By Lauri deGaris
It is time to gather the gifts of summer, it is time for harvest. Since the earliest of times, all cultures have woven reeds and grasses that grow strong during summer into baskets carrying the bounty of fall.
Basket weaving is a time-honored tradition. It contains unique cultural expression through symbolic patterns. It is a spiritual rite of passage as well. By weaving together plants, ancestral knowledge is passed by the weaver to the student. Works of art and history lessons are shared carrying us and our harvest forward.
Baskets are linked to eternal return. Baskets hold the seeds for next season’s planting. The Easter basket filled with eggs carries the promise of rebirth, fertility and abundance that arrive each spring.
Indigenous cultures honor basket-making and basket-making materials. They understand that plants are gifts from the divine creator that weave together nature, individual character, families, and communities.
When people arrived in Florida thousands of years ago, they already knew how to weave baskets and cloth. At the Windover site near Titusville, finely made cloth dating back 8,000 years was uncovered by archeologists. To their astonishment, the cloth contained 24 threads per inch and was made from the leaves of sabal palms. Utility items such as baskets and cloth made from natural fiber do not last long, making the Windover site discovery a real treasure, full of insight into our past.
Baskets woven from palm tree fiber would have been used to gather acorns, hickory nuts, berries, and roots. By the seashore, they were used for gathering oysters, clams, mussels, and other shellfish that we have enjoyed for many generations.
Other local basket-making material includes Muhlenbergia, sp. also known as sweetgrass. In a few weeks, the pale pink feathers of sweetgrass will mature into a thick flowing blanket of magenta, dominating the fall color display along the barrier islands.
For centuries, coastal sweetgrass has been a staple material for local sea-grass basket weavers. No home along the barrier islands from the Otter Banks of North Carolina to our very own Amelia Island is complete without a few sweetgrass baskets for use and decoration.
Species of Muhlenbergia are a long-stemmed plant growing in tufts along coastal dunes, marshes and woods of the barrier islands. The plant has a rich history of use due to multiple cultural interactions throughout the barrier islands. Native Americans, Africans, Europeans and others who have called these islands home utilized sweetgrass for centuries.
Coiled seagrass baskets have become one of the most identifiable products produced throughout the barrier islands of the Southeast United States. Sweetgrass baskets can be a very personal expression of art. However, most of the early local forms were purely functional, especially in the agrarian economy of the past few centuries.
For example, processing rice required a “fanner basket.” These large shallow baskets were designed to catch pounded grain thrown into the air, allowing the wind to blow away the rice chaff.
Sweetgrass decorated with pine needles and bound with palmetto fronds formed other types of household baskets. Agricultural work baskets most often were made of black needle rush bound with oak slits or strips of saw palmetto. A variety of baskets for everyday household chores were needed, and sweetgrass was once a popular abundant choice.
By the end of the 19th century, coiled seagrass baskets gained popularity as an important African-American art form. This transformation coincided with the Arts and Crafts movement. Classes to teach basket weaving were introduced into the curriculum at the historic Penn School in South Carolina in 1904. It was during this time that new designs and shapes took form and started to appear along the coast.
One of my favorite books is “Braiding Sweetgrass – Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants” by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Robin is an environmental biology professor and founder of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. In her book, Robin shares with us the story of how her Indigenous student proved to the strict scientific community that Indigenous knowledge and science can converge when we observe and listen to the plants.
To relate the story her ancestors shared for generations, her student translated it into scientific language. She proved the following:
“If we remove 50% of the plant biomass, the stems are released from competition. The stimulus of compensatory growth causes an increase in population density and plant vigor. In the absence of disturbance, resource depletion and competition result in a loss of vigor and increased mortality.”
Robin’s student had convinced the scientific community that there was a need for reciprocity between the harvester and the sweetgrass. She knew what sweetgrass basket makers have known for thousands of years. “The grass gives its fragrant self to us and we receive it with gratitude. In return, through the very act of accepting the gift, the pickers open space, let the light come in, and with a gentle tug bestir the dormant buds that make new grass. Reciprocity is a matter of keeping the gift in motion through self-perpetuating cycles of giving and receiving.” Indigenous basket makers have known this all along.
In the coastal Southeast United States, sweetgrass is becoming more difficult to find. As development replaces these beautiful native grasses with manicured landscapes, there are fewer places to harvest sweetgrass.
There is an increasing number of professionally manicured areas around the island that are incorporating sweetgrass into the landscape. Take a drive down Highway A1A from Amelia Island to the Mayport ferry and gaze upon the fall display of brilliant color provided by the gift of sweetgrass.
And, if you are downtown, walk to the corner of North Fourth Street and Alachua Street, near the entrance to the library, and look for sweetgrass displaying feathers of fall magenta color.
Sweetgrass is best planted by placing it directly in full sun. According to Robin, “Thus the plant is passed from hand to earth to hand across years and generations.”
This is a symbolic way of remembering. And, those of us who remember how to listen to nature must speak up on behalf of those who have forgotten. Remember, history is the tapestry of life woven out of nature.