This past Sunday morning Nia, Jake, and I sat by the campfire, sipped coffee, and watched the sun come up. We camped at the end of Trestle Pine road beside the broken bridge. I woke to the loon call in the middle of the night. It was the first time I had heard it. The loon sings a beautiful but haunting song -- something between a howl and soft scream. As the morning drew near I drifted in and out of sleep lulled by the rhythm of snapping kindling, peepers croaking and loon calls. Jake started tending the fire as soon as he saw the sun -- around 3:30 in morning. I got up a couple hours later. When Nia woke, she went for a swim across the lake. The water fills her with so much joy. Even without my glasses I could see her wide smile as she emerged on the other side. It was hard not to grin at the sight of her.
I feel grateful to be stuck in the company of Nia and Jake. They are both curious, optimistic, and incredibly perceptive people that have quickly become good friends. I am comfortably myself in their presence and excited to always be in creative conversation with them.
All is well here. I feel so content and engaged with the work. Coming across Suso's quote in my travel journal "Acapar aprendese cortando conjones" ("You learn to neuter by cutting balls") was a pivotal reminder for me. I am now jumping in head first. I'm trying my hand at projects I've been nervous to attempt or intimidated by, and I'm actively seeking out skills I want to learn and conversations I want to be in. This week felt especially productive with the culmination of several projects and the start of new ones.
Additionally, I just finished a sketchbook/journal I started keeping when I arrived at North House. It's full of so many notes, songs, quotes and sketches, but there are many pages where I wish I would have written more about someone's story, advice given, or craft process shown. I started the next sketchbook this past week with a goal to take time in the mornings to write and draw my experiences here in greater detail. I've found that recording these moments shortly after they pass makes me feel more grounded and clear headed before I start my day. It's almost meditative -- emptying the cup of my mind so I can fill it again.
diligence: steady, earnest, and energetic effort
I stood in the bathroom brushing my teeth. I looked at my reflection in the mirror and noticed two scratches streaked across my right cheek. I wondered what I was working on when that happened and what unconscious movement made the marks.
My mind mused on the questions Jake’s mom, Anne, planned to ask in her radio interview with us the next day, and I was struck by a memory of a past interview:
I remember my eight grade self (probably pig-tailed) sitting anxiously in a large spinny chair that swallowed me whole at the end of a long table in a conference room. I sat in front of a panel of people whose faces I can’t picture now. They asked me questions to see if I would be a good fit for the virtual governor’s school -- a highschool program for “advanced” students in rural counties like Goochland. I am sure they asked me a handful of questions, but today I can only recall one.
“If you had one free day -- and you were capable of doing anything on that day -- what would you do?”
What a strange, vague question. What would I do on a day I could do anything? I felt overwhelmed, and I mumbled and bumbled out an answer about traveling the entire world along with some other unreasonable nonsense I thought they would want to hear.
I left the interview with a sinking feeling. I kicked myself for delivering such a stupid answer. Later on, I confided in my mom about the question and my lost confidence. She looked at me and shook her head. “With an entire free day, Alex? You should’ve told ‘em what you would really do. You’d probably go dig a hole.”
Another memory from my middle school days came to mind this past month. One afternoon, Mr. Hancock stood up at the front of the computer lab. He had everyone pause in their typing modules before announcing to the class that I had acquired the most typing hours of any student in our section. He said this as if I deserved applause and he expected the class to congratulate me. As my cheeks began to flush, my classmates shared confused glances and smirks. Did Mr. Hancock understand that this meant I was the slowest typist in our class? He looked around, furrowed his brow, and then it settled in. He had accidentally awarded the golf tournament win to the putter who took the most whacks. What was done was done. He nodded and waddled back over to his chair.
These memories have felt especially relevant over the past few weeks. They speak to a simplicity and slowness about my character that I often deny as I try to keep up with the rest of the world.
After my store shift one day I decided to go help Ben and Matt with the floors. I wanted to try the drum sander and knew this was my chance. I walked slowly back and forth across the room -- pulling the sander along each plank of pine. I engaged muscles in my arms, back and neck to slow the sander and keep it flush with the floor. I studied the floor boards as I walked and watched their scratches and scars fade with each pass. This work was quite different from the challenges of multi-tasking and navigating my way through a complicated puzzle of paperwork, emails and phone calls in the school store. With the sander, I had to pace myself and the machine to carry out one task effectively. In the store, I tried to work as quickly as I could on several different tasks at once.
I am grateful for the contrast of work. It’s teaching me about the pace I want my life to move. Without the distractions of the quick, busy life this would have been before the pandemic, lost memories flood back into my body. They let me laugh at myself and urge me to reconsider my assumed strengths, weaknesses, and values.
