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 or more. 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.
Like singing, basketry is as old as humans. Every people throughout every time in history had their particular kind of basketry, woven with their culture and whatever plants were locally available. The techniques you see in my basketry come from the very old and well established northern European willow traditions. Willow, wiles, wicker, wicka, witch; yes, they are connected and yes this is the tradition of my ancestors, who knew the land and plants better than I ever will. These techniques were passed to me from Lee Zieke and Mo Walrath, some choice books, and the willows themselves from their long standing relationship with those who weave them. I give thanks to these amazing plants, the occupied lands of Ho Chunk, Potawatomi, Sauk, Ojibwe and more - who all had and perhaps still have unique and beautiful basketry traditions of their own - and hold clear a vision that all people, especially those with erased and oppressed histories, might find ways to connect with their ancestral histories through making.