If You Can Make A Basket, You’ll Never Go Hungry

A few years ago when I was at the Maine Common Ground Fair I was lucky enough to see a demonstration of traditional Passamaquoddy basketmaking by Gabriel Frey, a 14th generation Passamaquoddy basket weaver.
I didn’t know it at the time but if you were a member of the Passamaquoddy people in Maine your understanding of the world would include knowing that your very first and oldest ancestors emerged from the bark of black ash trees.

A traditional saying of the Passamaquoddy is ‘If you can make a basket, you’ll never go hungry.’
The black ash (sometimes called brown ash) tree is also called ‘the basket tree’ and it is the material for these people to craft vessels to gather food in, use for fishing, and for gifting, sale, and trade. In knowing how to craft a basket you can use it directly to feed yourself and your community but in gifting the basket you might deepen a relationship with someone who might help feed you in the future. And of course straight up exchange is another way that the basket ensures that the maker would never go hungry.
But also the basketmaker and their people might also never go spiritually hungry since they will have to be in constant relationship with their ancestor, the black ash tree, but also will have to keep a constant eye on the environment that the tree is growing in.
The tree is a physical manifestation of the wealth of the Passamaquoddy and yet the rules governing which trees can be taken down is unforgiving.
Not near a stand of cedar trees? Can’t take it down. The black ash needs a relationship with cedar to be a good weaving tree.
Not growing green moss on the bark? Not strong enough to support other life yet.
Has a bird nest in the branches? It’s a home and it can’t be taken down.
Has many branches near the top? It’s a shade tree and you can’t take it down because the forest needs shade.
Standing next to other black ash trees? Will hurt the other trees when it falls, can’t take it down.
So the tree that can be taken down must be straight, near cedar trees but not too near, has green moss on it, doesn’t have bird nests in it, and isn’t too close to other black ash trees. Whew! Only about 10% of black ash trees even qualify to be able to be cut down. And once one has been selected gifts are given to the tree along with prayers that the trees will keep growing. Then the tree is carried back to the camp, wrapped in a blanket, to allow the ancestor to rest, and in a few days is turned into strips and woven into a basket. This is the soul of sustainability.
Gabriel told me about all this and showed me some of his work and some of his skill and it is remarkable and it speaks deeply to the values that we endeavor to live up to here at Primal Derma.
To recognize that the non-human world might make it possible for you to live and that the taking of a life has a cost and part of that cost is the effort of making something beautiful with it that might feed the world somehow…well, its good to know that there are models of this happening in the world.
Do take a look at Gabriel’s work at gabrielfreybaskets.com or his cousin, Jeremy Frey’s, work at jeremyfreybaskets.com. You won’t find more beautiful and worthy labors of remembrance from Maine than from these two men.
With any luck you are finding Primal Derma reminding you about this old deal that the living world might have struck with human beings a long time ago.
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PS – here are some images of Gabriel’s incredible work. Stunning.

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