Baskets

The Brain Harvest by Ken Nash has been published by Equus Press.

I’m pretty used to telling this story now. Not a week goes by when someone doesn’t see my sign on the side of the road, come wandering up the path and ask me about the baskets. They are always amazed by what I show them. When they ask about my company, I explain that it’s just me, that I make them on my own. They often appear incredulous. So I tell them this story. It’s about meeting Olaf Grünbaum, the old basket maker, and how it changed everything I thought about baskets – everything I thought about the world, really.

The year before I met Grünbaum, I had started working for Global Basket International (GBI) the world’s largest, most powerful basket maker.

“You’re lucky you’re starting in Bark,” said my coworker Michelle. “Most new hires start in Straw and Pine Needles.” I hadn’t thought of it that way. I had expected to start out warping and wefting my way as a weaver, not as a sorter, but I had no idea of the scale and complexity of the basket industry.

My six years of University studies hardly prepared me for the world of big business, with its hierarchical corporate structure, government oversight, fluctuating domestic and global sourcing, logistics management and waste control. I had graduated in the top five of my class. My master’s thesis “The Three Problematic Odd-Grid Patterns of Celtic Frieze Knots” was published in the highly respected Weave Theory and Practice Quarterly. Professors gushed about my work on curvatures in six-fold symmetries. But all that knowledge and education mattered very little at GBI, where I systematically separated bark shavings by quality, shade, texture and weight day after day. Yet how could I complain? I had beaten out dozens, if not hundreds, for my
postition. Many of my former classmates were doing time spinning flax or braiding rugs, if they were lucky to be working at all.

My supervisor, Mike Samuels, entered the room, calling out instructions, wireless communication headset clipped to his shaved and polished scalp and GPSX Time Tracker in hand.

“Dawkins,” he said to me. “Personnel needs you downstairs ASAP. Paperwork.”

“I was just there this morning,” I said.

“That was for your security clearance and the non-disclosure agreement. You still gotta do your I-49’s, your Q-14’s and your G-NAT’s.” I had no idea what he was talking about.

“Good luck,” said Michelle, “Those G-NAT’s are a bitch.”

I set aside the three lengths of Vancouver Flat Ash I was working with, brushed the splinters off my tie and headed downstairs to Personnel to complete yet another set of forms.

In all, during my first at GBI, I probably spent as much time completing paperwork, attending staff meetings, conferences and motivational seminars as I did do actual sorting. The sorting itself was mind numbing. Tedious. All those theories I had learned – evolution of aboriginal weaves, chromatic strip pattern arrays, the five genera of isonemal patterns – all that which was so deeply ingrained in my memory was quickly becoming nothing more than vague recollections, overshadowed by my increasing skills in Excel spread sheets, SQL Servers, matrix barcoders and Power Point presentations.

“You’re doing a bang up job, Dawkins,” Samuels told me during one of my quarterly performance assessments. “Extremely low sorting error. Top notch speeds. Good Punctuality. Areas to improve on…I suppose those would be communication and en-thu-see-asm, don’t you?”

“I suppose so,” I replied.

“You’re a good worker, Dawkins,” he said, nodding his headset toward me and checking the timer on his memory pad. “I have faith you’ll make bonus next quarter. Perhaps a promotion to Coiling by the end of the year, eh?” It was basically the same review I’d received every time – that elusive golden loom of bonus and advancement dangled before me once again.

It did not come as a great surprise for most of us when the layoffs came. The war in the Near East and Central Asia had dried up imports of some of our most utilized resources: Cambodian Vine Rattan, Sinai Braided Sea Grass, Singapore Cane, Burmese Celery Hemp, Uyghur Cave Moss… Nearly half the staff in various departments lost their jobs, including a number of managers like Samuels. Michelle, by that time, had advanced to Handle Binding and, with her father’s connections to the company’s CFO, her continued employment at GBI was virtually assured.

