Braiding Sweetgrass

(Grace) #1

summerwood. When the days shorten and leaves fall, the cambium
settles in for a winter’s rest and stops dividing altogether. But as
soon as spring is imminent, the cambium once again bursts into
action, making large springwood cells. The abrupt transition
between the last year’s small-celled late wood and the early wood
of spring creates the appearance of a line, a growth ring.
John has developed a practiced eye for these things. But
sometimes, just to be sure, he’ll unsheathe his knife and cut out a
wedge for a look at the rings. John prefers a tree in the range of
thirty to forty growth rings, each ring as wide as a nickel. When he’s
found the right one, the harvest begins. Not with a saw, though, but
rather with a conversation.
Traditional harvesters recognize the individuality of each tree as a
person, a nonhuman forest person. Trees are not taken, but
requested. Respectfully, the cutter explains his purpose and the
tree is asked permission for harvest. Sometimes the answer is no.
It might be a cue in the surroundings—a vireo nest in the branches,
or the bark’s adamant resistance to the questioning knife—that
suggests a tree is not willing, or it might be the ineffable knowing
that turns him away. If consent is granted, a prayer is made and
tobacco is left as a reciprocating gift. The tree is felled with great
care so as not to damage it or others in the fall. Sometimes a cutter
will make a bed of spruce boughs to cushion the landing of the tree.
When they finish, John and his son hoist the log to their shoulders
and begin the long walk home.
John and his extended family make a lot of baskets. His mother
prefers to pound her own log, although he and the boys will often
do it when her arthritis is bothering her. They’ll weave all year
round, but there are certain seasons for the best harvest. It’s a
good idea to pound a log soon after harvest, while it is still moist,

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