BASKET MEDICINE

All of my ethnobotanical essays are about expanding our perception back to what it once was. Our greatest loss has been compartmentalized thinking, that bugaboo that has rendered us incapable of perceiving the spirit in seemingly mundane things. Our ancestors were holistic thinkers and viewed the world as unified, tangible spirit, a world so fractured now that it is no great surprise that the visible fragments left to us are thought to be nothing more than quaint folklore and superstition. My life’s work has been about gathering up the fragments, piecing them back together, and plugging the holes. In order to see the world holistically requires knowledge, tons and tons of knowledge. And not until that knowledge has been gathered into a complete collection can we take the leap into esoteric holism and its profoundly complex mystery.

All magic comes from the natural world. Let me repeat that. All magic comes from the natural world. And if you are not a walking, talking encyclopedia of that world, you are not a magician, let alone a master magician. Our ancestors were quintessential magic makers who could alter reality, travel across time, and handle spirits. Spirit is in everything, every plant, animal, stone, water drop, everything. Spirit pervades every layer of our planet. We can interact with it, entreat it for wisdom, solicit its help, or run it off if it’s making trouble. Spirit is an intrinsic part of our world, like the air that we breathe, and it speaks only the truth. Our ancestors heard every word, felt every nuance, and perceived its presence in all things, including baskets.

Basket Medicine is one of the most complex I came across. It wed the maker’s knowledge of the natural world to the sacredness of life. The maker knew precisely which plant yielded the best basket for whatever purpose could be imagined. Baskets were woven to gather, transport, prepare, and store food. The specific need determined the fiber, where it could be found, what season offered optimum harvest, and the pattern by which the basket should be woven. And often that need was medicine for ritual. Baskets, woven medicine bags, ceremonial hats, and mats were required in many rituals and spirit handlers knew that only someone with Basket Medicine could make them. And it should be mentioned that these spirit handlers didn’t dictate to the maker what fiber and configuration should be used. Basket making was saturated with profound, mystical, and often secret knowledge known only to the maker. A ritual basket was a masterpiece of spirit and magic, based not only on esotery but an astute knowledge of the natural world.

Basket making is a traditional women’s art form, but most anyone who works with their hands knows something of this medicine. Once a handwork technique is learned and the artist becomes proficient, the process becomes a form of meditation. Internal dialogue ceases and time no longer exists. When that state is achieved intent and purpose direct the flow. The article becomes saturated with the maker’s prayers, bringing that spirit and blessing to either her home or the ritual. Someone with Basket Medicine would select the appropriate plant, and know what configuration and prayers to make to suit the intent of that ritual. And with all handwork no matter what its destination the artist always took measures to free her own spirit from the article once it was completed. Some accomplished this with washes. There is another example found in traditional baskets and embroidery where the artist put in what appears to be a stray thread or fiber that runs from the final stitch to the outer edge of the article. You might have even seen this and wondered what the heck it was. These threads and fibers look suspiciously like mistakes.

With this essay I am going to introduce more than four dozen species indigenous to the UK that could be rendered into baskets and related woven articles. It includes fibers, dyes, and so forth. But trust me you are going to have homework. The spiritual and ritual properties of each species are found in The Compendium for Spirit Handling  and the entries are too lengthy to repeat. For you to truly understand the inherent spirit of a plant that comes to abide in a basket you are going to have to study the appropriate Compendium entry. Ninety-nine percent of the work has been done for you but it’s up to you to do the learning. This essay, like many others, is loosely organized by habitat. If you need to review how each of these habitats is defined please re-visit  The Delicate Dance of Balance. And note that there is a link to a full bibliography on my website menu.

I would also encourage to you visit several other sites. Burke Museum (http://www.burkemuseum.org) has tremendous illustrations of the many ways by which baskets, mats, and ceremonial hats are constructed. The site is so comprehensive it allows me to limit my essay just to species of plants. Another site, http://www.wildearth.org has really nice lessons for making coiled baskets. And http://www.accmuseum.org/salish-basket provides excellent explanations and illustrations of imbrication in basket construction. Please visit these sources before reading about the plants included here.  For ease of understanding the rest of this essay please allow me to define several terms: the warp in a basket is the fixed frame or structure, while the weft (also called the woof) are the fibers carried back and forth or around and around, across the fixed warp or structure.

