A basket begins with soil and water and sun. It begins with the riverbank, birdsong in spring, and new willow shoots inching their way toward the sky each warming day. In summer, roots deepen into moist soils of the wetlands and marshes, strengthening watershed filtration and soil health where they grow and casting a wild abundance of food and habitat for our nonhuman neighbors.
In time, frost and mists begin to cover the fields, leaves turn yellow then brown. Sap begins to drop, leaving the land awash in stands of glowing red, brown, purple - the subtle and beautiful palette of winter in southwest so-called Wisconsin. Now, it is harvest time. Winter is an exciting time for a basketmaker. Come November, tools are sharpened, bodies are bundled, and out we wade into the cold, frozen marshlands where the smooth and leafless wild willow awaits.
Willow is a magical plant to partner with for making, in part because harvest does not harm the plant. In fact, coppicing with care can replenish the willow population in an area by encouraging deeper root growth, new and robust foliage, and colony expansion. Tending this important native plant in the wild not only provides an opportunity to listen to and observe bioregional cycles and shifts through time, it helps support them. Stewarding the willow means stewarding the watershed, partnering with the beavers, and paying attention to all the life in relationship with and among the willows. In this bioregion, for example, where hundred year floods are becoming an annual affair, wild willow propagation is a direct tool for climate change impact control, since willow is known for its ability to help clean, filter, and evaporate excess waters from the land.
A fast growing perennial, willow can create robust new groves in just 1 - 2 growing seasons, infiltrating wetlands and hollows with their regenerative superpowers. One year of growth yields 4 - 7 ft of fragrant, storied, bark and pith flexible enough to be woven and sturdy enough to endure a lifetime of functional use. This fresh growth is cut in the field, bundled, and carried home to be sorted and dried for 3 months minimum in a process referred to as 'curing'. Before weaving, this cured willow is rehydrated in water for several days, mellowed in a tarp, and if all went well, is finally ideal for the actual work of weaving! It is a true field to basket, 'slow' craft affair. Depending on the basket, weave time can take between 4 and 12 hours. If the wild willow year is harsh or if I need more plants to fulfill orders, I happily purchase organically grown willow from my friend Lee at Willow Glen farm, just 50 miles down the road on the other side of the Mississippi.
Basketry is truly an ancient craft. People in every corner of the world have made splendid baskets in infinite forms from local materials throughout time. The techniques you see in my basketry come from the very old and well established European Willow traditions. Willow has been long regaled as a magical and culturally significant plant wherever it grows. In Celtic mythology, the world and beginning of time itself is born from two golden eggs tucked in a Willow tree. Willows are seen as a source of great power, symbolizing youth of spirit and regenerative life energy. It is only in more recent times Willow has become a symbol of grief and sorrow, as we hear in the many many folk songs from Appalachia and beyond.
Wicker, wicca, witch; you guessed it- they are connected. The word 'wic' translates to 'to bend' in old English, as in, to bend the Willow sticks, and when Britain was urbanizing and converting peasants from the Old Ways to Christianity during the Dark Ages, the word 'wicca' was used as a kind of slang for dirty country people who were still doing stuff like using sticks to build their fencing or making baskets. Yes, Willow was so dearly a part of daily life for country folk back then that it became a derogatory term for the people! Eventually, bending sticks became associated with bending and manipulating reality, mostly through propaganda generated by early Christian priests, and thence came the negative associations with "wicca" and "witchcraft" - those old weavers and stick benders who could bend reality with their magic and wiles (they weren't wrong!). Mournfully, such associations eventually led to the wider mass genocide of 'witches', who were mostly women, but also anyone who dared keep the old traditions and life ways alive on the margins of society.
Basketmaking with Willow as I know it was passed to me from the help of friends and teachers like Lee Zieke, Mo Walrath, Zac Fittipaldi, some choice books, and most of all, the Willows themselves. Willow weaving is the traditional basketry of my ancestors, who knew the land and plants better than I ever will. I give thanks to these amazing plants, the waters and sandy soils and sun that grow them up on the the occupied Anishinaabe lands where I live - whose original people have unique and beautiful basketry traditions of their own. I give thanks to my weaving ancestors, wherever they lived, whatever joy and toil of life they knew that led to me being alive and weaving. May we all hold clear a vision in our hearts that all living people, especially those with histories erased by colonization, might live beautiful lives filled with new and ancestral crafts and knowledge of the land never lost.