A traditional craft, threatened by the ash borer

  • Karen Johnson, right, and Olivia Limlaw, 17, left, pound a black ash log to create splints for basket making as Virginia Barlow, middle, strips bark to prepare a second log for pounding at Johnson’s home in Washington, Vt., Wednesday, June 3, 2020. The group began work on the logs last September on Antique Hill at the Tunbridge Fair, and stored the wood in Johnson’s pond over the winter. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Sue Lenfest, of South Woodstock, left, shows her aunt, Marguerite Johnson, how she is lacing a rim onto an ash basket to bind its ribs together at Woodstock Terrace in Woodstock, Vt., Tuesday, January 21, 2020. “People love to watch,” said Lenfest who brings her baskets on visits to see friends and family. “It’s a community thing,” she said. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • After pounding a black ash log to separate a growth ring, Olivia Limlaw, 17, of Corinth, peels a splint up from the surface at the home of Karen Johnson in Washington, Vt., Wednesday, June 3, 2020. Limlaw worked around the log with Johnson, Wendell Durham, 12, and Virginia Barlow, to complete one full growth ring that afternoon. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Sue Lenfest splits a raw ash splint into the appropriate thickness for one of her baskets, revealing a satiny sheen on the wood at her home in South Woodstock, Vt., Thursday, May 15, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Sue Lenfest wets the black ash splints of an Adirondack pack basket to make them more flexible when working at her home in South Woodstock, Vt., Thursday, May 15, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • During her multiple weekly visits to see her aunt Marguerite Johnson, 89, right, who has dementia, at her assisted living facility, Sue Lenfest, of South Woodstock, left, would take her basket in progress as a way to engage Johnson, and other residents of the memory care unit. Lenfest encourages her aunt to pull a strip of ash taught while reinforcing the rim of a basket in Woodstock, Vt., Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. Johnson died in February. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/4/2020 9:35:19 PM
Modified: 7/4/2020 9:35:14 PM

Jeanne Brink, a master Abenaki basket maker, grew up in Berlin, Vt., and now lives in Barre, not far from the Orange County line, where an early Vermont sighting of the destructive emerald ash borer was made in February 2018.

The discovery came amid her growing concern over a decline and decreased availability of the materials she uses in her craft, which include black ash, a tree whose survival in the region is threatened by the insect.

“It’s in danger,” Brink said. “That’s the basis for the whole basket, and you can’t have a whole basket made of sweet grass, because it has to have the ash as the ribs.”

Sweet grass, which is braided, then interwoven with the ash and remains aromatic when dried, is also increasingly difficult to find. The land in Vermont where Brink used to harvest the tall, smooth grass has been purchased by a new owner and posted. She said the construction of interstate highways and housing developments has taken over much of the land where the native grass could be found.

The ash splints that form those basket ribs are made by pounding a black ash log with a mallet or the butt of an ax. This compresses the tree’s spring growth rings, allowing the denser, later growth to separate into thin strips that can be peeled off in layers. It’s hard work, and Brink has had to look farther afield to neighboring states to source the splints in recent years, buying them from craftsmen in Essex, Vt., and Maine.

She splits those raw splints into finer strips and sometimes dyes them for the fancy baskets like those her grandmother made for a living.

“Every basket is for a purpose,” she said. Some hold handkerchiefs, others trinkets, sewing materials or feathers. “But they’re not potato baskets.”

Though she grew up with knowledge of the craft from her grandmother and great aunt, who lived in Odanak, an Abenaki reservation in Quebec, it wasn’t until her late 30s that Brink undertook a two-year apprenticeship with basket maker Sophie Nolett to continue the tradition.

She has now taught 26 apprentices herself, all of them Abenaki. She had vowed to Nolett that she would train only people who share their native heritage. (She does not fault non-Abenaki basket makers, “as long as they’re not selling them as Abenaki-made.”)

Brink has not been approached by a potential apprentice in a few years now and fears that young people lack the patience necessary for the craft.

“You can’t do instant gratification with basket making,” she said. “It’s kind of like a fight to keep your tradition going.”

Karen Johnson, of Washington, Vt., coordinates basket-making demonstrations at the Tunbridge Fair each September, and has employed Brink in years past to share her knowledge of the craft and its traditions. A retired special educator, Johnson started learning about making baskets over 30 years ago, discovering how to pound ash at that time. She has used the activity to engage students.

“I’m not an Indigenous basket maker,” she said, but she has a great respect for those who are and dedicate themselves to the time, effort and creativity of the craft. “There’s a big time investment in using the ash.”

Johnson said she has always tried to use indigenous materials like ash and maple saplings in her baskets but has also combined them with rattan. When she became aware of the threat to black ash — also called brown ash — by the emerald ash borer, she returned to the practice of pounding ash. She enlisted her husband, Bob Capobianco, a logger who often uses horses in his work, to cut a tree for her to use in demonstrations at the fair, for her own use in baskets and sharing with friends.

“They’ve always been one of my favorite trees,” Capobianco said of ash in general. “They’re so stately and they grow above the canopy.”

The emerald ash borer, named for its green hue, originated in northeast Asia and has destroyed tens of millions of trees in the U.S. and Canada, scientists say. Locally it’s been spotted in Plainfield, Croydon and New London. Officials predict it will continue to wreak havoc on forests.

Though Capobianco has not seen the ash borer on his land, the property sits just outside a cluster of areas at high risk for infestation. He has cut some mature ash trees, leaving the majority of them in hopes that some will show a resistance to the pest over an anticipated 10 years of decline.

“Those trees are kind of calling out,” Johnson said. “It’s almost, use it or lose it.”

On a day in early June, the time when ash borers emerge and fly in search of new host trees, Johnson and friends Virginia Barlow; Olivia Limlaw, 17; and Wendell Durham, 12, all of Corinth, pulled two black ash logs out of her pond, where they had been stored over the winter, to begin pounding again.

“It’s a real community event,” Johnson said. “It fosters a connection between skilled and unskilled, old and new.”

Another basket maker in Johnson’s community is Sue Lenfest, of South Woodstock. She began making baskets of willow and dogwood when working for Farms for City Kids at Springbrook Farm in Reading, Vt. She needed containers for students visiting the educational farm from urban areas to bring produce back from the garden. The students competed for a chance to use that first basket she made.

Lenfest followed up that effort by taking workshops and attending basket festivals. She calls black ash “the silk of basket-making material,” and the wood she currently works with comes from a log cut by her uncle from the family’s land in South Woodstock. “This basket making has taught me patience,” she said of the painstaking process.

A fine art painter by training, that first basket she made coincided with a desire to make art that does “more than just hang on walls.”

“It’s an art,” she said, but the baskets “travel and go places with people.” She often studies old baskets to copy their designs and methods. She plans to repair a damaged ash basket that was used daily by her great-grandmother.

Last winter, Lenfest spent several days a week visiting her aunt, Marguerite Johnson, who was suffering from dementia, at her assisted living facility in Woodstock. She took baskets to work during the visits and was able to achieve a deeper connection with her aunt by enlisting her help with the simpler parts of the process. Johnson, who was also an artist and painter, showed a fascination with the material and lit up while engaged in the work. Her aunt died in February, and Lenfest is grateful for the time they were able to spend together.

Lenfest said it would be devastating to lose the black ash to the emerald ash borer.

“It would be such a shame for that tree to be gone,” she said.

An ash tree takes about seven years to grow to a size that it can be harvested for splints, Brink said. And she never takes without putting something back as an offering. When she harvests any material to use in her craft she will leave birdseed, tobacco or dried corn as “a way of saying, ‘Thank you.’ ”




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