I have a treasure. It is from one of the few other places in the world that whispers to me of home, that tugs on some recognition deep within. I felt as if I was returning the first time I was there, standing in the fertile air, the marsh grasses incessantly hushing the wind. The place is the South Carolina Low Country, south of Charleston. The treasure is a simple sweetgrass basket.
Watching the artists create these baskets in the marketplace is inspiring and mesmerizing. Pulling on knowledge learned generations ago on a different continent, the weavers turn common plants of the South Carolina landscape into works of art. Far more fancy then their predecessors, the current baskets have evolved considerably from their origins as tools used by slaves to carry rice and cotton.
While my sweetgrass basket connects me to a place I miss and fondly recall, other baskets are more local. Willow, black ash, grasses, pine needles, and hickory are all traditional basket weaving supplies. Other areas of the world use other materials, and modern travel and trade has made it possible for most basket makers today to use reed and cane from the tropics.
Baskets have long been used to harvest food.
In essence, a basket is a container, made from natural materials and transformed into a tool for humans. They were used to carry collected food, transport materials, store items, catch fish, and even as cooking containers! It is one of the oldest crafts known, with some baskets found by archaeologists to be thousands of years old.
Why is Audubon offering a basket-making class? You might wonder that, as it seems to have little to do with making folks appreciate nature or become better stewards of the land. Yet if we go back in time it may become clearer.
Imagine a world, a very small world, upon which you depended. The people living off the land at the time would, by necessity, have to care for it to ensure their well-being. Developing a close relationship with that world and its residents, passing along knowledge from one generation to the next resulted in a land ethic of sorts.
The Native Americans most certainly managed the land for their purposes - making sure there was game to hunt, but not so close to camps that raging herds of bison tore through their camps. They would have managed the forests to promote the growth of the plants on which they depended - everything from sugar maples for sugar to black ash for basket making to birches for watercraft. Perhaps they even used fire to clear the understory, making it easier to hunt and providing grazing areas for the herbivores they depending on for food.
To learn how to manage the land, the people needed to understand how the land worked. This required observation and study and trial and error. I'm sure they made mistakes and learned from them. In the course of making baskets, I'm sure the Northeastern Native Americans used many materials before they finally settled on the sweetgrass and Black Ash combination.
A basket is a connection to the land. It is nature made useful and reminds us that the things we use ultimately come from the land. Healthy forests have healthy trees. Healthy trees make strong baskets. To the Native Americans strong baskets made their daily life easier. So, a healthy forest makes life better and easier. We could all use that reminder now and again.
Whether it is an old basket or a new one, one you made, bought or inherited, it connects you to the land. It may be a superficial connection - purchased at a box store, shipped from overseas - but it is still made of natural materials that were once part of the earth. I urge you to think about the things you use, from soap to clothes to cars, and find the connection.
If you would like to try your hand at basket weaving, there will be a workshop at Audubon on Nov. 5, from 9am to noon. In the workshop you will learn the basic techniques to make a simple market basket, but those same skills can be applied to many other types of baskets. The cost is $30 for members and $40 for non-members, you are more than welcome to join Audubon the day of the workshop. All the supplies will be provided and you will take home a handmade (by you!) woven basket.
Please call us to reserve a spot (they're filling quickly!) at 569-2345. You can find a little bit more about the instructor, Laurie Ennis, and the workshop itself on our website, jamestownaudubon.org. Visit Audubon from dawn until dusk to walk the trails of visit the eagle. The Center is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily except Sundays when we open at 1 p.m.
Sarah Hatfield is a naturalist at Audubon and can't wait to start making her own baskets.