Fresh from the Woods
Wabanaki ash baskets are displayed outside a tent at the Native American Festival at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. (Photos by Ethan Andrews)
Asian beetle theatens Maine ash trees, livelihood of traditional basket makers
By Ethan Andrews
The expected arrival of an invasive beetle that kills ash trees could hit hardest in the Native American communities that use brown ash in the traditional craft of basket making. The Wabanaki make ash baskets as they have for thousands of years, but the work continues under a new shadow of uncertainty.
Ash is central to an origination story of the Wabanaki, “the people of the dawn,” who include members of the Abanaki, Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes in Maine. According to one legend, they emerged from ash trees shot with arrows by Gluskap, who was the teacher of the Wabanaki.
The durability and flexibility of what basket makers call brown ash – listed as Fraxinus nigra, or black ash, in the 2008 edition of “Forest Trees of Maine” – make it ideally suited to basket making. When pounded, the rings of the brown ash separate into splints that can be split still further into fine strips for weaving.
“Black or brown ash occurs statewide,” the guidebook states. “It grows almost entirely on rich, moist ground or in cold, wet swamps and along the banks of streams.”
“Forest Trees” says the wood is coarse-grained, heavy, durable and pliable. While the brown ash is tough, it being slowly overwhelmed by the Emerald Ash Borer, native to Asia.
The metallic green beetle has been responsible for the devastation of ash forests from Missouri to Maryland, with the most significant damage in southeastern Michigan, where it has destroyed millions of ash trees. This summer, Canadian authorities confirmed the presence of the beetle near Montreal, Quebec, a short drive from the Maine border.
Emerald Ash Borers lay eggs beneath the bark of ash trees. When they hatch, the larvae tunnel through the inner bark, choking off the transmission of water and nutrients to the limbs of the tree. The process is deadly, but often goes undetected for years. In 2007, the Emerald Ash Borer was discovered in Western Pennsylvania, but research on the rings of affected trees concluded it had been there since 2001. The Michigan infestation, discovered in 2002, may have started as many as 10 years earlier.
Left alone, ash borer infestations spread slowly. Vigorous efforts to control infested areas have been foiled several times when Emerald Ash Borer eggs were unknowingly transported out of quarantined areas in firewood and saplings. An infestation that popped up in Maryland was traced back to a single delivery to a nursery in Prince George’s County. The beetle is thought to have been introduced to the United States in a similar way, arriving in wood pallets or other shipping products from Asia.
At fairs like the Native American Festival in Bar Harbor and the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity, the Maine Forest Service table has become a common sight. Arrayed with brochures depicting an iridescent green bug about as long as a fingernail, and posters imploring “Don’t move firewood,” the forest service is hoping to educate people who may be coming into contact with Wabanaki crafts and the Emerald Ash Borer for the first time.
Jeremy Frey of Princeton peels the bark from a brown ash log. It will then be hand-pounded to separate the growth rings, the first step in making splints.
Among craftspeople, many have already made provisional plans.
“Me personally?” said Jeremy Frey, one of a new generation of Passamaquoddy basket makers, “I’m gonna go and find every piece of ash I can find, cut it and store it.”
If basket weaving could be said to have a rock star, it’s Frey. His trademark fine weaves (as thin as 1/32 inch) of bone white sapwood have won him a following among collectors. The pieces he unveiled in Bar Harbor last summer sold out a half-hour before the festival started, the most expensive fetching $4,800.
Frey comes directly from a family of basket makers, but his entrepreneurial sensibility has made him an exception in the marketplace. Most Wabanaki basket makers practice a traditional version of the craft that has not changed for generations. They have struggled to locate their place within a fickle economy.
Kelly Church, a member of Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, describes herself as “just a basket maker.” But the Michigan native has taken on the role of an educator over the past five years, traveling the fair circuit with information on the Emerald Ash Borer.
Church traces her conversion to a conference in Indianapolis in 2003, a year after the Michigan outbreak. After asking around the conference to find out who was working on the issue, she was given the name of a person who she was told was collecting information about the ash borer. The person was her cousin in back Michigan.
“That made me realize they didn’t know what was happening,” she said.
Among Church’s informational materials on the beetle, other brochures tell of an effort to collect ash seeds for the federal seed bank in Fort Collins, Colo. Church said grassroots efforts are also underway to teach native people how to store seeds in their own freezers. The technique is less desirable, she said, but it’s better than nothing. “I tell people here [in Maine], ‘You guys have a chance to save your ash trees.’”
Asked why brown ash is important to native basket making, Church gave a number of familiar cultural and material reasons, then after a pause added, “Of course, as natives, we would use what’s available to us.”
The statement could apply to a post-ash basket making economy. Either way it encapsulates the resiliency of native people, who have already adapted the basket making craft twice in the last century to keep up with changes in technology and taste.
Eldon Hanning’s baskets embody both of these changes. The traditional potato baskets hark back to mass-produced versions from the early 20th century, when Maine was the potato capital of the country. The same baskets that once traded hands by the dozens for 50 cents each, Hanning now sells for $50 each as gifts.
As a provider of splints to other basket makers, Hanning sits at an important crossroads in the production line.
“If I stopped making splints,” he asked, motioning toward a large tent shading the display tables of 20 or so basket makers, “how many of those people down there do you think would stop making baskets?”
And if the trees ceased to exist?
Hanning, who has the disposition of someone used to looking out for himself, shrugged it off. Picking up a quarter-inch-thick strip of maple from the ground, he split the top with a pocketknife and drew it apart into two strips as he would a piece of brown ash. “A lot of people don’t realize you can do that,” he said.
Hanning also said he could use white ash, but other basket makers like Richard Silliboy haven’t had much luck with the comparatively rigid wood. Silliboy recounted his attempt to make a set of five traditional potato baskets using white ash. Four of the handles snapped as he was assembling them.
“If it affects white ash,” he said, “it could be an economic problem within the forestry companies.”
Silliboy thought it would important for the industries with the resources and legislative power to take the lead in addressing the threat. “Nobody’s going to listen to us,” he said.
The Wabanaki may find an ally in Major League Baseball. Louisville Slugger baseball bats, long the bat of choice in the major leagues, are cut from northern white ash. A link to information on the ash borer appears prominently on the home page of the company’s Web site.
Native people may see some assistance from these industrial giants, or they may be on their own. The Wabanaki basket makers have carried their traditions through generations when native culture has been aggressively pushed to the margins.
For now, the Emerald Ash Borer sits a half-day drive from the Maine border. If the infestation continues to spread at its current rate, the hardest times may be yet to come.