Bioregional Willow Basketry
My baskets begin with soil and water and sun. They begin in the wetlands and river valleys of southwest Wisconsin on the public lands where I steward wild willows, and in the mixed prairie and orchard where I grow heritage basketry willows on my small farm.
In summer, multicolored shoots of green willow inch upward, sinking their roots deeper into soil and casting an abundance of food and habitat for beings of all kinds. These shoots will grow into 3-8 feet of woody material every growing season they are coppiced, and eventually be woven into heirloom quality willow baskets.
In time, frost covers the fields, leaves turn yellow, then brown. Sap flows back down into the ground, leaving the land awash in stands of glowing red, brown, purple - the subtle and beautiful palette of winter valleys in the upper Midwest. Now, it's harvest time.
I refer to the specific process I have developed with willow as Bioregional Willow Basketry - a place-based, ecological approach to basketry centered on tending the plants, places, and relationships that co-create my baskets.
Growing my own willows and cultivating coppicing relationships with specific wild places in partnership with the beavers and other forces of natural coppice that helped evolve modern salix species is an incredibly rewarding way to practice basketry.
Wild coppicing willow is a beautiful way to learn more intimate information about your local waterways and the beings who live in close relationship with them, and also opens up access to materials to those who may not have access to land to grow their own willow.
Growing willow at home means I have a full say in the whole process for how the materials for my arts practice are produced. I can see the entire process through start to finish, care for my land and the plants well over the long term, and ensure best ecological practices are observed.
The willows also add beauty, habitat, and utilitarian functions like live fencing, hedgerow, etc to my immediate surroundings, while providing me with decades of weaving materials. But mostly, the practice of bioregional basketry has helped cultivate a powerful shift away from the colonial 'taker' mentality wrought by consuming items toward a path of stewardship and relationship that I believe we all need to cultivate in order to generate healthy relationships with the land.
Wild Tending & Regenerative Management
The main species of willow I currently use in my basketry are Salix interior and Salix exigua - sandbar and 'coyote' willow. These are keystone native plant species in most of the regions they grow, and are some of the main easily recognizable wild willow varieties throughout the southwestern, midwest, and eastern regions of North America.
I often hear willow basketry referred to as a 'sustainable' craft. In my experience, tending and growing willow for basketry is more than simply sustainable, and I believe it should be considered a form of ecological farming or conservation agriculture. The hundreds if not thousands of years old practice of keeping and coppicing willows for basketry and other uses in the common way we do in the west passed down from northern European traditions does not harm the willow plants. In fact, cutting them back each year, stimulates regrowth and actually replenishes the population by encouraging deeper root growth, producing more new and robust foliage than the year before, and in the case of wild willow, helping expand the colony and creating more food and habitat for ecological neighbors.
Many botanists believe willow evolved into the plant that it is through patterned ecological disturbance, via fire, floods, bison, beavers etc. So in coppicing willow, we mimic the ecological processes and conditions that historically help it grow, thrive, and spread. In the meantime, we get the opportunity to think like a beaver, see what the sandhill crane sees, navigate wetlands like a frog - all the while attuning to and becoming an active force in the multitudes of life living among and in partnership with the willow.
It is also becoming apparent that the ecological benefits of growing willow with regards to the ongoing impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly significant. In this bioregion, where hundred year floods are becoming an annual affair, willow propagation can be a direct tool for mitigating some of the negative impacts of climate change. Willow is well known for its ability to help quickly evaporate excess floodwater, filter heavy metals and other pollutants from the watery soils where they grow, and help control erosion of valuable life giving topsoil.
When coppiced, willows are rather extraordinary tools for carbon sequestration, perhaps one of the most important functions of an ecological and agricultural project of these times. A fast growing perennial, wild willow varieties that spread via rhizome can create robust new stands in just one growing season if the conditions are right, spreading through wetlands with their regenerative superpowers. One year of growth for wild and cultivated willows yields 4 - 7 ft of woodacious material per stem, flexible and strong enough to be woven and endure a lifetime of functional use. And all that woody growth coming up year after year, cut and woven into a basket, is pure carbon!
From Field to Basket
After all the fresh first year growth is coppiced in the field during winter, the willows are bundled and carried home to be meticulously sorted. After the sorting and labeling process is done, the bundles are put in a dry, dark place to cure for 6 months or more to make sure they are fully dry and free of sap before weaving. When the willows are fully cured 6 months later, they are rehydrated in water for several days, mellowed in a tarp, and if all goes well, finally ready for the actual work of weaving! Different sizes and types of baskets take varying amounts of time to weave, but one-two days is a pretty standard amount of time to expect give or take when building a new basket start to finish (not including very small or very large projects of course.)
Weaving a basket start to finish requires a surprisingly large amount of willow, and surprisingly few amount of tools! Both of these are some of the many reasons I starting learning this craft - I am most interested in processes I can engage with in which all of the tools and materials are already in my house or at my doorstep. In the bioregion where I live, there is a major abundance of willows already growing natively and available to be tended into good basketry willow. For the weaving process, I have only had to acquire a stock tank for soaking, a bodkin, a side cutters, and a handmade iron rapper for bashing down the basket walls when weaving. Beyond that, a person could weave a whole basket with just a knife if need be!
Willow and Folklore
Basketry is truly an ancient craft. People in every corner of the world have made baskets in infinite forms from local materials throughout history. Historically and archaeologically, where there have been people, there have been baskets! The techniques you see in my basketry come from the very old and well established northern and western European willow traditions. In fact, the way of making wicker stake and strand baskets has been basically unaltered through time, so my own basketry studio in terms of tools and techniques would appear nearly identical to that of a northern European weaver hundreds of years ago.
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 referenced in more modern folk tales and songs.
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.