by Kirsten Wise

This past weekend in Ithaca, Justin Sutera led a Black Ash Pack-Basket workshop as part of Primitive Pursuit’s Wilderness Weekends series at 4-H Acres.

In order to harvest the basket making materials, black ash logs are soaked in a pond for a year. During this process, bacteria digest the lignin that holds the wood fibers together. Then on Saturday, students spent many hours pounding the logs with sledge hammers to peel off the “rings” of the tree. Each ring represents a year of a tree’s life. The sections were then cut into long strips to be woven. “These baskets call for a thousand metaphors,” Julie, a student, said.

On Sunday, the students spent the entire day weaving their baskets, start to finish. Creating baskets from scratch really puts the process in perspective. “I have a whole new respect for people who make baskets,” said Betty, who just happens to be Justin’s grandmother. After hearing that, her grandson added that most baskets sold in stores—no matter if the materials are industrially processed are not—are woven by hand and not by a machine.

The baskets beautifully began to take shape, but students seemed to agree that the learning process was just as rewarding as the end result. Poppy reflected that taking it “moment by moment” was important, and “the only thing that makes you unrelaxed is when you think about the end product.” Emily added that “learning how to do primitive skills has been really grounding.” 

It’s also a nostalgic experience for some. “This takes me back to when I was in Girl Scouts 60 years ago,” says Betty. For her husband, Pete, and their daughter, Nancy, this workshop has been a family weekend spanning three generations. “Now,” Pete says, “we are four basket cases.”