It was always going to begin with a basket. I wove slowly, savouring the vibrant solidity of the willow’s movements between my fingertips. The give and the take. I pushed down with the fleshy base of my thumb, guided by the creak of individual strands as they gathered towards this new form. Within their interrelation, a space slowly came to be held. My hands learnt with each successive turn, getting in the way of each other at first against the bouncing muddle of upright stems, but slowly finding their way towards positions that permitted some sort of flow. I checked the emergent pattern against itself: one step forward, two steps back.
Despite being new to the craft, I kept thinking to myself with each new stage of the process how familiar each act seemed, how intuitive. Scoring lengthways through the centre of a thick wand with the tip of the knife, then turning the blade — like turning a key — an opening is created. It’s just large enough that another wand, its own tip ‘slyped’ to a point for ease of passage, can slip through. Then, inserting three more to cross and conjoin in the same way, four wands pass through four others. Thus, a starting point is created for the form to coalesce around, although the weaving process itself feels like a meeting in the middle, unfolding long before and far beyond the hands of any one particular weaver.
The base of a circular stake-and-strand basket begins as a cross, or a compass. Four cardinal directions that once made, I placed on the floorboards and stood over momentarily, my bare feet tucked either side of its easterly pointing praxis. My arms stretched out in some elongation of intent and the compass became a calendar: a Celtic wheel where my own body marked the alignment of the planet, held between the balance of light and dark on this spring equinox. A moment in time, suspended.
Gathering the willow from Queens Park at dawn had felt like some sort of ceremony. As I clipped at the long stems with secateurs, I’d worked furtively, not knowing whether it was allowed — either for me to harvest from this public park, nor for such a ‘non-essential’ activity to be conducted at this time. But something of the harvesting took on its own methodical rhythm. As I stepped over looping arches of bramble to dip into the bushes, the first rays of sun streamed over the hill directly through the stands of willow, and my thoughts became solely emplaced within the act. With an array of straight lengths, the common osier, Salix viminalis, is known as the basket maker’s willow. A friend had tipped me off as to this particular willow’s whereabouts, assuring me that it would only be hacked back by the council at some other time in the year. A permission of sorts. Poised to spring into its full budding of male catkins and first leaf, the sliver of time left available for harvesting was now: two days before national lockdown began.
Searching with my hands, I scanned the array of stems for those that were long, straight and roughly of pencil, or finger thickness, taking pause before the first cut. What permission could be asked of the plant itself? What commitment could my harvesting offer in exchange for a year’s worth of growth? Within a quiet asking, there was a feeling of respect for this plant, and a conveying of my need. There was gratitude within my body, warm and urgent. As an early flowerer, willow provides a vital nectar and pollen source to bee species. Although coppicing can promote the longevity of certain trees, it would be hard to pitch my felt need against that of a bumblebee taking its first feed of the season. I reassured myself by only taking a fraction of what grew. I committed to using it well.
Once selected and snipped, the stems were gathered alongside the edge of the flowerbed. Long striations of matte yellow and glossy green, thinning to wispy tips clotted intermittently with soft grey catkins, they seemed both orderly and unruly once aligned as a collective. A heron arrived to grip the paved edge of the water just metres away from my activities and took pause momentarily: a shaggy shaman of the city. Standing, it surveyed the shallow pond and the resident ducks. Mallards, moving gently into their first foragings of the day glided around the presence of others, over-sized and stationary, whose backs were emblazoned with lettering largely ignored: ‘Please don’t feed us Bread.’ I stood silently in presence of this oddkin community, stroking a tiny tail of willow bud between fingers, until the heron uplifted and flew onwards, broadly winged in the direction of the city centre.
Bundled and tied together, the pile was hoisted to my shoulder and carried towards the park gates. Despite leaving the environment of their growth, the willow would remain uniquely matched to this site by the trace elements of heavy metals held within its cellular structure. Salix viminalis absorbs contamination encountered within its environment, even the cadmium, zinc, copper and lead often found within the polluted soils left behind by post-industrial sites common to urban locations. The pile that dug into my shoulder could perhaps reveal the subterranean history of the park, mapped within the internal channels of its xylem. Toxicity levels might be measurable within each soon to unfold leaf.
