Invasive Species Threatens Native Art
4:00 am
Thu July 17, 2014

Black Ash Baskets: Weaving Resistance to Invasive Species

The emerald ash borer is having a big impact on forest landscapes and some commercial interests, as it continues to wipe out ash trees in Wisconsin and other parts of the U.S.  It also threatens a traditional Native American style of basket weaving. 

It can be easy to forget that a wooden basket comes from a tree.    

April Stone Dahl is standing over the trunk of a black ash tree that’s lying in a cradle before us.  She’s supervising eleven-year-old student AJ, who’s hard at work whacking the tree with a big mallet.  Stone Dahl explains that pounding the tree releases its thin layers of growth, one by one.

"Based on how the tree grew that year - your summer rings are either going to be paper thin, or nice and thick," she said. "If they're nice and thick, we'll further split them down."  

These strips of the tree will be coiled, soaked, and used to weave a black ash basket.  April Stone Dahl and her husband Jarrod traveled two and a half hours to teach this class at a 4H program in Crandon, about 130 miles from Odanah, the Bad River reservation and the shores of Lake Superior where the couple lives. 
April has spent 15 years mastering and teaching this traditional Native American art form, and getting to know the unique properties of the black ash.

“How the splints can be peeled from the log. It has that quality," she explained. "And then it’s really flexible material, it’s really lightweight material, but if you take care of it, it can last a long time.”  

But there’s one major downside to relying on this resource. It's highly susceptible to the emerald ash borer.

“So that's kind of devastating for the ash tree," April said.  "To know that there's only so many years of making baskets, before we may not be able to find any  more ash out in the wild to be able to make these baskets."  

The ash borer is a beetle native to East Asia.  But as many in Wisconsin already know too well, here without natural predators, it’s incredibly invasive.  Once established, it kills over 99 percent of ash trees in a given area.  In just six years it has already spread to 22 Wisconsin counties.  Stone Dahl says it hasn’t made it to her backyard in northern Wisconsin, but it’s getting closer. 

“Where I live, I live in Ashland County," she began, "and there wasn’t any emerald ash borer up there, from Wausau up north, the northern third of Wisconsin, nothing.  But then all the sudden it pops up in Douglas County.  That’s two counties to the west of mine, Duluth Superior area.  Well how did it get over there?” 

On its own it spreads slowly, a few miles at a time.  But it can easily move more quickly…if someone carries infested firewood to another part of the state. 

“You may have a thousand people looking to use firewood.  It only takes one piece of infested ash, and that area has the ash borer," said Wisconsin DNR Forest Health Specialist Bill McNee.  

The DNR has been tightening the rules on moving firewood.  It’s illegal to transport it out of a county that has the ash borer, and anyone camping in a state park has to buy firewood within a ten mile radius.  McNee says it’s not perfect, but at least the tactic buys time. 

“We hope that it is helping," McNee said.  "It’s not going to prevent all spread, but at least if it cuts it down, at least we can preserve the ash longer.” 

Back at the 4-H class, High school student Anike from the Forest County Potawatomi tribe, is learning that basketry is a slow art. 

“It’s not, like learning it isn’t difficult," she explained.  "The steps when she teaches them to you are really easy to go by – but it’s just the actual process of weaving, it takes a while and if you’re not patient, that could be difficult.  I don’t have a lot of patience!”

Still, she’s more than halfway done with her basket, carefully woven with thin brown strips.  And the long, sometimes tedious process of basket making, beginning at the beginning with a whole tree – that’s part of the point. 

“It’s amazing the resources we have in trees alone, and how valuable a tree is," said Richard Ackley, one of the organizers of the 4H class through Forest County University of Wisconsin Extension.  Ackley says he wants to give the kids a hands-on experience that helps connect them to the natural world. 

“And I think our young kids, a lot of times they don’t get that knowledge," he said. "I mean they see trees, they read about trees in school.  But taking that tree from the woods, pulling it in here, pulling the bark and creating this – it’s a whole cycle that I think people are missing out on today.” 

Like many handmade arts, basket weaving with black ash faces other challenges in its preservation, even aside from the emerald ash borer.  It’s a traditional art among tribes in many parts of North America, but on the Bad River Ojibwe reservation where April grew up, the practice had all but died out.  She says some elders remember pounding black ash as kids, and there are photographs that indicate this kind of basket weaving happen at Bad River.  But April herself learned it from her husband, who learned it in a class at a folk school fifteen years ago.  Now she’s the only person from her reservation who maintains mastery of the process, but she says she still feels connected to a bigger tradition. 

“I think about all those other people out there, all those people before me that worked on black ash baskets, splint work," April described.  "I think about people all around the world that make baskets wherever they are.  And I think about how I’m also working at the table, my kitchen table, and my children are seeing their mother making something with her hands.  They’ve been out in the swamps with us, they've pounded right alongside me.  And how I’m helping to carry something on.” 

April says it’s discouraging to know that her life’s work could be undermined by an invasive beetle spread largely by forces beyond her control.  But she does what she can to help educate others about the ash borer, and hopes there will be enough ash trees left in northern Wisconsin to make baskets for years to come.