Tuesday, July 8, 2008


Guest essay today, because my brother Nate sent me this and I liked it so much I asked him if I could post it here. Nate is 31 and lives in rural Maine making various things with his own hands. One thing I really admire about Nate is how completely he considers and immerses himself in a principle or idea--not in the way of the fanatic or the dilettante, but with thoughtfulness and intellectual curiosity and conscious practice. Previously he has: originated a music/film festival (still going strong), farmed on Sauvie Island and then created his own organic farm in northern MN, and built brick stoves for rural Guatemalans, among other endeavors and adventures. While in Guatemala, he also got deep into basketry, which is the genesis of this piece, which is about much more than just baskets. (By the way, he made that basket pictured below.)

When I went to Guatemala this past winter to study basketry, I quickly learned two things: how to split twelve-foot-long caƱaveral (a native cane plant) with an oversized knife, and that handcrafts in the poor, Central American countries that I visited are virtually never hobbies-- they are simply ways to make a living. Thus, wherever I went, it was a bit difficult to explain that no, I did not necessarily want to use what I learned to make money, but rather that I enjoyed working with my hands, making useful things out of locally-available materials, and learning traditional crafts.

In our country, of course, it is largely reversed--while we have professional basket-makers, potters, bowl-carvers, weavers, knitters, and so on, by far the majority are home hobbyists, weekend artisans who engage their minds and hands creatively outside of work.

The danger in countries such as Guatemala is evident--as handcrafts become less economically viable, people quit doing them for a living. Crafts seem not to be considered a "free time" activity, and therefore they can disappear very quickly from the cultural collective knowledge. What was once an important skill is replaced in the span of a single generation by things that are shipped from far away and purchased at the store. Santa Clara la Laguna, where I made cane baskets, has traditionally been the basketry center of the western highlands, with most of the town churning out sturdy market baskets using a readily available, virtually inexhaustible material. With the entrance of the plastic basket and water-holding plastic tub, however, the demand has dropped precipitously, and now, as I heard time and again, hardly anyone makes baskets anymore, or at least not like they used to. The town has put down their special knives (my teacher and I couldn’t even find one to buy) and gone out to pick coffee, or more likely, moved to dangerous Guatemala City to look for employment, as there is suddenly very little available in town.

While we might like to think it idyllic to sit out front with the chickens running over our feet, under a shade tarp, making baskets to the smell of tortillas from inside, it is important to remember that the realities are different. Baskets are worth very little, ($2 to $5 each, depending on size), surely become monotonous to make after about ten years of the same design (which is how long my 16-year-old teacher had been at it), and offer no security or income during the rainy season, when the economy slows down and it is very difficult to get work done. But this needs to be taken within the greater context of societal change--whereas once people grew, made, and gathered much of what they needed, the newly imported Western economy has rapidly created a country of consumers. What was before resourcefully provided is now purchased, and hand-made artisan products simply cannot compete with global industry. I found that while I wanted to go to Guatemala to make baskets, they wanted to come to the USA and drive cars.

The two months I spent there highlighted the importance of preserving traditional crafts. As plastic, recycled clothing, and other products of greater Western industry make their way around the world, they quickly replace traditional, locally-based practices that formerly filled people's needs, maintained viable local economies, and formed the substance of regional, land-based culture. In the United States, we have the resources, and often the luxury, to maintain and practice these crafts outside of economic demands. With these hand skills-- sometimes simple, sometimes astonishingly complex--we give people the opportunity to reconnect with the age-old process of making things that they need, rather than plugging into the global, industrial, faceless, fossil-fueled supermarket of plastic. There is joy in this process, and in this we also find the first glimmer of culture.

I've heard it said, "When I hear the word 'culture,' I reach for my wallet." But there is a deeper meaning to the word, outside of "entertainment," which is culture's modern substitute. Culture is something, I've also heard said, that is a product of people, the land, and time. A traditional society develops its way of life over centuries, slowly incorporating the environment into its society--the plants, animals, trees, waterways, and topography that surround it. A northern society, like one found in Grand Marais, on the shores of Lake Superior, Minnesota, would develop an entirely different set of crafts, rituals, stories, and songs from one found, say, on the shores of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, ringed by volcanoes in a semi-tropical environment. Today, however, you can go to either place and find the same pickup, the same soda bottle, the same pop music on the radio, the same clothing, tin roof, cement block, and plastic bowl. If our society can find a way to preserve traditional methods of working with nature, we also teach people to interact with their natural environment, giving them new perspectives on what it means to live in a place. We offer an opportunity for genuine culture to rise anew--the stories, songs, costumes, ceremonies, and artisan crafts that are drawn from a unique landscape, adding richness, meaning, and greater awareness to our societies.

My daily-use bowl was made by a potter from my hometown, I carved my spoon from a nearby fallen apple limb, my harvest basket is woven from a black ash tree cut down in the swamp… These little things ground me in a place, ask that I take time to know the land and environment around me, and connect me with a community of people who add to what I can do. As I learn about the natural world at hand and how I can meet my needs from its resources, I am beginning to better understand how the larger ecosystem works as well. As I gain knowledge of my environment, I am more compelled to protect and preserve it. Through crafts, I am building a relationship between the people and land around me--I am rediscovering the seeds of culture in its truest sense.


Aunt Red said...

"As I gain knowledge of my environment, I am more compelled to protect and preserve it."

If only more people saw things this way. Unfortunately it's increasingly becoming the opposite.

jacaranda said...

I just stumbled upon your blog entry basket case. I have just come back from Vietnam and Cambodia. I have loved baskets and to see these people make baskets to hold anything and everything is a joy to behold.
I agree with you totally that so called westernization will make these crafts disappear and we will end up this homogenized societies where everything is the same.
To travel in America is to find the same stores,same food and the same culture. How boring that can be !