Lessons Learned from Tree Weaving
Zoë Van Nostrand, January 31, 2018
I felt a soft but palpable magic each time our many hammers would somehow come into sync. Each thunk of my hammer hitting the log at the same time as those around me. Inevitably those moments would only last a few seconds as most of our hands and bodies were unused to the repetitive motion of pounding heavy sledgehammers into a water-logged tree trunk. This Black Ash log which had grown for more than 70 years, and then soaked in a pond for more than 365 days was now propped on sawhorses before 12 strangers all hammering each centimeter of it in an effort to compress the soft summer wood and lift the curved and rigid splints of a years growth. We hoped to then take these splints, trim, tailor, and scrape them into similarity and weave them into a pack basket.
I was fascinated watching the edges of the log and seeing the layers of the Black Ash separate from one another. Hammering near the end of the log would result in rapid sprays of water forced out from the pithy wood in between the harder rings Every few minutes we would stop pounding, and ease knives and fingertips under the edge of emerging layer and try to gently peel it off. Pulling too fast, or after insufficient pounding would result in a ripped or uneven splint. The eagerness to add to our pile of splints and begin weaving, was tempered only with our knowledge that if we went too fast we risked damaging our materials and leading to later difficulties when we began constructing our baskets.
This intense and physical engagement with the creation of our materials left me with a greater feeling of respect for the basket my splints would become. As knuckles scraped against the rough wood, and finger nails ripped, tiny spots of our blood literally seeped into the wood we were preparing.
I began to feel intimately connected to each layer of the log, and even more began to philosophize about its life before it came to us. This living being had grown for many seasons before it came to us to be pounded on by dozens of hammers echoing into the woods.
Knots in the wood, remnants of branches, and uneven seasons, made each splint more difficult to remove, but also more aesthetically interesting. Hours later when we chose our splints, I specifically chose multiple strips with knots and whorls in them, understanding the added difficulties they would create in my weaving process, but loving them for their uniqueness and the story they’d be able to tell about their tree.
After pounding, and pounding, and more pounding we finally had a large enough pile of splints to begin divvying them up. Our instructor offered those of us who wanted baskets made entirely of Black Ash the option to continue pounding and create more splints, and for those who wanted to spend more time weaving their baskets they could choose to make their baskets half Black Ash and half prepared rattan strips
When I finally began constructing my basket I was amazed by how difficult it was. I’d been working with this wood for hours, but during scraping and pounding the strips had felt pliable, bending and flopping every which way. But bending the splints in my way and forcing them to lie snugly next to each other ripped off what few long finger nails I still had, and left me in awe of how strong my basket would be. Our instructor had shown us that his handwoven pack basket was able to support his seated weight, but I had attributed that to the skill of the weaver and not the innate strength of the material.
I was again reminded that I was weaving a TREE.
With this realization I looked up and saw that there were 12 of us in the room. Each intensely focused on their own basket, and each working with materials from the same two logs. The physics of that was hard for me to wrap my mind around. We had unpeeled, and de-layered these logs, and now were in the process of putting them back together in a wholly new shape a rippling rainbow pattern of subtly different splints. Yet despite being dispersed, pounded, and sliced into strips they still had the strength of their original form. Even more phenomenal was seeing how much material these two trees had generated. More than 12 baskets were being woven, with plenty of strips left over, and we hadn’t even reached the core of either log. The gift and potential expanse of these trees had been hidden in their neatly compressed rings.
It took me a long time to work past the “ugly basket phase” as our instructor called it. The period when your splints move out of place, and get tangled with one another, and you rapidly realize you lost the weave and have to go back to correct it. Making it past this stage and into the “OH MY GOD IT LOOKS LIKE A BASKET” phase is extraordinarily gratifying. As my layers grew, and I tried to keep my basket from pouching out on the wrong side, keep my weave even and tight I felt some remorse that when I’d gotten tired earlier in the day I’d skimped on the trimming and scraping process for a few of my splints. An oversight in material preparation that was very obvious as these pieces were harder to control and fit into the weave.
I didn’t finish my basket during the weekend, and it has sat in a corner of my room for months now, unfinished splints poking up and making extravagant shadows on the wall. But I find myself putting off the final few hours needed for its completion until I can give it the time it deserves. I’ve never before spent this amount of time on something that will be wholly made by me start to finish. Sewing projects use cloth and thread made my someone or some-machine else. My cooking adventures even as I strive to use garden vegetables inevitably has some spice or ingredient I didn’t grow. But this basket will be mine start to finish. I only wish I’d had the foresight to help chop down the tree the year before.
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