FIBERS

[Acidic Woods and Mountains]

Betula: bark for baskets and trays

Cornus: (process unknown)

Lonicera: (process unknown)

Luzula: (process unknown)

Pinus: young bark, roots, needles, sprouts for coiled baskets

Quercus: split wood for baskets; branches used to make rims for twined baskets; shoots split into strands and woven

Salix: stems used to rim Betula bark baskets, split for coiled baskets, used as weft in twined baskets; un-split stems used as warp in twined baskets;  young shoots, supple twigs (withes), roots woven into baskets; small green branches split, peeled, twisted, dried and used for sewing coiled baskets

Viscum: (process unknown)

[Acidic Moors and Bogs]

Typha: flower stalks split and dried for baskets; leaves for baskets

Corallorhiza: (process unknown)

Juncus: stems split for coiled baskets and split even further for finely woven baskets

Scirpus: stems for baskets, lids, handles, heavy hoop rim for conical baskets; split and twisted into weft and warp cords

Pteridium: root wood ponded to remove bark then split and used to make coiled black baskets; midrib of fronds for baskets

Scheuchzeria: (process unknown)

Sarothamus: bark removed from stems by soaking before being woven into basket

[Alkaline Woods and Mountains]

Acer: warp for baskets; shoots for open work baskets; inner bark and shoots for mats; wood for baby basket frames; sapling swings for babies

Alnus: roots and stems

Corylus: stems for warp in grass baskets and coiled baskets; switches for large burden baskets; slender twigs for sieve baskets; used to make baby carrying baskets

Fraxinus: logs beaten with mauls to separate growth layers, cut into strips, and woven; used as warp in other baskets; large twigs woven into baskets

Juniperus: bark for mats; large twigs for baskets; root fiber for twined baskets

Populus: young shoots peeled and split; roots; bark for storage containers

Prunus: bark used to imbricate Juniperus root baskets; split bark for bags

Taxus: roots woven into baskets; waft in twine baskets

Tilia: split into thread for sewing Betula bark baskets; woven into mats; bark of young trees peeled off, coiled, and boiled to weave baskets

Ulmus: bark boiled for baskets

Viburnum: stems used as rims for Betula bark baskets

[Alkaline Fens and Marshy Meadows]

Equisetum: roots to imbricate baskets; roots woven into bags

Petasites: leaves used to make conical baskets

Phalaris: used to make eating mats and mats for drying roots and berries

Phragmites: stems used for mats; stems to imbricate baskets

Urtica: fiber used to make baskets, slings, bags; twined into finely woven sacks for carrying acorns and seeds; outer rind twisted into two-ply cord and used for sewing Typha mats and baskets

[Alkaline Grasslands]

Anthoraxathum: for baskets

Avena: for mats

Carex: leaves and roots split for finer work; rubbed to soften for inner soles of moccasins; woven into spoons, baskets, mats, hats; roots for strong baskets and basket handles

Cynosurus: woven into baskets and mats; also used for thatch

[Coast]

Phyllospadix: sun-bleached leaves dried and split for baskets

Iris: leaves for baskets and mats

Rosa: stems for basket rims; heavy wood split for cradle hoops

Solidago: stems woven into coarse baskets

DYES

[The Acidic Range]

Quercus: acorn cups soaked in iron water for black; root bark boiled for red

Rumex: ponded dry root rendered into orange, red, gold, and brown; flowers boiled with rushes for yellow

[Alkaline Range]

Alnus: infusion of bark applied to darken Betula bark baskets; bark for red dye for Juniperus baskets; also rendered into red, orange, and brown for other baskets

Carex: roots for black

Iris: flower petals used to dye grass baskets

Juniperus: bark used to dye strips dark red for mats

Ranunculus: entire plant boiled with rushes or iris to dye them yellow

Sambucus: berry juice for black and purple; stems for red and yellow

Suaeda: plant boiled for black to dye mats

WASHES

Agrimonia: infusion of roots and flowers

Epilobium: infusion of plant

Galium: cold infusion of roots

WATERPROOFING

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi: mashed berries rubbed inside coiled baskets

Pinus: resin applied to outside of woven willow jugs

ALTERNATE NATURAL COLOR FIBERS FOR WEAVING PATTERNS

Cornus: bark

Scirpus: root buried in mud and ash for black; root stock core

WOVEN PATTERN IMAGES

Erigeron: flowers

Prunus: flowers

Acer: leaves

TOOLS

Taxus: wood carved into needles and mat making needles