“This sucks,” Michelle told me at lunch on my final day. “No advance notice. No severance. You’d think the world’s largest basket maker could do better than that. Maybe you’re better off getting out of this sinkhole. Someone with your skills and brains is bound to do okay no matter what.”

“Thanks for saying that,” I said, picking through my plate of Panda Express curry noodles. “But it’s hard to say what will happen. Nobody is hiring and the recruiters have a six month wait before they’ll even talk to you.”

Michelle stopped gnawing at her spring roll and looked thoughtfully for a moment. “Listen, Ted, I don’t know if this would help you or –”

“Yes?”

“Well, I have an uncle, a great uncle, who does baskets.”

“‘Does baskets’? What does that mean? He designs them? Exports them? Markets them?”

“He makes them. All by himself. I know that sounds crazy. But everyone says his work is really fantastic. I mean – I’m not sure what he can offer, but maybe he can help set you up in business for yourself.”

Business for myself? The idea spun around in my head and it felt good. Watch my own business grow and expand until maybe one day it could actually rival GBI for market dominance. Crush them. Reduce GBI to nothing more than a minor domestic player in the basket game. Yes, it was a crazy, quixotic idea. But it was worth at least meeting the old man and seeing his setup.

To call Grünbaum a renegade is not actually correct. The thought never crossed his mind to join or rebel against the corporate world. Orphaned at a young age, he was taken in by the Tsimshian Indian community where he was eventually initiated into the tribe and taught their customs and crafts. For them, basket weaving was a sacred act. The Great Goddess had spun the world into existence and each basket they produced was a recreation of that divine act.

Upon reaching manhood, Grünbaum set out to discover the world. In the Kashmir valley, beneath the Himalayas, he learned to die and lace young willow twigs and monsoon grass into great matrimonial baskets. From the African Zulus he was taught how tightly weave the waxy ilala palm fronds into geometric patterns to create watertight vessels. From the Inupiat in Alaska he learned to work with black plankton fibers removed from the mouths of baleen whales, then how to carve ivory walrus tusks to be used as handles and ornamentation. From the Cherokee in Oklahoma he learned the challenging double-weave rivercane technique and their remarkable 67 different words for basket. He harvested the bark from black ash in the Adirondacks and learned from the Shaker community how weave work together with prayer. From the Japanese he learned to design and hanakago, bamboo flower baskets. They also taught him how to weave and lacquer bamboo into a menagerie of animal and insect shapes. In the Peruvian rainforest, he climbed Chambira trees to collect the spiky young palms that they boiled, died and braided with beads. From the Greeks he learned the ancient skills of the Canephorea, weaving wool baskets for sacrificial ceremonies. In Bavaria he learned the art of the Travel Basket, or Reisen Korb, which are made to carry provisions as well as Time itself. With each culture he learned new materials, techniques and designs, as well as the stories, myths and legends that went along with them.

Eventually, he assimilated all these new techniques and ideas into his own method of working, perfecting a type of seven-fold symmetry, which is highly unique. (All this he told me upon our first meeting, while sipping tea brewed from fresh mint and ginger he’d collected in the forest around the old renovated and modernized hunting lodge that was his home and workshop.) I could hardly believe what he was telling me. Apparently he managed to do all these years of extensive R&D without investors, endowments, fellowships or grants.

I came prepared with a list of questions, such as “What is your production rate?” “What channels of distribution do you use?” “What percentage of gross sales do you take?” Grünbaum just smiled and laughed away my questions.

“My boy, my boy…You need to forget all your old ideas about baskets, all that they taught you in school and business. They teach you how to weave empty baskets. I will teach you how to weave baskets that are full – full of life, full of spirit. With such baskets you will never want for anything.”

“Okay, sure. But who does your marketing? Do you have a web site?”

“Listen to me,” said old Grünbaum, resting a hand upon my shoulder. “I know it may come as a surprise to you, but during my life I have never sold one single basket.”