I find solace and steadiness in the “simple” work of digging and sanding. I enjoy studying what often goes overlooked: striations of soil, sand and clay, the pattern of floor boards laid across the room. This work calms me, grounds me, gives me rhythm.
When I feel comfortable with the rhythm, I lose myself in the song. Occasional variation in the work, keeps the music engaging. Finding a shared rhythm while working with others fosters connection and a deepened sense of belonging.
We build skills, capacity, and confidence when our minds and bodies are challenged, not inundated.
I have always worked with a sense of urgency. The sense of urgency inherent in my work ethic carries with it the worry that I am never working fast enough. Past bosses praised this quality in me, my drive to deliver, to be early and efficient. Coworkers asked me “what’s the rush?”
It’s only now that COVID put the brakes on the hustle and bustle we call life, and I find myself quarantined at a folk school in northern Minnesota, that I realize this: feeling urgent about getting things done deprives me of joy in the doing.
I am thorough to a fault, and this quality in my character can also be frustrating. My sense of urgency never made cutting corners feel okay. I take pride in a job well done, and this pride slows me down. Perhaps the pace that I perceive in myself is only “slow” compared to that of others who are moving at hyperspeed, overlooking the details.
In my seventh grade typing class I accumulated the most hours because I tried to keep my fingers in the right place even though it felt uncomfortable. I knew I could eventually be efficient, if I took my time to do it right. Taking shortcuts when learning has consequences.
The quiet time lets me shed my sense of urgency and embrace my compulsive need to be thorough, to do and learn deeply. Don’t mistake the forest for the trees, goes the adage. As spring comes to the north shore, I find myself immersed in the forest, studying the trees, and also taking time to focus on the leaves. This time is a gift.
Although we had a tight timeline to build two houses, the lead builders in Utah urged our construction crew to never feel rushed, but to always work diligently. This is the way I strive to work at any task, craft, or chore: with rhythm, care, and persistence.
Things have changed a bit around North House Folk School without the stir of staff, students and classes. The present feels strange and the future uncertain. During these quiet days, it seems important to reflect on the past. This place carries countless stories rooted in craft. I am surrounded by clues in the handmade objects and tools that occupy our space. I flip something over and find a name scrawled of someone who learned here, taught here, or lived here like myself. What a good time to make sense of this space through following the clues, collecting stories, and continuing conversations.
Since arriving at the folk school, I’ve developed a fascination with baskets. I met North House instructor, April Stone, when she was last here teaching a lidded black ash basket class. In the whirlwind of classes and community events -- our meeting was brief, and I was left with questions and curiosities about her path as a craftsperson.
Last Thursday morning we spoke over the phone. I asked questions, and April generously shared her thoughts on craft and stories from her journey as a basketmaker and teacher.
April’s journey in basketry started at North House in the early days of the folk school. April and her former partner, Jarrod, were both attending classes when North House had recently acquired the Forest Service buildings. April went home content with a pair of felted booties she had made, and Jarrod left with a black ash basket he wove under Peter Henrikson’s instruction.
Every day for a year, April helped Jarrod pack his basket with lunch and coffee for work. In the evenings she unloaded the basket to wash the dishes. Over the course of this year, April watched the basket weather the daily abuse of use -- rain, dirty hands, dog hair, and lunch loads. It changed color and relaxed a bit. She considers interacting with and observing Jarrod’s basket for a year without trying to replicate it an important part of her teaching.
I had gained some kind of intimate relationship with that [basket] whether I was aware of it or not. I think about how babies are in cradleboards for the first year of their life. They're there to watch and to listen and to smell and to use their senses without actually physically touching anything. They're there to take it all in in other ways.
Only after a full year did a piece of the lashing on the rim break. It was in that moment that April realized the strength of black ash as a material and her own desire to make a basket. In the spring of 1999, April wove her first basket. She spent the next year seeking out teachers and ultimately learning about basketry by weaving basket after basket on her own.
There was a lot of critical thinking involved in that year. I looked at books. I went to the library, and I tried to find videos of anybody making baskets. I looked at pictures. What I was trying to do was replicate what I was seeing in these pictures, and in the process I was learning about tension, shape, design, proportions and ratios.
When asked what parts of the basket-making process she finds most satisfying, April’s answers were all related to teaching and watching the process be empowering and healing for others. As a craftsperson, April focuses most of her energy on teaching. She is currently teaching her second semester of Native American Arts and Culture at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. Despite having access to a variety of traditional crafts, all of her students chose to make baskets over the course of the class. Since COVID complications have sent students home, April has shifted to teaching the class online.