With each step that I took, the willow absorbed and exaggerated my movement, snaking and shuddering down its length. Back towards the flat, I walked down the middle of the road — these newly formed habits — in order to leave the pavement clear for the first joggers of the day. I remember how conspicuous I’d felt with my bundle, as if I might have just walked back into civilisation from a different scene, a different age, or a different landscape altogether: back from the wild commons.
The quietude of the street below silenced and unnerved contemplation of any such equinox significance, and I sank back down to the honeyed warmth of the wooden floor, cross in hand, stretching to read the next instruction over my shoulder from the screen. As the willow was freshly cut, all the instructions I’d read advised for me to wait for it to become semi-dry before weaving, in order to ensure a tightness of the final weave. But I couldn’t wait. I needed the action, the act of weaving, regardless of whether the outcome was to be at all optimal. I selected the two thinnest whips from the pile alongside my thigh. These were to be woven sun-wise around the central point, criss-crossing each other in a pattern. First one round, then the second. It was the third that stabilised the form, enabling its growth. The form of the base spiralled slowly into existence. My fingers learned how to splay open the central stakes, transforming the compass into a ships wheel as the strands wove around, circling and widening. My hands were at the helm of a vessel yet to be woven.
Perhaps the weave had already existed within me, chiming with something associatively known. Far older than any hedgerow, long prior to the arrival of this particular species to these lands in ancient times, perhaps before folklore or language itself could even recall. These were hand-skills that had emerged from lands that were thick and tangled with green, from within watersheds that were abundant with life: the ecologies of the past embedded within the techniques and origins of the craft. A craft which had evolved alongside us from the very beginning. A craft which had evolved us alongside it. Through the abundance of the living world and our primal instincts of experimentation and resourcefulness towards the gathering of seeds, roots and plants which could sustain us, the essential act of carrying more than our hands could manage alone enabled the creation of what was probably the first cultural device: a recipient.
You can have a plan, but then, just before you begin, the world changes.
You have your weaving materials prepared, lying next to your thigh, but now the weave of the world appears different. The conditions have changed. How will you meet the shifting form that you are presented with? How will your strands of possible experiencing meet these newly revealed planetary conditions? Suddenly you realise that the weave is not only in your hands.
After the immediate tending of base needs and reaching out to loved ones, I’d turned instinctively towards an act of making. In the aftermath of my own personal quarantine and physical recovery from the virus, the first thing that I put myself towards in the beginning of national lockdown, was the weaving of a basket.
Weaving the basket became a mode of being in relationship with uncertainty. The disruption of the larger social and political bodies, the overwhelming sense of continual unravelling of the construction of the world as we know it, the obvious brokenness of planetary systems. The fabric of the world was ripped open, the frayed ends were apparent in every direction. The ripping reverberated within each personal body, us each reeling with the implications of the virus.
In a time where tactility with the world was limited, and where physical contact with human relations was restricted, the act of weaving became my companion: a visceral, sensuous conversation between body and land. Working as a mode of self-soothing, it regulated my thought as I moved from left to right, crossing strands from within to without, around and around, utterly, dimensionally engrossed in a physical, holistic relationship with the multiple forces at play, like some ancient art of recuperation.
Was this an attempt for control during a time of uncertainty, or was it an immersion within a collaborative process, seeking an embodied way to understand the changing world? Basketry has long been associated with the thought process that has shaped human adaptations. What shape is required of us now?
I savoured the progression of tasks, learning from a beginner’s guide online, working my way up from the base, to staking up, to the ‘upsett’, then the sides, appreciating the written guidance and clear use of photos. Occasionally, I longed to be working alongside the presence of a physically present teacher, whose bodily knowledge I could unconsciously mirror, matching my own movements to their own embodied experience.
The materials exerted their own physical force and demanded complete attention. A dialogue emerged, whereby my own use of force and dexterity had to attune to the strength and flexibility of the materials: my own physicality and movements became guided by the materials in hand. Slowly, I found the form and shape for my own body in relation to the materials, modifying my movements in relation to catching a willow stake in my face unawares or breaking a wand through overestimating the angle of the weave I was hoping the willow to take. In the absence of a physically present human teacher, the willow became my teacher.
Held between my open legs, or up against my chest, the willow, in its emergent form as basket, shaped my own physicality and movement. My body attuned to its ways, to its flow. Within Celtic tree lore, the essential energy of the willow is recognised as the power to go forth, into the unknown, with greater confidence and trust in ourselves and our abilities. Imbued with the energy of the water it commonly grows alongside, willow is said to allow the emotions of our own watery bodies to come to the surface, moving through levels of sadness to facilitate healing. What of holding heavy metals within our bodies, or the ways of living alongside high levels of pollution, does it teach of those too? It teaches how to bend in relation to external forces without breaking, with a flow that finds a way towards possibility. Such is its tenacity for life that even when broken, it will continue to grow. What can we learn now about brokenness?
