I spent a recent weekend at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais learning the art of black ash (fraxinus nigra) basketry from Michael Benedict. Mr. Benedict is a member of the Oneida Nation in New York and lives and works near Saint Paul.
You’ve most likely heard about ash trees in recent months because of Emerald Ash Borer (EAB), which is swiftly radiating from its 1990s port of entry, near Detroit, Michigan. EAB is an insect species native to Asia. The beetle infests ash trees by laying its eggs in crevices in the bark. Larvae bore into the tree and feed beneath the bark. Infested trees typically die within two to three years. The MN DNR website contains information and a slideshow of infected ash trees and wood.
In May 2009, EAB was detected in Saint Paul’s Saint Anthony neighborhood. Although the EAB can fly only short distances on its own, much of its spread results from human transport of firewood and landscape trees that contain burrowed larvae. The potential loss of Ash trees is tragic and associated challenges are numerous.
Most often, discussion centers on the large proportion ash trees that comprise urban and suburban landscapes. Ash species were used to replace elm trees after Dutch elm disease wiped out what was once the predominant urban landscaping tree. Ash trees sometimes comprise one quarter or more of the trees in municipal areas!
Another issue is the loss of several species that are an important component of Minnesota’s forests. In 2005, the Elm/Ash/Cottonwood forest type represented roughly 1.25 million acres, or 8 percent of Minnesota’s 16.3 million acres of forest land, according to a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sponsored inventory. The rapid and widespread loss of such an important component of the forested landscape has unknown implications for forest ecosystems, other plant and animal species, hydrology, and nutrient cycling.
The wood of black ash trees is used to create baskets, a practice that dates back to the communities that encountered the first visitors from the old world. Polly Cooper was an Oneida woman who helped Washington’s troops at Valley Forge. Cooper and others showed the soldiers how to prepare traditional corn, which needed to be soaked in water treated with wood ash (not ash wood) to remove the outer skin and release the nutrients within (think hominy). This corn was almost certainly carried and prepared in ash baskets like the “corn basket” that I recently made. The corn basket has handles and large openings in the base to allow the skins to pass through after the soaking treatment. As Mr. Benedict astutely pointed out: black ash baskets may have played an important role in the survival of Washington’s troops at Valley Forge.
Only black ash trees with straight and smooth trunks are selected for basketry. According to Benedict’s master’s thesis on black ash, the availability of quality basket trees has diminished in recent years due to black ash decline. The tree bole, or trunk, is pounded to remove the growth layers. Pounding the tree separates the growth rings into strips about the thickness of a nickel.
Pounded strips are then soaked, cleaned, and separated again into thinner strips. Depending on the thickness of the original strip, this process can occur several times, each yielding thinner and finer “ribbons” of wood.
Larger strips are used to form the basket’s base and sides. Thinner strips, or weavers, are used to weave the basket’s bottom and sides.
The basket making process is relatively simple; the difficulties come in finding and preparing the materials, and in avoiding small mistakes to which inexperienced basket makers – like myself – are susceptible.
Black ash baskets have a rich tradition that goes far beyond what can be explained here, but that is worth exploring. Ash baskets make excellent pack baskets (see picture) and were likely used to transport goods by the voyageurs. Ash baskets also fetch high prices in the marketplace, with small baskets priced around $50.00 and larger baskets costing in the thousands. Basketry is not a quaint relic of the past, even today people use this early technology to create and sustain forest-based lives and livelihood strategies. It remains to be seen what the broader implications of the looming loss of this culturally significant species will be.