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Picture This. . .

Short (5 foot) old me, standing still in the woods.

Up to mid-calves in very, very wet snow.

In the middle of a wild pasture rose patch full of briars about 8 feet long.

I’m not wearing gloves, or even thick clothes (or a coat), and I am currently cutting through a briar the diameter of a dime with a not-as-sharp-as-it-could-be jack knife.

No, I don’t cut myself with the knife (I know you were thinking that), but it does get better. Having cut loose the briar from the rest of the plant, I try to pull out.  No, I don’t grab a handful of thorns; I’ve a bit more practice than that. But it is all snagged up with the rest of the plant, so I absent mindedly give it a nice jerk to set it free. And, of course, it does get pulled free, but in the process I shred my delicate, unprotected hands on nearby thorns.

"Owwwwwwww. . ."

Okay, now that I’ve presented myself as slightly less than a stunning intellectual, let me explain what I was up to today.

 I was harvesting material for basket making. This is the perfect time for harvesting basket making material, because all of the plants have just enough sap in them to make them flexible, but not so much grow that they begin breaking and snapping. And pasture roses make ideal material for basket making (not counting the thorns), as they are long, straight and without branches, very pliable, and as abundant as dandelions.

True, I’m not wearing jeans or other thick clothes, but, from past blackberrying experience, I’m going to get myself all cut up no matter what anyway. And since I only have a few hours of sunlight, I didn’t see the point in wasting time changing. True, I’m not wearing gloves, but I don’t like gloves. I like having my hands free and nimble, and another fifteen minutes I’ll be doing work I can’t do with gloves on–so there wasn’t much point in bringing up one more thing I could lose and forget. (Besides, the bleeding will stop in a few minutes.) And true, I don’t have a pair of pruners, but that’s because Mom’s using them! (The nerve! Using the pruners–pruners she bought herself, no less!) There were other pairs, but I knew they’d be dull, so I figured they’d probably be as much trouble as a knife. (I was wrong, by the way. Next time I’ll crush the life out of the brambles. You get to do less hand moving with pruners, so it’s easier to avoid scratching up your hands something terrible.)

You might hold that you would have to be half-crazy to deliberately walk into a rose patch full of briars bigger than yourself, but a lot of artists are half crazy. Okay, you might even hold that one has to be completely crazy to do that, but a lot of artists were completely crazy, too. And if you happen to hold that I don’t count as an artist, that’s okay. Let’s face facts–after being stuck a few months in a house with a dozen other people, I am totally crazy. Even crazier than deliberately walking into the briar patch, I’m even enjoying being in a briar patch! It’s the first day of March, and 60 degrees. I don’t care where I am, I am definetly enjoying 60 degrees. Even if I am almost knee deep in snow that is rapidly soaking my legs and freezing my toes.

Besides, this isn’t any old pasture rose patch. It’s a special pasture rose patch! In this patch, there are brambles that are about 8 feet long but still mostly pencil thin–usually when they get that long they get thick and woody. Even better than that, a lot of them have almost no thorns! Considering the patch is growing right in the middle of the stream it seems logical to conclude that the brambles were able to grow very quickly. Thus they managed to get very long without the width that comes with passage of time. I wonder if growing quickly means less thorns, as well, or if I’m just extremely lucky?

Anyway, back to my point about pasture roses being good for basket making. When I was first introduced to basket weaving, I used manufactured reed. This had only two problems. One, it looked like manufactured reed. Two, it was EXPENSIVE! Under the general guidelines of "If you can wrap it around your wrist, you can make a basket with it," I set out to look at the back acreage. My first "natural" basket was made out of red osier dogwood. Red osier dogwood is a dream to work with. It sends up lots of shoots from the ground that are the perfect width and length to work with, and it’s bark is a beautiful dark red color (it dries even darker, more of a burgundy than a red). It is smooth, and generally good natured and complacent. Problem is, it’s a lot less abundant than the pasture roses!

