Braiding Sweetgrass

(Grace) #1

although John says you can bury a log in a trench covered with
damp earth to keep it fresh. His favorite times are spring—when
“the sap is rising and the energy of the earth is flowing into the
tree”—and fall, “when the energy is flowing back to the ground.”

Today, John scales away the spongy bark, which would deflect the
power of the ax, and gets to work. When he pulls the edge of the
first strip, you can see what’s happening: Beating the log crushes
the thinwalled cells of the early wood, breaking them down and
separating them from the late wood. The log fractures at the
dividing line between springwood and summer, so the strip that
peels off is the wood between annual rings.
Depending on the individual history of the tree and its pattern of
rings, a strip might come off carrying the wood of five years or
sometimes just one. Every tree is different, but as the basket
makers pound and peel, he is always moving back through time.
The tree’s life is coming off in his hands, layer by layer. As the
hoops of splint grow more numerous, the log itself grows smaller
and within hours is a skinny pole. “See,” John shows us, “we’ve
stripped all the way back to the time it was a sapling.” He gestures
to the big pile of splint we’ve accumulated. “Don’t ever forget that.
It’s the whole life of that tree you’ve got piled up there.”
The long strips of wood vary in thickness, so the next step is
splitting the strip into its component layers, further separating the
annual rings. Thick splints are needed for a big laundry hamper or a
trapper’s pack basket. The finest fancy baskets use only a ribbon of
less than one year’s wood. From the back of his new white pickup,
John pulls out his splitters: two pieces of wood joined with a clamp
to make what looks like a giant clothespin. He sits on the edge of

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