Out West student blog

The basket is in the roots

Katherine Nolan in the field, interning at the Santa Lucia Conservancy. Photo by Jane Weichert.

Katherine Nolan, '23
Hometown: Salt Lake City, Utah
Area of Study: Art History
Intern, Santa Lucia Conservancy

Katherine Nolan reflects on a summer of hands-on learning at the Santa Lucia Conservancy

“The basket is in the roots, that’s where it begins.”

I quoted these words — written in 1976 and published in the Journal of California Anthropology —in a paper last winter. I was writing about a Pomo basket at the Cantor Arts Center. In doing background research on indigenous California basketry, I encountered this sentiment many times: to truly understand the meaning of a basket, one must understand the relationship between the weaver and her materials. And further, one must understand the relationship between the materials and the earth itself — the way gathering roots for a basket is an act of care for the land. 

A Pomo basket. Sedge root coiled on a one-rod foundation, design in black-dyed bracken fern root or bulrush root, decorated with shell discs beads. Photo courtesy of UC Riverside, Special Collections.

That Pomo basket, like Ohlone baskets and many other indigenous California baskets, was woven primarily from sedge rhizomes. Central to the practice of weaving is the act of tending sedge beds through responsible harvesting. Counter to an extractive colonial mindset, collecting sedge rhizomes is not harmful to the plant, but actually beneficial if done correctly. Collection thins out the beds, preventing overcrowding and allowing rhizomes to grow longer and straighter, which makes for better baskets. Both sedge and weaver benefit from this relationship. A basket is not only a useful, beautiful, and skillful object, but a symbol of a deep and powerful relationship of reciprocity with the environment. 

I knew all of this theoretically. I wrote it all in that paper. But the basket is not in the words, the citations, or the cold museum cases. It is in the roots, it is in the plants, and most importantly it is in the hands of the weaver, digging in the dirt on her knees. 

When Linda Yamane picked me up in her car, we only had to drive a short distance from the headquarters of the Santa Lucia Conservancy, where I’ve been living and working all summer, to reach a sedge bed that she harvests from. Linda is a prolific Rumsen Ohlone artist, historian, and basket weaver. Throughout the summer, I have been developing a Story Map about Rumsen history for the Conservancy, which combines writing, photography, and mapping to highlight the Rumsen's ongoing relationship with this land. Linda has been an invaluable resource, providing artwork, wisdom, and hands-on experience. 

As I sat beside Linda, kneeling on a folded pillowcase to protect my knees from the sharp blades of the sedges and vicious spikes of the blackberry brambles, I realized just how much I had missed in my paper. Books and studies couldn’t capture the smell of sandy soil or the sound of the damp summer breeze rustling the willows above our heads. They couldn’t capture Linda’s kindness and her enthusiasm as she explained to me how sedges send out their runners to produce more plants, showing me minuscule details of the plant’s expert anatomy. Words couldn’t convey the magnitude of knowing that we were not far from the site of the Rumsen village Tucutnut, where Linda’s ancestors carefully tended the land for thousands of years. 

My time at the Conservancy has been characterized by moments like these, when classroom learning has been replaced and wholly usurped by real world, hands-on experience. I have seen how conservation and activism happen on—and sometimes in—the ground. My time here has been a leap far beyond writing papers alone in my dorm room, when I could only read and wonder about the basket and its origin in the roots

 

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