Braiding Sweetgrass

(Grace) #1

his chair and holds the splitter between his knees so its open legs
are on the ground and the peaked end rises from his lap. He
threads a full eight-foot length of splint up through the clamp and
fastens it there with an inch or so protruding. He flicks open his
knife and wedges the blade into the cut end of the strip, wiggling it
along the growth ring to open a cut. His brown hands grasp either
side of the cut and he pulls them apart in a smooth motion, yielding
strips as smooth and even as two long blades of grass.
“That’s all there is to it,” he says, but there’s laughter in his eyes
as they meet mine. I thread the splint, try to balance the splitter
steady between my thighs, and then make the cut that will start the
split. I discover quickly that you need to grip the splitter hard
between your legs—something I can barely manage. “Yup,” John
laughs, “this is an old Indian invention—the thigh master!” By the
time I’m through, my splint looks like a chipmunk has been gnawing
on the end. John is a patient teacher, but he won’t do it for me. He
just smiles, smartly severs my frayed end, and says, “Try it again.”
Eventually I get two sides that I can pull, but they’re uneven and my
pulling yields only a twelve-inch splinter, thin on one side, thick on
the other. John circles among us, offering encouragement. He has
learned everyone’s name and picked up something of what each
one of us needs. Some he joshes about their weak biceps, others
he pats warmly on the shoulder. With the frustrated he sits gently
alongside and says, “Don’t try so hard. Be easier on yourself.” For
others, he just pulls the strip and gives it to them. He’s as good a
judge of people as he is of trees.
“This tree’s a good teacher,” he says. “That’s what we’ve always
been taught. The work of being a human is finding balance, and
making splints will not let you forget it.”
When you get the hang of it, the splint pulls apart evenly, the

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