Braiding Sweetgrass

(Grace) #1

another on stout, corky twigs.
And yet it’s not enough to simply find black ash; it has to be the
right one—a tree ready to be a basket. An ideal basket ash has a
straight, clear bole with no branches in the lower trunk. Branches
make knots that interrupt the straight grain of the splint. A good
tree is about a handbreadth across, the crown full and vigorous, a
healthy tree. A tree that has grown directly up toward the sun will
be straight and fine grained, while those that have wandered a bit
to find the light show twists and turns in the grain. Some basket
makers will choose only trees perched on a hummock in the
swamp, while others will avoid a black ash growing next to a cedar.
Trees are affected by their sapling days as much as people are
by their childhoods. The history of a tree appears in its growth
rings, of course. Good years yield a wide ring, poor years a thin
one, and the pattern of rings is critical to the process of basket
Growth rings are formed by the cycle of the seasons, by the
waking and resting of the fragile layer of cells that lies between the
bark and the newest wood, the cambium. Peel away the bark and
you feel the cambium’s slippery wetness. The cells of the cambium
are perpetually embryonic, always dividing to add to the girth of the
tree. In the spring, when the buds detect the lengthening of the
days and the sap starts to rise, the cambium grows cells made for
feast days, big, wide-mouthed tubes to carry the abundant water
leafward. These lines of large vessels are what you count to
determine a tree’s age. They grow quickly and so their walls tend to
be thin. Wood scientists call this part of the annual ring springwood
or early wood. When spring turns to summer, nutrients and water
become scarce and the cambium produces smaller, thicker cells for
leaner times. These densely packed cells are called late wood or

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