Bioregional Willow Basketry

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 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 much of Turtle Island. Now, it is harvest time.

I refer to the specific process I have developed with willow as Bioregional Willow Basketry - a place-based, regenerative, and reverence focused approach to basketry centered on tending the plants & places that co-create my baskets in the context of a long term relationship.


Learning to tend these plants, rather than 'harvesting' or 'foraging' them, creates a reframe of approach that ultimately has a myriad of ecological benefits for the places they grow, and cultivates in the weaver a powerful shift away from a colonial 'taker' mentality toward the path of stewardship and relationship we need 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 regenerative farming / wild tending. This is because harvesting both cultivated and wild willows for basketry does not harm the plant. In fact, cutting them back each year, an ancient management practice referred to as 'coppicing', 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, helps expand the colony.


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.


In this bioregion, where hundred year floods are becoming an annual affair, wild willow propagation can be a direct tool for climate change impact mitigation. Willow is well known for its ability to help filter heavy metals and other pollutants from the watery soils where they grow, while evaporating excess flood waters from the land and helping control soil erosion along banks at the same time.


A fast growing perennial, most wild willow varieties 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 yields 4 - 7 ft of stem flexible enough to be woven and sturdy enough to endure a lifetime of functional use.


This fresh first year growth is coppiced in the field, bundled, and carried home to be sorted and dried for around 6 months 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 goes well, is finally ready for the actual work of weaving! This style of basketry is a true field to basket, 'slow' craft affair.


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. The techniques you see in my basketry come from the very old and well established northern and western 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.




The tradition of basketmaking with Willow as I know it was passed to me from friends and teachers like Lee Zieke, Zac Fittipaldi, Mo Walrath, several excellent books including authors Sally Goymer, Jenny Crisp, & Sue Gabriel, and most of all, the Willows themselves. I give thanks to these amazing plants, the waters and sandy soils where they grow on occupied Ho-Chunk / Oceti Sakowin lands - whose 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 also weaving. May we all hold clear a vision in our hearts that all living people, especially those with histories erased by colonization, might have access to the traditional crafts and lands their people have known for generations, despite the many forces that have tried to erase them and their ways.