What was this? Never sold a basket? And I had traveled six and a half hours to bum fuck nowhere to find this crazy old bastard thinking he could offer me some sort of concrete advice. Never sold a basket? Never made a single dollar from his work? How did he survive?

Grünbaum smiled and nodded his head as if reading my thoughts. “I know this is difficult for you to comprehend and I don’t expect you to understand just now. It took me nearly twenty years to learn the secret, but I am ready to pass on my knowledge if you’re willing to be patient and learn.”

“I’m listening,” I said, though thinking it may not be too late in the season to get temporary employment as a bark shaver on a birch farm.

“Look around you,” said Grünbaum. “Everything here was provided for me by the spirits in return for creating soulful works of beauty.”

Grünbaum explained that by simply creating his baskets, all that he needed to live appeared to him, as if brought during the night by magic elves. Right. Sure. That was it for me. I was about to leave, but then, at the far end of the the room – what was this? A basket, surely. But unlike none I’d ever seen.

Grünbaum acknowledged my gaze. “Come, I will show you,” he said, rising unsteadily from his chair. “It’s nearly complete.”

I could a scarcely imagine anything more complete. It was as if a seven young willow boughs had become possessed by a Bach sonata, entwining themselves amidst air, light and variegated organic matter in an apparently seamless precision. The basket was died with the blood of cranberries, myrtle and black walnut, then threaded with gold hairs of straw and hemp, pale asphodels and a dark mottling of pond grass which danced sprightly in and out of its lyrical wicker staff.

“Stay,” he said, as he took his seat before the worktable and began threading more asphodels between nearly invisible gaps in the warp of the basket. “I will show you everything.”

.
And he did. Or as much as he could during those nine months before death’s irreversible uncoiling of life from bone.

Grünbaum worked tirelessly from sunrise until sunset, gathering materials from the forest floor and high up into the trees; peeling, drying and pounding out barks and plant fibers; boiling the blooms, berries and nuts for dies; tapping the trees and distilling plants, bark and insects into resign; sanding, glazing and varnishing materials; and slowly, patiently weaving together the great lot of resources into his amazing baskets.

He worked with a calm, focused intensity and showed amazing attention to every aspect of the design. Even a basket interior – something no one else in the industry gave much thought to – was painstakingly detailed.

“In the fourth dimension,” Grünbaum enigmatically explained, “the exterior and interior are simultaneously visible.” His interior weaves were often comprised of spiralling patterns of heather and mayweed, finished off with a soft luster of wax from local beehives or carnauba palms.

Heather was perhaps his favorite foliage – this for its range of violaceous colors, as well as its pliability and unique taste. He worked it like a painter applying oils. He ran its sinuous stems through his long, grey whiskers, wetting them with his lips, before threading them in and out of the white willow framework.

It’s no wonder a single two-handled carrying basket could take up to eight weeks to complete. Sometimes longer. Then Grünbaum would spring to his feet, telling me to get ready. This was the moment. This was what it all lead up to. A sort of christening ceremony. A ritual. I don’t remember what he’d called it. But for Grünbaum it was the most crucial part of the whole creative process.

By evening we were ready for the ceremony. We’d hurry outdoors no matter what the weather. The radiant coastal sun would set amidst a great unraveling of light. Pink and gold threads of luminosity slowly licked their way through the expanding shadows of fern, grass, lichen and leaves. As the sun reeled in these gossamer strands, Grünbaum and I hurriedly amassed a large pyre of fallen timber, forest detritus and unused work materials. Once lit, this mighty bonfire would shoot blue sparks and white flames high into the night sky. The light cast forth would set loose the silhouettes of plants and trees. Shadows danced ecstatically amongst the cedars to the choral pop, hiss and snap of the fire’s conflagration.

