Mike Sagataw, the Potawatomi tradition-bearer who taught me how to select, fell, and transform a black ash tree into weaving splint, had repeated those words as a mantra. "Listen to the tree, for it will speak to you. It will tell you what it wants to become."
Even now, 30 years later, I sometimes find myself complaining into the wind. "These growth rings are fibrous and heavy, but I want to make something light and airy." The wind returns no sympathy, just Mike's voice. "Listen to the tree." I prepare wider, heavier splint and begin laying up a pack basket. The splint does not argue when you pay attention.
Last spring, I spent several months on a sculptural form with overlapping layers of weaving. As I worked, the piece sang happily. It took on a fish shape that began morphing into a stylized boat/pod. I added an outer layer of willow to accentuate the boat shape, and as I worked the piece went silent. I removed the outer layer and kicked it to the corner. The fish shape was happy again, and that is all that mattered.
Several weeks after finishing Pesca Pod, I heard something calling me. It was the outer layer, wanting its own identity. It sang its own song as I wove, and my first piece of folk art emerged: Gator Bait. Its curious open margin is the result of removing Pesca Pod from its "belly", as if something had ripped its way out. Indeed, the name Gator Bait came from a news story out of the Everglades, in which a python swallowed a gator far too large and the snake's belly burst open. This felt much the same, as Pesca Pod and Gator Bait could each exist just fine on its own.
A short time later, I asked a professional photographer to take some studio photos. I enjoy watching people interact with my work, and David didn't disappoint. He strung some fishing line through Pesca Pod and hung it vertically. This simple change in perspective visually transformed the piece from a fish shape into a butterfly chrysalis.
Many artists will admit that certain creations speak to them as they work, and I am no exception to that experience. Listen to the tree, for it will speak to you. Splint does not argue when you pay attention. A happy weaving will sing.
In my humble opinion, baskets are a lot like people. Listen closely, pay attention, avoid arguments, and they will sing...
It was a warm summer day when I first heard it. I was strolling through an art show in Marquette, MI, and an earthy, steady rhythm grew louder as I approached: whomp, whomp, whomp...whomp, whomp, whomp.
The sound's source was tucked behind a display booth, where a Native artist was methodically striking a fresh black ash log with a heavy mallet. I watched in awe as growth rings lifted one by one. He handed me a satiny ribbon of wood that could be tied into a knot without breaking or fraying. I had been weaving with rattan for several years and longed for a different medium. A sound had drawn me to black ash, and I was immediately hooked.
A few weeks later, I followed Mike Sagataw into the wet woods. "Pull on your swampers and grab a saw," he said. "We're headed towards that stand of cedar out back."
After choosing a suitable basket tree and sawing partway through its trunk, Mike removed the saw and produced a small deerskin pouch. A tobacco offering thanked Mother Earth. A prayer and honor song lifted skyward in a language I didn't speak, yet somehow understood. Mike had just introduced me to another beautiful sound: the Ojibway language, Aanishnaabek.
Hauling the tree home was no easy task. We each hoisted a 6 ft log and picked our way through ankle-deep mud. Then the hard work began: the entire log had to be pounded with a 4-pound sledge hammer. As we worked, growth rings lifted in long strips, often 7 or 8 rings at a time. He showed me how to subdivide the thicker rings to make thinner splint, how to smooth the rough side with a sharp knife, and how to trim the splint into uniform widths for weaving. But he refused to teach me anything about weaving with ash.
"Listen to the tree," he said. "It will tell you what it wants to become."
Marcia Morse Mullins