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