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A Meditative Coil: Conjuring Meaning through an Ancient Art

Editor’s Note: This beautiful, humble, lyrical work was created by Bethany Chaney, an inspiring friend, maker, strategic thinker, minimalist, advocate, and elected official.  Bethany, ever the considerate giver, gratified and honored my wife and me by gifting us one of her magnificent home-coiled baskets. Enjoy, savor, and share!

Coiled Brim

I wish I could say the ancient art of coiling baskets was passed on to me by the skilled hands of an elder, just as cooking, growing, or making other things have been cultural birthrights to me.  Kibbeh baked with cinnamon, uncontrollable spreads of mint, holiday wreaths of broad magnolia leaves: these are things that connect me with a rich, mixed heritage of Middle Eastern old country habits and the gifts of a Southern climate.  I feel entitled to them, a sense of belonging when I touch them.

Pine needle baskets aren’t one of those things, and with their own roots in ancient cultures as far away as the Philippines and as close as the Cherokee Nation, I feel undeserving but lucky to have learned a little bit about the craft.

Pinus palustrus, or Southern Longleaf Pine, is one of several species of evergreens with long, attractive needles that make for good basketmaking.  Its trunk, or heart pine, also makes sturdy beams and floors, the greed for which by the early 1930s had devastated vast forests throughout the Southeast.  Ice storms have been another bane, snapping the tops of tall, slender trees, especially north of the Carolina Sandhills.  And packs of feral hogs that roam the deep South also plunder the roots of young saplings.  Yeah, seriously.  Feral hogs.

That’s why it was surprising to find a few trees standing behind a modest home in Carrboro where I once lived.  Likely someone planted them there, keen on their ball-like tufts and extra large cones.  The needles fall generously, creating a thick, golden mat on early autumn days.  They are strong and long—I have found some that measured 21 inches—and they are very hard to rake.  Garden centers sell bundles for decorative mulch, but a homeowner with even a single tree never wants for them.

The Cherokee, Choctaw, Lumbee, and Adai Caddo are among the many North American tribes that once relied on longleaf pine forests for shelter, medicine, sealants, hunting, foraging, and crafts of various kinds.  The needles are pliable yet durable, and when dried, turned, and stitched with sinew or grass, are infinitely useful as trays and bowls, storage vessels, ceremonial effigies, and other household items.

The coiling technique is anchored by a simple whip stitch that can be adapted for more ornate and complicated ones.  Needle dyes, colorful threads, beads, feathers, and wrapped, geometric designs are just some of the ways the baskets can be made artful, if shape alone is not enough for the maker.

Coiling is found across the world and applied to everything from grasses to reeds to palm fronds and vines.  My forebears in Syria used the technique to bind wheat straw into bowls.  Gullah weavers use it for their famed sweetgrass baskets, adding to the interesting, complex confluence of Indian and African cultures in the South.

In this regard, basketmaking is an open source art.  No single culture has a lock on the craft despite names like Shaker and Nantucket and Creel.  Techniques have been shared across geographies based on the materials at hand, passed on and modified through the ages.  Still, when I read one article tracing the ‘popularity’ of pine needle basketry to Confederate ladies who, short on other materials due to blockade, used the time-honored technique to make hats for the men, I had to roll my eyes.  An essentially indigenous craft proliferated by Indian tribes across the South had become, at least in the literature, attributable to white ingenuity and resilience.

Ah, the irony.  A vernacular craft symbolic of human reliance on nature earned its popularity from the very people who would raze the forests and stewards from whence it came.

I’m a native Southerner but had never seen a pine needle basket until I ordered a book on-line.  That’s how the craft came to me, shamefully.  Not through a mother or grandmother or tribal elder.  On-line.  Still, I practice the craft as though it were naturally mine.  I don’t fancy myself a revivalist.  I’m not participating in a cultural preservation movement.  And no desire for atonement causes me to do it.

The process is simply meditative: curling, coiling, stitching, wrapping, waxing, and, finally, giving the basket away.  It is an intensely tactile and sensory experience, down to the earthy smell of the completed basket, just like the forest floor.  I am mindful while coiling.  Mindful of my hands, of the longleaf, of the people who have earned their living from it, and of all the ironies born through time and the lessons that come from even those.

I sometimes sell my baskets, but mostly I don’t want to.  Their value is not in my making them, but in their silent ability to conjure so much while I do.  It is their gift that is mine to share.

 

 Coil side

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