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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Chance Encounter, Lovely Craft, Common Names

I met Mary Van Arsdel from St. Petersburg by chance on a semi-wild (i.e., not yet developed) bit of land near Aripeka, Florida, in late March. It was my dog Sarah, a sociable canine, who introduced us. Later in the day David and I were driving another area of the shore, and I saw Mary a little way off the side of Osowaw Boulevard. “There’s Mary!” (Someone I know!) We stopped so I could invite her back to the house for a cold beer, and she showed me one of her recent baskets, along with bullrushes and sweetgrass she’d gathered that day.

The next day I had an e-mail from Mary:

“Today was a busy day, but I managed to hang the Black Needlerush (Bulrush) on the line in my backyard. The East sun dries one side and the West sun the other and will take about 2 months to turn a chestnut color. It is hard to believe that a day’s work only yielded ½ bucket. I enjoy harvesting it and it is good exercise. However, this is the last of the Bulrush that I will harvest until next winter.”

This lady, a data analyst by profession, is nothing if not devoted to her craft.

What goes by the common name “sweetgrass” in the South is not the same as our northern Michigan plant. Ours is Hierochlöe odorata, theirs Muhlenbergia filipes or Muhlenbergia capillaris, and while sweetgrass basketry here in Leelanau County has a Native American ancestry, that in South Carolina, where many are drawn by a strong regional tradition, traces its roots to West Africa by way of the Gullah people. What Mary calls bullrushes, by the way, is what I have called sawgrass in my winter posts from Florida’s Gulf coast.

Southern sweetgrass basket-makers increasingly find their supply of raw natural materials threatened and diminished by development, and one solution many of them are turning to is growing their own. Mary has planted in her backyard sweetgrass purchased from Karl Ohlandt, a landscape ecolopgist. Here’s more on Karl’s involvement in keeping sweetgrass from becoming extinct in South Carolina.

Mary lives in Florida at present but told me quite a bit about the South Carolina basket community and the stretch of Hwy 17 where basket-makers hawk their wares. The Gullah basket tradition there is over 300 years old.

Wildflowers, weeds, grasses, trees—plants of every kind and type have names by which they are known in different regions of the U.S. One bookstore customer today told me she is just getting interesting in herbal remedies and cooking and realizes she has to be careful about the plants she gathers. Sometimes, I told her, the name by which you know a plant depends on what your grandmother called it.

And then, of course, sometimes we choose the common names we like the best. My friend Laurie likes dog-tooth violet for the flower I prefer to call troutlily. Its Latin name, the one known around the world to distinguish it from every other plant, is Erythronium americanum--a unique identifier, thus very important, but not nearly as intimate as the common names. Another common name for this wildflower is adder's tongue. Read more about it here.

This is the season for all the wonderful spring woodland wildflowers. Later the forest canopy will fill in, Lake Michigan will no longer be visible through the trees, and few blossoms will remain on the deeply shaded forest floor. All the more reason to get out in the woods now, while the getting is good....


Anonymous said...

Mary's baskets are very like those woven by Pima Indians (Tohono O'Odham) in Arizona. Makes a person wonder how good ideas move about the world.

Dawn said...

Beautiful basket! This is my favorite time of the year, when you can see through the woods and so much is in bloom.

P. J. Grath said...

I should add that the reason it takes Mary all day to harvest such a relatively small amount of raw basket material is the care she takes not to harm the plant. She teases each blade gently from its sheath. She does NOT yank up or dig up wild plants! (People who do so drive me crazy--can you tell?) Consequently, many private land-owners give her special permission to gather on their property, knowing she can be trusted to work gently and leave no sign behind that she was ever there.