Note: This blog post is one in a series about the baskets that I’m making for my final project as an apprentice in the Wildwood Path.
It took two seasons of living on this land before I realized that these thick, plentiful vines are wild grapes. Many of them stretch high into the trees, where I can’t even see their leaves, let alone sample their fruits. These are for the birds. But each year I find enough grapes within arm’s reach to keep me happy. Do they taste good? Hell yes they do! Even the ones that don’t, do. Reaching into a thicket and pulling out a handful of juicy, blackish purple, sweet fruit is magical, and I can’t resist eating even the ones that make me suck my teeth.
Grape vines would be my next basket. Sturdy, elegant vines offering consistent diameter over long stretches… a beginning basket-maker’s best friend.
After the workshop with Ray, I lamented that I didn’t have any red willow (red osier dogwood) growing on my land. It’s so bright and unmistakable, there’s no way I could have lived here for three years without it coming to my attention. Funny thing though. On my subsequent walks in the woods, I found two lone whips at the edge of the field. Then, searching for grape vines in an area that floods in the spring, I found a woody patch of red willow. And finally, weeks later, I realized that every time I pass through the gate from the pasture into the woods, I’ve been walking within five feet of a lovely red willow patch. It didn’t look quite the same as the red willow at Ray’s. This red willow was darker, not bright red, and was more branched. There were some straight whips, but they were shorter, and scarce. I harvested what suitable whips I could find (knowing that cutting red willow doesn’t deplete it, but stimulates it), to incorporate into this grape vine basket.
The grape vines had a rough, stringy bark. After soaking the vines for easier weaving, the bark seemed eager to be removed, so I did this, revealing a smooth, pale brown.
I had only three red willow whips, which I alternated with grape vines to make the ribs. I used small grape vines to bind the center of the basket, but reinforced the center with copper wire, just in case. As I gently “taught” each rib how it could bend to spread into evenly spaced spokes, one of the red willow ribs snapped. That’s okay, I needed an odd number of ribs anyway.
Five of us gathered in my kitchen on a Sunday afternoon in late February, four at the table, and me on the floor, with my unruly basket requiring a lot of space. One friend stretched a rabbit hide, one worked at her inkle loom, one carved at a spoon, and one sewed a patch onto a sweatshirt, all with busy hands as we chatted. This is possibly my version of heaven.
“Oh noooo!” My exclamation was followed by an echo of sympathetic noises from the crafting circle. This was the second rib that had snapped, and I was ready to disassemble this basket and start over. If I’d been working alone, I probably would have. “Can you insert a new one where the old one was?” I looked at my basket questioningly. Maybe? I selected a new length of grape vine and wedged it in next to the snapped off rib. Snug, tidy, perfectly held in place!
This basket grew as it wanted to, as a globe, with no attempt to create a flat bottom, and no thought to the practicality of the end result. Of all the baskets I’ve made so far, this one was tops for pure pleasure of process.
While it makes up only a small part of this basket, these weeks were the ones in which I identified more patches of red willow on my land, and began a conversation about this plant with Nikos, an elder, and lucky for me, a coworker and neighbor of mine. While my only experience with red willow was in baskets, Nikos has a relationship with her as medicine. She brought red willow to the Wildwood Path weekend in April to introduce her to us (Nikos uses “she” pronouns for red willow, so I will too, at least in this paragraph, to accurately represent Nikos’ relationship with her). That night, we met red willow in the form of tea, and heard from Nikos about the ways in which she does (and we might) enter into relationship with land and plants.
Red willow currently sits on my kitchen table in a glass of water. I brought the cuttings inside at a time when I thought there was very little red willow presence on my land. It has rooted and leafed out, and although it now seems the red willow is already here, I will still plant these cuttings, as well as doing a bit of clearing (inspired by Nikos) so that more sunlight can reach the patches.