp, and if you’re not already intrigued by this wonderful native fruit this book will certainly nudge you in that direction.

Paw Paw introduces some of the most prominent folks in the paw paw realm and the work that is going on from foraging, to decades of breeding work, to festivals celebrating the fruit and even an orchard that specializes in mail order fruit for gourmet markets. Moore leaves no stone unturned (expect perhaps the technical details for cultivating the fruit) as he recounts his travelling tales and adventures while collecting information through conversations and library archives, sampling a range of wild and cultivated fruits, tasting the food and drinks made with the fruit and meeting the diverse group of paw paw aficionados that are described as being “off the round”… just like the fruit itself.

How a fruit that is native to 26 states, boasts the largest size of any native North American fruit, tastes, smells and looks distinctly tropical is not the lauded and highlighted throughout the country eludes answering. Although the author posits and speculates on how and why paw paws are not more popular and exhibits the many examples of this fruit indeed making a comeback.

The paw paw is a unique species that beckons to be explored. While the fruit is the most obvious example of human usage, so too has the bark been used as cordage and baskertry material. Perhaps the most significant discovery that the plant itself is a very effective cancer medicine. Extracts of the twigs contain high level of annonaceous acetogens that inhibit cancer shells by shutting down their ATP production and inducing apoptosis. This represents a major potential for homegrown, non-patentable healthful cancer cure that address multi drug resistant cancers without major side effects.

Do yourself a favor and read Paw Paw by Andrew Moore. If you haven’t fallen in love with paw paws yet, what are you waiting for?

Rivercane Basketry | Native Practical Art Inspired By the Cherokee & Choctaw

Ecotrain, Homestead

It’s a new year and I’m feeling invigorated to learn a new craft. Isn’t that funny how something you passed over in the past may strike an inward fancy and seemingly a breeze on the wind can propel one toward learning a new skill? 

Basketmaking

It started off with hopes of purchasing some willow cuttings from Dunbar Gardens. @schoonercreek, whom some of you may remember, recommended them as a source. As more and more beautiful baskets were passing my vision on Instagram, I’d decided I would grow a patch of willow, wait for it to grow and in the meantime teach myself weaving using brambles and hopefully some wild willows that I could find near me. As I started doing research, however, I found an incredible diversity and wealth of inspiration that quickly changed my initial plans. I will likely still purchase some willow cuttings and root them in this year’s Food (and useful material) Forest planting in “the Orchard” (where you’ve seen us recently clearing and planting apple trees.) Yet I will also be using my energy to try out other local materials, ones that have a distinct and superior history of use.

Choctaw and Cherokee

As I was racking my mind to think of different things I could gather to practice making simple baskets, I thought of the grapevines, aforementioned willows, brambles, wild roses, honeysuckle and much more. People have been weaving since before neolithic times – an art many are keeping alive and reviving and the sky is really the limit as far as what you can make baskets and other useful items with.

What I’ve read is that if you can bend the material at a 90 degree angle or if you can wrap it around your wrist and it doesn’t break, the material is good for weaving. 

I wondered, had the river cane, Arundinaria gigantea, our native bamboo (and one of the three temperate native bamboos in North America), been used?

A quick search found some jawdropping creations by this region’s original inhabitants, the Choctaw and Cherokee.

Here are some samples of their works, though follow the links if you want to be further impressed. Some of these were even made to be watertight!!!

Cherokee

Single weave rivercane basket by
Cherokee basket maker
Lottie Queen Stamper

 

Choctaw

Large pack baskets, such as this one, were used by Choctaw women for transporting many types of large or bulky objects. These baskets were used to harvest fields, to collect wild food and other resources, to pack a family’s belongings for travel, and even to carry the soil for constructing earth mounds. Most pack baskets, including this one, have a leather tumpline, or strap that goes over the forehead to help stabilize the load.

 

 

Taposhake chufa, pointed basket

 

Immediately, I was intrigued. This is the same river cane that we have here and I live on a creek called Caney Creek!

Ini and I have always looked at the cane and wondered what we could do with it. Our neighbors have rich stands of it and it lines the creek that abuts our land’s western edge. People don’t seem to value it much, though I am increasingly learning of its importance and in the importance of tending wild stands.

Cane favors stream banks and acts better than hardwood trees to stabilize the bank from erosion and to filter run-off pollutants. In fact, the big stand of cane on Highway 209 was planted as a stream bank stabilizer by the landowner, on the advice of the county agricultural extension agent, about 40 years ago.

Researchers estimate that some 98 percent of the canebrakes present when the Europeans arrived have been lost. The usual suspect is the enclosure of animals, especially cattle, which eat the tender cane shoots as they emerge. In Cherokee, the tribe has sponsored a restoration project to ensure native basketmakers having a supply of cane for their work. Preserving river cane is one way to recognize the history and value of this hardy and beautiful grass. Source

It’s very important that we treat this process with respect and as Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass, writes,

Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so
that you may take care of them. Introduce yourself.
Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.

Give thanks for what you have been given.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.

To this end, I want to tend wild stands near our creek, spreading the rhizomes and making sure I am adding back what I am gratefully taking. 

Foraging & Learning

My first foraging mission happened yesterday, as many of you caught on to in my DTube video and post. I took my Gerber machete down to the creek and just looked around. I found a lot of wild rose, catbriar and grapevine and finally made it to a canebreak, the name for the cane stands.

I had done a bit of research on making basket materials from the cane, but sadly it is sorely lacking online so I wasn’t sure what size or age I was looking for. I took a few big ones (the size of my thumb- which I later learned are the size you want) and some smaller ones to experiment with. I used my machete to chop off the leaves, which reside at the nodes of the cane.

That evening I brought them into the cozy cabin after googling my heart out for more information. I had found out a few things and watched 1 video which helped me understand a bit more what I was after.

Experiments

That first night was quite funny as Ini tried to split the cane in half and then into quarters and trip the inner pith out. Today I finally found a couple Youtube videos which demonstrated what needs to be done- not what we spent hours last night doing! Hah! But it was good practice and it’s important, I think, to experiment and just try.

This morning I went and harvested more cane and practiced using the new techniques I found out. Thank you past humans and those who have carried this tradition on! I got some usable material.

It’s incredible to believe that this is just Step 1! Next, they usually would then dye the pieces, walnut and bloodroot are two popular local options, and then weave! I found some weaving demonstrations online, but I may practice using brambles as it is a lot of embedded energy in each cane piece and I would like to have a wee idea of what I’m doing before I use them.

Into the Future

I’ve also found some Choctaw classes in Oklahoma (about a 4 hour drive) that I may attend to learn more about these techniques. I am so thankful they’ve been carried on and I’ve watched many Youtube videos and been very heartened to discover that though not quite popular, this art has been carried on and is currently being passed to the next generations.

A fire burns inside as I study these techniques and look with wonder at the baskets and other practical items the Natives to this land created for thousands of years. I seek to honor them as I learn this craft and likely blend techniques as I gain in skill.

Exciting times! Stay Tuned!