Mom said at one point the government was actually recommending that farmers plant pasture roses as natural fences. Since then, it’s been discovered that it is extremely invasive and hard to kill. This allows you to be very brutal in your harvesting methods without the least bit of worry about what kind of damage you might be doing to the plant. Even if, by some chance, you mangaged to kill it, there would still be an easy 14,098 plants left on the property, so who cares? It also has a reddish bark, but it is darker than the red osier dogwood. And, like the dogwood, it dries even darker. Unlike the dogwood, it can get a lot longer and still not be too thick, so it is a good matieral for making big baskets. Also unlike the dogwood, it is NOT pleasant to work with. Even besides the thorns, it is always wild and unruly, with a life of it’s own. The thorns, though they make life unpleasant during harvest, aren’t actually that hard to deal with. I’ve seen thorn-strippers being sold, but as far as I can tell these strippers would also damaged the beautiful bark. So I snap them off by hand. Everytime I say that, it makes people gasp, but it’s really neither hard nor painful. If you push against the flat, smooth side of the thorn, they usually come off with only a small amount of pressure. After de-thorning a large amount of brambles, your thumb is apt to get a bit sore but that’s all. You don’t have the blood-drawing, skin-ripping problems that you do during harvest. (I really ought wear gloves, but I can’t be bothered, in the same way that I can’t be bothered to set a timer and therefore have burned or nearly burned several batches of bread.)

Having harvested and de-thorned a decent handful of briars, the fun really begins! (Really.) Now I get to actually start on the basket itself. This is where I really see the difference between making baskets out of manufactured material and wild material. When you make a basket out of manufactured stuff, you plan. You figure out how much reed you will need, and buy and soak accordingly. You figure out how many spokes you need, and exactly how you’re going to make the basket. With wild materials, your plans are just as unpredicatable as the materials you’re using. You can start out with a general shape or size in your mind, but after that, it’s anybody’s guess. The brambles can’t bend that way, or they’re too small, or they just plain old decide they don’t want to do what you want them to do. They brambles start out large and get smaller (unlike manufactured reeds, which are uniform in width), so no matter what you do, you’re going to wind up with a lop-sided, irregular, oddly leaning basket. Which, if you like manufactured things, straight lines, and prestine patterns, is a problem. If you like rocks and trees and hills and garlic, there’s nothing wrong at all with this. Garlic looks completely at home in my lop-sided, leaning, irregular red osier dogwood basket. With the certain gaurentee that it is going to look lopsided, leaning and irregular (in short, look wild), you are totally free from worrying about screwing up. No one is ever going to be able to tell whether it was a mistake you made, or the wildness of the material.

Realizing these two things–that wild material is unpredictable, and because of that unpredictablity no one will be able to see if anything goes wrong–I’ve never made a wi
ld basket with a plan of what I’m doing. I can see how this would be very frustrating for some people, but I find it exciting. Today, I knew I wanted to make a large bowl shaped basket, and no more. The base that I’ve been making is one I’ve never seen described in any basket making book, but I like it. The spokes for the side are first woven into the twisted circle that is the base of the basket. The longs skinny ends got woven into a ring within that circle, making an open, yet strong bottom. The thicker end of the spokes continue up to the the upper rim of the basket. What happens next, I’m not quite sure. I’ve made mistakes already, using rare brambles that would have made excellent weavers into spokes, but I’m not worried. No one will be able to tell–I almost have a blank check promising me a good looking basket no matter how hard I try to screw it up. This makes it worry-free work, and it’s impossible not to enjoy it.

The only frustrating thing is having to stop. My feet really are freezing, and the sun is going down. I’m too cold to work sensibly, so I do have to quit and go down to the house. But my mind keeps churning over what to do next, till I’m unbearably impatient for the next day so I can get some more time working on it. It’s like being a little kid the night before your birthday. You don’t know what you’re going to get but you know it’s going to be something good.