Braiding Sweetgrass

(Grace) #1

and design, a black ash basket can sell for good money. “People
get a little mad when they see the prices,” John says. “People think
it’s ‘just’ basket weaving, but 80 percent of the work comes long
before you weave. With finding the tree, pounding and pulling, and
all, you barely make minimum wage.”
With splints finally prepared, we’re poised for weaving—what we
had mistakenly thought was the real work of a basket. But John
stops the class, his gentle voice gaining a hard edge. “You’ve
missed the most important thing,” he says. “Look around you.” We
look—at the forest, at the camp, at each other. “At the ground! ” he
says. In a circle around each novice is a litter of scraps. “Stop and
think what you’re holding. That ash tree was growing out there in
that swamp for thirty years, putting out leaves, dropping them,
putting out more. It got eaten by deer, hit by a freeze, but it kept
working year in and year out, laying down those rings of wood. A
splint fallen on the ground is a whole year of that tree’s life and
you’re about to step on it, bend it, grind it into the dirt? That tree
honored you with its life. There’s no shame in messing up a splint;
you’re just learning. But whatever you do, you owe that tree respect
and should never waste it.” And so he guides us as we sort through
the debris we’ve made. Short strips go into a pile for small baskets
and decoration. The miscellaneous bits and shavings get tossed
into a box to be dried and used for tinder. John keeps to the
tradition of the Honorable Harvest: take only what you need and
use everything you take.
His words echo what I’ve often heard from my folks. They grew
up during the Depression, with the imperative not to waste, and
there were certainly no scraps on the floor then. But “use it up,
wear it out, make it do, or do without” is an ethic both economical
and ecological. The waste of splints both dishonors the tree and

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