What a gift to collaborate with Ila Crawford, Linda Franklin, Susan Miller, Elizabeth Sigalet and Amanda Forrest-Ewanyshyn and the Kamloops Art Council to mount our recent show! Many, many thanks who came out to support this examination of the plants in our lives. It was so wonderful to have everyone at the opening!
Imagine this. Remnants of a tropical vine, in two different sizes and three colours: beige, wine and rust; ten sets of hands (and hearts) located across Canada: Salt Spring Island, Cowichan Valley, Vancouver, Victoria, Kamloops, Canmore, Grafton, Toronto. The all-too-familiar logo of Zoom.
In a world that feels brittle and displaced, today’s virtual connection–strung together by cable and circuit board, ship and truck, warehouse and supply chain–feels surprisingly supple and grounded. A connection that remembers the traditions and the hands that came before. A connection that weaves a tiny bit of calm in the midst of today’s anxiety. A connection that goes under the label of a Random Woven Nest Basket workshop, originating from the studio of basket artist and teacher, Joan Carrigan.
If cordage is the first textile, then certainly baskets are, if not the first, one of our earliest vessels. Earlier Joan shipped us the materials for the baskets: two ziploc bags, neatly packed in a Canada Post flat rate mailer. As the hours of the workshop stitch by, I think about the reeds, cut from a tropical vine, in not just my hands but in nine other pairs of hands. Over the course of five hours, I play with reed, weaving colour and form first through a cardboard jig and then one against another. The worry doesn’t go away. I know that as I weave, in a landscape that I’ve never visited but is, like the one outside my window, stitched from steppe and forest, mortars are falling. Before my basket is complete, homes will be destroyed, lives will be lost.
On the screen, Joan tells us that all baskets are held together by tension. The weaving mantra of this basket is “Over the Overs, Under the Unders.” In sentence form, the words seem nonsensical but in the growing form of my basket, they become the only logic. A logic that builds my basket into being, a logic that is supported not just with reed but with the stories–encouraged by Joan–that are shared one computer screen to another. Today we are basket makers, but woven in with each of our baskets, I realize, is our larger intent. On screen, one of us takes us to her basement to display a coffin built with willow she grew on her property–a commission she says. Another talks of recycling horticulture waste from the urban landscape of Vancouver into art. Yet another counsels those in need with art. One, like me, hopes to make baskets from those plants many call ‘invasives.’ Joan tells us that post WWI and WWII basketry was used as occupational therapy–thus the word ‘basketcase.’ Others show earlier baskets they’ve made with Joan; still others take us around their house displaying works created by their sons, their partners. After lunch, after we release our incipient basket from the cardboard jig and bowl that helped define their volume, Joan fills our screen with yet more baskets. They are sculptural, architectural, delicate.
All baskets, I realize, have limits; imagined through both their material and the mind of their weavers. Joan tells us that rattan–the tropical vine we are using–submits easily. Later I will learn there are 13 genera of rattan with nearly 600 species. Later I will learn that some speak of the ‘rattan civilizations of Southeast Asia.’ But in the moment I understand why Joan uses rattan to teach these virtual workshops. The consistency and malleability of this group of plants makes it easier for her to troubleshoot at a distance. Other species, Joan explains–willow and cedar and hazelnut–have different limits. And maybe this is what gives me hope. That today, Feb 26, 2022, when worry hangs over so many, there are group of minds willing to wonder, to play, to experiment, with the limits of others. For it’s clear that this is the intent of those whose hands and hearts I see on my computer screen. We work with a tropical species so that we can become more better connected with our own green neighbours. On a day when so much of the news is filled with the consequence of a national leader’s disconnectedness bordering on insanity, is it any wonder that the company of others willing to think across, to connect across, taxonomic divides fills me with a much needed hope?
Imagine this: random woven nest baskets can be airy or dense. They are finished when they feel finished, Joan tells us. Joan has been generous with the bundles of rattan reed she shipped us. Many on the screen are already wrapping the rims of their baskets, with plenty of reed left over. As I continue to weave reed, tension builds, but today, when I know some students at my university are worrying about their families sleeping in subway tunnels, when others worry how to pay their tuition with frozen bank accounts, when my own daughter has lent her body today to the rally in front of Kamloops Courthouse, I am compelled to weave the sturdiest vessel I can.