Over the past twenty years, April has taught basketry to kids and adults from all walks of life. From plaiting cooking baskets with kids camps to teaching extended classes that include harvesting and processing material for baskets, April enjoys bearing witness to how students react to the work and feel empowered in the process. In her work with at-risk youth, April has noticed how an opportunity to work with one's hands in a positive space often leads students to speaking about their struggles and talking about how they came to where they are. In this way, the work can be healing.
When they're working on these things, they're learning about themselves, and they're learning about each other. I'm learning about myself, and I'm learning about them. It's just this big energy share in this big circle, and they're empowering themselves to say ‘I can do this’.
April also finds joy when encountering forgotten baskets. Occasionally, she would make a basket and feel unsatisfied with the way it came together and maybe even find it ugly. Then years later she would stumble upon the same basket. Thinking it beautiful, she would ask the owner where it came from.
I forgot that I made it. It's worn out and it's kind of broken, and I'm like oh my god it is such a beautiful basket and so that kind of gives me pleasure -- seeing it later on and [knowing] it's been used.
I asked April to share what she felt were the most poignant lessons learned while making baskets over the past twenty years.
The tree is teaching me. I don't use an increment borer. I try to read the signs of the tree when I'm out there in the forest. I try to look at the crown and try to tap into what I think that tree looks like on the inside -- if it's healthy or not. It's that ecological knowledge that I'm trying to decipher.
What is striking for me is what the material has to teach me and what it teaches others. I notice how people interact with the material during a class. Some people are just blown away by it, some people are super frustrated by it and by the process, and so I just sit, watch, and I just try to understand more about the situation of that person or of our energy in our space when we're working together. It is teaching us about frustration. It's teaching us about humility and respect.
We have seven sacred teachings in the Ojibwe culture. Respect is one of them, and Wisdom is one of them, and Love is one of them. Those teachings show themselves every time. It doesn't matter if it's basketry or sewing a hide or making a boat. It doesn't matter what you're doing. Those teachings are there always.
April is always curious to see whether her students are receptive to the teachings and open to learning about themselves in the process.
She told me about working on her own capacity to be aware of the greater lessons at play when it comes to witnessing the destruction wreaked by the emerald ash borer.
The emerald ash borer is an invasive insect that burrows in the bark of the ash and disrupts the flow of nutrients. It is currently killing millions of ash trees across northern forests and is heavily impacting communities of basket makers. Rather than feeling angry and attempting to fight the EAB by introducing more unknowns to the ecosystem through human interference, April suggests that the borer brings a lesson that we need to take heed.
I'm curious as to what the effects are going to be of humans trying to help this species. It’s great, but what if we're actually messing it up because now we're going to plant seeds with an old imprint versus the young ones that may have altered something genetically to be more resistant and survive. Maybe we need to let the old ash go. This means my basketry I can't make with these trees for a while, but that's okay because I'll still carry that knowledge. Maybe we're supposed to move on to other trees. Maybe the willow wants to be woven more. Maybe the hazel wants to be woven more. Maybe these other species that are growing wild want to be woven more, but we're not recognizing that. We're just sticking to this black ash for some reason. That's when I say maybe the borer is trying to teach us a lesson. What is that lesson? I'm just trying to try to pay attention to everything the best I can.
April channeled her original anger about the EAB into a project she calls her “Burial Basket.” In 2015, April received a Regional Artist Fellowship from the Native Arts and Culture Foundation to weave this monumental basket. In 2017, she received funding from the Historical Society to build the project in the public while engaging the community of Ashland, Wisconsin.
It was an homage to the death of ash, but at the time that I was making it, it was also an homage to myself and the death of a previous existence that I thought was never going to change which was my marriage. It was very personal. Here I am building this burial basket that is supposed to be an artistic statement, but it's actually turning out that I'm building it for myself -- the dimensions and everything -- it was laid out for me.
I only got the bottom finished within that month and then I had to move it out of the studio. I moved to town for about a year. I moved it into the back room, and I left it there for the year because it was still very much part of the grief process. I realize that basket was myself and I was that basket. That basket took on a female energy. I kept crawling in it. It was helping to transform me and my own healing at that time.
Then I finally moved back out to the reservation and moved back into my old house. I took it out and I threw it in the lake. I took it all apart and I re-wove it with the same energy of all the people [who helped to weave it] -- just a little tighter because it was too big and finished the lid and finally delivered it.
April handed the burial basket over to the Minnesota Historical Society. It is currently on display in the cities.
