Monday, August 31, 2009
Birch Bark and Spruce Root Harvest
Late Summer Greetings to you, Kind Readers! I've recently become interested in Native American basketry, some fine examples of which are crafted from finely woven spruce root fiber by some of the tribes of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Below (center, front) is a spruce root basket, possibly of Tlingit Indian manufacture, from around the turn of the century:
Here in the Northeast, forms of spruce root basketry may also be found, but the abundance of the Birch tree facilitated the construction of a wide variety of vessels from that tough but uniquely paper-like bark. Accordingly, I developed a strong desire to try my hand at harvesting and utilizing examples of both materials.
A journey to the shores of the great Lake St. Catherine in Vermont has been in the works for some time, and I determined that the prospects for my harvest should be agreeably met in that region, and I was not disappointed. The Birch trees seem to thrive on the periphery of areas that have been cleared for the purposes of quarrying slate; there are several such areas in the region. While it is possible to harvest bark from a live Birch tree without killing the tree, there was no shortage of fallen Birches upon which the bark remained as clean and viable as on any living specimen, and so I harvested as much as I pleased from those, and later determined that, for the sake of comparison, I would be remiss for failing to judiciously extract a harmless quantity from a few live trees as well.
The method for harvesting from a tree in either state is the same: a sharp utensil is drawn around the circumference of the trunk, cutting deeply enough to enable the release of a sufficient thickness of the papery outer bark while avoiding (on a live specimen, that is) cutting so deeply as to damage the inner layers of living bark. If a two-foot wide section of bark is desired, then a second cut is made in the same manner two feet from and parallel to the original. Finally, one straight line is cut connecting the two circular cuts. If these cuts are made in the spring while the live tree's sap is "flowing" apparently the bark sheet will fairly "pop" right off the trunk. At other times, the bark holds on a bit more snugly, though careful peeling will generally result in a more or less intact sheet. On a dead tree, the bark strip will generally release from the trunk with great ease and an intact sheet is procured with little exertion. In the photo below I am releasing a segment from a dead Birch; the dark red layer is a film of decomposing trunk matter that is easily peeled away in a neat layer revealing the many layers of perfect, pinkish birch bark beneath:
For crafting purposes, nice flat sheets of bark are easiest to work with. Bark taken from a dead Birch tree will want to assume the shape of the trunk from which it was stripped, ie: round, while bark taken from a live tree will, very soon after harvest, curl up very tightly indeed. I attempted to thwart both situations by weighting stacks of the bark in a shallow part of the lake to soak and soften for a few days. I then stacked them neatly on the dock and covered them with flat pieces of slate which I further weighted with stones until the sheets were more or less dry. This worked very well with the bark taken from dead trees, while the bark taken from the live trees, having not dried sufficiently during the pressing, curled right back up during the journey back to Providence. I have read that soaking the rolls in hot water for a period will allow the bark to relax sufficiently to be worked with. Below are some images of the bark sheets being stacked and pressed, and an image of a nicely trimmed, dry, and more or less flat stack of useable bark!
Next, a suitable stand of Spruce trees (Black Spruce, in this case) was located, and the topsoil scuffed up a bit revealing the long, thin roots that run parallel to the surface of the ground. In this particular operation I will not claim to be anything other than a novice, and educated myself prior by studying Judy Kavanagh's excellent tutorial. I will not attempt to rewrite something that she has done so well, but simply add my own notes and experiences in case someone might find them useful. In short time, several sufficiently long-ish roots were teased from the ground. I was quite unsure how this project would play out, and so erred on the side of gathering too few, rather than amassing an unwieldy cache that I was unable or unwilling to process completely.
I washed the dirt off my little bundle of roots and, following this separate account of the steps by which spruce roots are prepared for basket weaving by the Tlingit Indians, roasted the roots briefly over a small fire to char the root bark. The root bark is quite a bit thicker than I had thought, however, and as I commenced to pull the roots through a notched piece of wood to pull the bark off (pictured below), found that the surface of the root bark had been but lightly charred, and some effort was still required to strip off the rest, though I do think the heating loosened the bark a bit and made the stripping easier.
Because the root bark was thicker than I had anticipated, some of the roots that I had thought might be too thick were actually perfectly sized once stripped, and some of the roots that looked fine right out of the ground, ended up being too thin and flimsy to use after the bark was stripped (and several of those broke in the process of stripping). Below is the same bundle pictured previously after the root bark was stripped:
The neat part about processing spruce roots is that they are not used whole, but rather split in half, then in quarters, so that a four foot strip of root, after splitting, yields 16 feet of spruce fiber! The roots split fairly easily, though it does take some concentration and skill to keep the split right down the middle. In the photo below, I have split the root in half, and am in the process of splitting one half again into two quarter strips. I think an accomplished basket maker may split these quarters down even further, but that greatly surpasses my skills, and I was happy with my bundle of quartered spruce root strips!.
My strips are a bit lumpy and uneven looking, and I cant imagine working them into a basket, but I do think they will make excellent binding material for birch bark containers! You will have noticed by clicking on Judy's link that her tutorial on spruce roots is part of a larger tutorial on building a birch bark canoe; spruce roots are the traditional material used to bind together canoes! I certainly didn't harvest enough of either material to build a canoe, nor would I be competent or patient enough to assemble such a fine vessel even if I had, but the tutorial is very interesting, and I may like to try to build a miniature birch bark canoe at some point. Want to see what I did with some of that birch bark? Have a look at my blog post on birch bark boxes!