I know it will not hold the worry of the coming days. But it will sit on my desk as an important lesson. A reminder of how tension–when we understand the limits of those we work with–can help build the world into being. A reminder of how when we ignore the limits of others–push across borders, insist that our version of reality is the only version–tension snaps both reed and community, mortars fall and bridges explode. More than once in the coming days, I will wish that we required all the world’s presidents and prime ministers to weave a basket. “Over the overs, under the unders.” More than once I will wish these people learned tension and limits, not intellectually, but through their hands. Maybe then it would lodge in their hearts.
The first time I visited this swath of green caught between the bends of Campbell Creek, the world was shrouded with smoke, awash in the worry cast by nearby wildfires That day in middle August, I couldn’t help but relish the work–the fencing and irrigation and animal care–that went into keeping this riparian verge green even as the the surrounding forests baked in the Summer of 2021.
The second time I visited, in middle February, the pastures were cloaked in white even as the hills above had already melted out into grays and browns. One place, two seasons. One place, two different palettes. Sitting in place, the world felt placid, rich with the minute events of a northern landscape still shrouded in cold. Yet it was difficult, in my camp chair, pencil in hand, to shrug off the memory of this morning’s special radio broadcast, full of long-distance worry and conflict. Difficult to shrug off the sight of the protestors I’d driven past earlier, their clustered bodies waving red and white flags, their mouths shouting slogans.
At first, I’m frustrated with my inability to focus on what is in front of me. But then I remember. Pasture, or city lot, road or trailside, worry is part of the garden we cultivate in the Anthropocene. Plants and people; people and plants. Of course these investigations will be washed with dissent. Is it any wonder that I end my winter visit to these pastures relishing the first sign of green that I find at the base of the crabapple tree? In the midst of truck convoys and dissenting opinions, what counts more as faith than the green insistence of our world?
This new year began, for me, with the gift of time. After the last decade’s worry about the shifting relationship between plants and peoples, I have a sabbatical to use my field journals to document and explore the co-mingled lives of nearby plants and people. In the third week of January, I travelled the short distance to Sorrento, to sit in the snow and the draw the landscape of the farm called Notch Hill Community Growers. Clouds hung low, hoar frost filigreed the bodies of nearby and more distant plants. Northern shrike, rough-legged hawk, coyote, cow, rooster, farmer. Just a few of lives that depend upon the beings rooted in this valley. What a gift to know that I can return throughout the unfolding of this coming year.
In Canada, this last weekend was the last of a federal election, but out along the Tranquille River, it was a weekend of light and shadow, line and contour. Fifteen field journalers and I spent Saturday morning, sitting in place, paying close attention to the curve of leaf and stem, the colours layered in the living fabric of this good, green earth. We drew beaver ponds and volcanic hillslopes, red-osier dogwood and goldenrod. After the unpredictability of this second pandemic summer (heat domes, wildfires, the rising sorrow of unmarked graves) I no longer take such simple pleasure for granted. A weekend morning spent drawing in good company. What a gift. My thanks to both the Kamloops Naturalist Club and the City of Kamloops for asking me to teach the class; my deepest thanks to those who created a class with their presence!
One of my favourite ‘first sentences’ is by Kim Stafford in his book Having Everything Right. ” A few nights in your life, you know this like the taste of lightning in your teeth: Tomorrow I will be changed.
This was one such night. With a good friend, deep in the heart of the Wells Gray wilderness. Little has been the same since.
In March, the event I’m always the most anxious for is that first smell of spring cottonwood. In the South Thompson Valley, the cottonwoods have been breaking bud for the last several weeks and I’ve been reminded of how much the events of other species’ lives ground me in place, in this valley. As an essay, Dispersal Lessons took far, far too long to ferment into something worth sharing, but I’m delighted that it’s now out. More and more, I find myself valuing the lessons I learn as I try to think alongside, not just about, plants.
Hamilton Arts and Letters just released a lovely new issue called The World Out There including, as described by the guest editors, Alec Follet and Matt Zantingh, an “eclectic grouping of written and visual texts” that address how “art can help us see our world for what it is or even imagine better alternatives.” I’m honoured that my piece, “Carrying Capacity,” is included (click on the link above to see the Table of Contents with hyperlinks for each piece). Initially written just after our stalwart dog, Shasta, passed away, “Carrying Capacity” considers how what we carry–the companionship of a dog, art supplies–might change how we care for the world. As I have struggled to make sense of life in the midst of a global pandemic where so much I took for granted has been upended, I’ve been returning again and again to the question of how best to cultivate care. It is no small comfort to see the works of others who have also been closely considering the complicated relationship we have with each other and with the more-than-human world.