The tips, each precious burst of life, were gathered up from the floorboards after each session of weaving and trimmed at their base to become a handful, then a jarful in water. Budding slowly on the kitchen table between meals, the tiny soft tufts transformed before our eyes. A pattern emerged from beneath their downy hairs. Teardrop scales pushed yellow to the surface, erupting into globules of dusty pollen, clinging from anthers which thrust forward in their yellow stemmed growth, hovering out from the surface in an architecture that demanded the attention of pollinators. Other stalks sprang into leaf, their process unnoticed until suddenly present: multiple sheaves gathered at their base, unrolling back from their collective holding in a muted green. How long until these tips each transformed to leaf? I could sit and watch them each unfurl, my inability to move anchored by their steady transformation.
A honeybee flew in through the open window, surveying the thickly crumbed pollen of this table-top bounty. Weeks later, the bottom of the jar was filled with roots, coiling their barbed threads within the confinement of glassy space.
There is a shared investment into life now no longer being as we knew it. Without yet knowing what will have to be endured, or what will have to be passed through to get from where we are now to what we might become, we are momentarily suspended whilst everything transforms around us. If our plant teachers have guided us as humans, then the even more ancient life forms of viruses and pathogens have their shaping powers too.
The basket remained open in its weave for some days, the tall stakes left standing like archways. There was a part of me that wanted the process to remain open-ended. There was no desire to immediately tie off loose ends and for the process to be completed. For as long as the weave remained open, the activity remained continuous, whether I was directly engaged in it or not. I saw the weave whilst out walking: in the thicket of the blackthorn, full of simple blossom, tumbling itself in continuous line forms that prevented entry but for the tiny or the feathered, who sang buoyantly from within its protective arms. There it was again along the walkway of the River Kelvin, the force of the current having pushed fallen branches into the net of the flood barrier in an irregular but persistent weave. And again, in the long tendrils of weeping willow that seemed to invite my housemate and I to plait and coil its leafing strands into spring crowns to wear whilst walking alongside the river on a bright day. A gesture of playful solidarity and sensual alignment with the irrepressibility of the season, we walked against the current of solemnity for a time.
The thought of weaving a couple of lines got me out of bed on difficult days. Its open ends held me within a process of transformation as the news unfurled around us and we adjusted each day to the micro macro seismic shifts of the larger bodies of social and political change.
It was never about the basket itself. What did I even need a basket for? What did I have to gather, or hold? There was no wood to carry, or seaweed to forage; not even an outside washing line to inform a practical usage.
And yet, once I finally felt that the time was ripe for making the border weave to close the rim of the basket, there was a definite pleasure in the movement towards completion. The stakes were first folded down, so that they splayed outwards from the form, radiating outwards like the sun. As each stake was woven and tucked into the weave, an exactness began to take form, until— with the final stake persuaded to slot into position, and the ends snipped off, the form was complete.
The finished basket suddenly had an energy of its own, filling the room with a brightness and shifting between associative forms as I witnessed it throughout the day. First, the stakes became a circle of people who were standing, facing each other with their arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders: a collective of intimacy, an emblem of mutual aid. Or was a partially slatted vessel, upended? A ribcage, hollow without its associated respiratory system of tubing and accompanying lung bags. Empty from its fight for breath.
Later it was a nest that I could almost crawl within, to wrap my creaturely self around my human self for the duration of this lockdown, further contained and shielded from the shifting uncertainties of the wider world. Too big for such a manoeuvre, I lay beside it instead, spooning my body around its form and looking through the weave into an interiority partially obscured. Glimpsed through the corner of an eye, its architectural scale became monumental: a gathering place of significance, situated in the ancient wildwoods of a world still to be woven. Porous and permeable, it promised the leaching of spores and seeds from its lifeform as it settled to take root within the carpeted, forest floor of my living room, within my living body. And as it dried, the willow bark wrinkled like the ageing of human hands, craggy and wizened; hands that were unable to be held or comforted whilst dying. The stakes strained then loosened like tendons weathering against the passing of time, but still the form held.