Jennifer Lee: The tree bark basket-maker

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PLAINFIELD — Trees surround Jennifer Lee's rustic home, but harvesting their bark for the baskets populating her shelves isn't an on-demand activity.

"There's a season to taking the bark off a tree," Lee said, while sitting near a fire on a wet Monday afternoon. "The season can be a month, three months. It varies every year. And also in that three-month or one-month ... season is a time when you can make certain baskets really well. You might be able to get it off the tree in three months, but there might only be one month when you can make the bends and the curves that I make for these traditional baskets."

For the next two Sundays, Lee will hold workshops at Bartholomew's Cobble demonstrating how she goes about creating those receptacles. In "Bend and Bind: Tree Bark Basket making," participants will craft their own baskets using "a single piece of tree bark harvested in the Berkshires," according to The Trustees of Reservations' website. In the Feb. 4 session (the Jan. 28 workshop has sold out), attendees will make a larger basket (and pay more at sign-up), according to the website. Both workshops will involve participants looping spruce roots through holes in the bark and using red willow or arrowwood for the baskets' rims.

"All these materials are wild; it's not like a standard basket, where your splints are cut to a certain length and width. Every branch of red willow is different. Every piece of root is different. Every bark is different," said Lee, who has been making baskets since the 1980s. "And that's the beauty of it. ... People come out with bark baskets that look really different. They show individual style."

While the materials may be atypical for most, the craft will feel familiar to some.

"It's sewing. You're sewing bark with roots, so when you make a hole in the bark with an awl, the hand awl, you've got to put the root in the hole," Lee said.

The 63-year-old Plainfield resident learned about basket-making while researching Native Americans and her own genealogy in the early 1980s. After combing through her grandmother's wooden box of notes about her genealogy, Lee began calling town halls, inquiring about birth, marriage and death certificates, and visiting libraries. She traced her lineage to the Pequot and Narragansett in the Northeast, though she doesn't technically belong to either group.

"I can prove I'm a descendant, but I don't meet the enrollment criteria for the Narragansett or the Pequot nation," she said.

Like it was for many Native Americans in the Northeast, bark was vital to the Narragansett and the Pequot.

"Bark is for the Northeast woodlands what bison is for the Plains tribes," Lee said. "Bark is what covered our wigwams and made our canoes. All our harvesting containers, storage containers, even sacred writings are written on bark and were hidden in caves, so those memory scrolls were bark. Baby carriers were bark."

Bark baskets were central, too.

"That's the original paper bag, harvesting container, storage container," she said.

Lee starts the process of making hers when certain flowers blossom.

"It's time to go get the bark," she said of when that happens. "My whole family helps me — my grandkids, my kids — and we take out trees that need to come down because they're shading the garden or would be good to come down. And then I've got my neighbor, who is phenomenal at taking trees down in a thick forest."

In addition to the bark, Lee uses the rest of the tree for firewood. 

White pine and ash fill some of the densely wooded three acres she lives on in Plainfield. Another type of bark is particularly effective, though.

"Birch bark is really an awesome material. Birch bark is some of the finest, strongest, most flexible," she said.

Lee moved to her Berkshires home more than 30 years ago after living in Worthington for a couple of years. Prior to that, she had been in California, living in a tepee.

"I was living my childhood dreams," she said.

She hadn't yet researched her family's history.

"When I lived in the tepee in California, I did not know I had native heritage. I was just following my heart," she said.

She moved to the Berkshires to "be in the country." Here, she can harvest red willow at any time of year and, when the ground is thawed, scavenge for spruce roots.

Lee feels that there is an appetite for her workshops for a couple of reasons.

"One is, I think that with our computers and smartphones, there's something very healing about touching materials right in front of you and working with them, and sitting next to other people that are working with them," she said.

The other pertains to her belief that people are beginning to appreciate Native Americans' different cultures after generations of discrimination.

"My colonial ancestors, they would always talk about things coming from Europe as being, 'Oh, wow, that's the real stuff,' because they didn't understand or recognize native people, first of all, as full-on human beings. And then there was such a deliberate effort to outlaw anything [Native American]," she said.

Lee's workshops are another occasion for her to share what she has learned about Native Americans' diverse histories, a daily part of her life.

"It's unending," she said.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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