Once the fire was in full blaze, old man Grünbaum would bend on his knees, bow his head and chant a prayer, thanking the spirits for all they had provided. Then—I almost fell over with astonishment the first time I saw it—he would take the basket, the fruit of his long weeks of labor, and toss it high into the air. The basket would ascend, spinning into the night sky, then stop amidst the stars for a moment, before plummeting toward the fire. Flames reached up like arms drawing the basket into its glowing red embers. At such times, I would feel my breath being sucked out of me, as if I too were being drawn in by those ravenous flames.

I’d watch in amazement as the fire quickly devoured the delicate flesh of the basket. Soon nothing remained but a cage of charred ribs, which then collapsed upon itself. The oddest sensation would come over me each time.

Grünbaum called it a feeling of weightlessness. “Permanence and continuity are not as you imagine them to be,” he told me. “When you start to see beyond the appearance you can experience the indeterminate ideal.”

That was typical of Grünbaum’s way of speaking. Don’t ask me to explain. I am a basket maker, not a philosopher. A craftsman, not a metaphysician. If Grünbaum’s work somehow transcended craft, or even art for that matter, it did so not in the fulfillment of an ideal basket, but in heeding to some metaphysical itch he needed to scratch at.

Michelle, in a black wool dress with cedar buttons from the neck down to her knees, stood atop the granite cliffs, one hand continually pulling her wind blown hair away from her eyes, the other holding out the white lacquered urn. She turned it upside down. The dark ash trailed out like a swarm of flies and ascended out over the ocean.

Mourners were few. There was Michelle, her family and various cousins. There was also an older, stepbrother from the Tsinshian tribe, who came wearing traditional Tsimshian mourning attire of goat wool, spruce roots, and jewelry of beaver claws and clam shells. Quietly beneath the shade stood an elderly couple that lived about two miles down the trail from Grünbaum. Their daughter, Lee, from Seattle was also with them. Hovering around, taking photographs, was Jamison Crowell, a journalist from the local Observer newspaper and great admirer or Grünbaum.

To my surprise, no one asked, “So where are the baskets?” They all simply took it as a matter of course that the baskets would be gone, sold, given away or whatever he did with them. But they did talk baskets. At great length. Every person there could, and did, recount the various baskets they had seen taking shape over the years. They all spoke in vivid detail about his creations, as if those very baskets were right before us – perhaps even more vividly than if their actual material existence had been present.

The brother burned incense and shook a rattle made from snakeskin. He chanted a prayer in Tsimshian and said to me, “Do you have any weed?”

Today, in my seaside workhouse, my fingers work to a rhythm that seems to come from the evolving hollow of the basket. Weaving has become intuitive and baskets form from my hands as easily as breath flows from my lips. I work tirelessly, my few interruptions being mainly for food, sleep and the occasional visitor who comes to inquire about the baskets.

It was with Michelle’s help that I found this place. Its large windows overlook a forest of eucalyptus trees and flowering heather. To her father’s dismay, Michelle eventually left GBI to move here with me. She soon began weaving her own baskets. Quite exquisite. Using vines allayed with a balm of petals and leaves. In her spare time she is researching a book on basketry in ancient and sacred texts. Now, together, we’ve begun something new. A unique interlace of our individual essence. I watch in amazement each day as this new creation expands beneath her skin. With the tips of my fingers, I can almost feel the wondrous coils of life wreathing together. We have decided to name her Aria, after Michelle’s great-grandmother Ariadne.

I consider myself fortunate to be one of the few who have seen old Grünbaum’s work and am grateful for what he taught me. Though I can’t say I was ever really convinced by all that talk about the spirits providing for him. I sometimes wonder if there had been some stealthy accomplice, secret admirer or acolyte who came and stocked the cupboards and closets while we were out gathering materials or asleep at night. I don’t know. But it doesn’t seem to matter. Even though I’ve never been able to bring myself to burn one of my own baskets, I still live as though the spirits were providing for me, because every time I tell this story – more and more, lately, with our increasing number of visitors – I sell another basket.

published: 12. 6. 2013