Braiding Sweetgrass

(Grace) #1

Pigeon family baskets can be found in the Smithsonian and other
museums and galleries around the world. But they are also
available here, at the family’s booth at the annual Potawatomi
Gathering of Nations. Their table is loaded with colorful baskets, no
two alike. There are fancy baskets the size of a bird’s nest,
gathering baskets, potato baskets, corn-washing baskets. His
whole family weaves, and no one at the Gathering wants to go
home without a Pigeon basket. I save up each year for one.
Like the rest of the family, John is also a master teacher,
committed to sharing what has been passed on by generations who
came before. What was given to him, he now gives back to the
people. Some basket classes I’ve taken start with a neat pile of
materials, all assembled on a clean table. But John doesn’t hold
with teaching basket weaving where the splints come ready made—
he teaches basket making, beginning with a living tree.

Black Ash (Fraxinus nigra) likes to have its feet wet. In floodplain
forests and edges of swamps, black ash mingles with red maples,
elms, and willows. It is never the most common tree—you only find
it in scattered patches—so it can take a long day of tromping over
boot-sucking ground to find the right tree. Scanning a wet forest,
you can pick out the black ash by its bark. You pass by maples with
bark of rigid gray plates, the braided corky ridges of elm, the deeply
furrowed willows, and instead seek out the fine pattern of
interlocked ridges and warty knobs of black ash. The knobs feel
spongy under your fingertips when you give them a squeeze. There
are other species of ash growing in the swamp, so it’s good to
check the leaves overhead as well. All ashes— green, white, blue,
pumpkin, and black—have compound leaves borne opposite one

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