April does not consider herself a fancy basket maker. She feels more compelled to make utilitarian baskets built to endure their intended use and teach others to do the same. Ultimately, our conversation and the stories she shared shed light on the ways that the utility of craft expands beyond its use in the physical world. Somewhere entangled in the process of learning from a material, making a vessel, and putting it to use -- craft helps us to carry physical loads -- like lunches and tools as well as emotional loads -- like joy, trauma, and grief.
Sharpening with Dennis Chilcote - Sharpness is relative. Listen to the sound of the blade on the stone. Look for reflected light along the edge. Flip the burr until it falls off. Some things “don’t make a penis worth of difference” (in the words of Dennis).
Turning Bowls on the Lathe with Marybeth and Jess - Shaping a moving object requires ultimate focus. The maker must retain a stillness and sturdiness in her approach to stay safe and consistent. You will lose track of time in the turning and will leave class with every pocket of your clothes and crevice of your body full of wood shavings. Jess says there’s a beauty in turning green wood bowls: warping while drying is inevitable; the tree has the final say.
Concrete Sink Form Construction - Having space to work and the tools to get the job done is a gift. Have confidence in yourself and others will have confidence in you. Take initiative. Work overtime. Seek out and accept help. Embrace opportunities to experiment/challenge yourself. Don’t expect to succeed, and don’t expect to fail.
Wednesday Set-Up - Nia, Jake and I mused on how we all look forward to the weekly break-down and set-up of classes. Between the deep cleans and sweeps and endless moving round of tables, chairs, and stumps we learn the nooks and crannies of campus. It feels great to be useful and help restore order. I have found friends in the folks who come every Wednesday -- Joni and Nathan, Brody, Nikki and little Osier, plus the extended work study students. I always feel energized from their high spirits and good humor.
Bowl Carving with Jon Strom - There is doubt that creeps in the cracks between work and play. In the idle hours I often wonder what I’m doing and what to do next. But when the axe strikes the log, all doubt disappears. I am as solid as the stump and sure of my movements, aware of my body: hands holding and heart pumping. In this carving class, I felt at once out of place -- a young woman amongst a slew of older menfolk -- and at the same time, I felt at home in the work.
I watched wood chips flying and Jon Strom watering his kale seedlings in the sunny window. His wife was out of town so he decided to bring them along and tend to them while tending his class.
Wood Week Lectures/Carving Nights - I learned to keep asking questions and seeking stories. Conversation is the way we whittle each other down and the stories we share shape us. Questions are our carving tools and can reveal beautiful and rewarding results if used with finesse. But connecting with others is a craft that also requires patience and practice.
Leisel’s Lecture - The Maori believe we are all given three baskets of knowledge: the knowledge before us, the knowledge within us, and the knowledge beyond us. I believe this to be true.
Many nights I wake up dreaming that I’m weaving the blanket above me. I flip back and forth restlessly moving over and under and through.
Black Ash Pack Baskets with Ian - Since arriving here at North House I have become deeply interested in baskets. Ian’s pack basket class resolved many of my questions and, of course, inspired new ones. Since that class, I’ve been flipping through basket books, processing material, and continuing to weave more baskets. The steps are often satisfying and intuitive and the end result holds great potential.
Community Cabin Dance Party - There were fourteen of us who showed up to Ben’s monthly dance party. The cabin was lit with colored lights and banners that read “Dance Dance Dance” and dance we did. North House staff, artisans, interns, instructors, and community members from all walks danced in lone circles expanding ourselves fully in the space. Releasing tensions and taking room to stretch our souls.
There’s great value in dancing alone and equal value in dancing together.
Contra Dance - Though I was tired from a long day of pounding out and processing black ash splints for our basket class, I went to the community contra dance. At the start I was clumsy and stiff, but by the end I improved and could follow the steps with ease. I danced circles with friends and strangers ranging from seven to seventy years of age.
I stayed after the dance to join the old time jam. I played along on the guitar by watching the fingers of fellow guitarists and challenged my ear to pick up the tunes. We strummed and stomped late into the night.
Punk School Square Dance - When the Chili Potluck was cancelled because of the Coronavirus, I went with Elise, Ben, Jenny, and Eric to a square dance at the Punk School in Finland. Elise passed around the whiskey and we danced the tiles off the floor of the old school house. I was again grateful for the chance to let loose and swing in tangled circles -- to give rhythm and reason to the spinning of an already dizzy world.
Sledding without Chickens (Dinner at the Wrights) - The Wrights live in a beautiful timber framed home they built together years ago. Their homestead was a wonder to explore. There, I learned that one should not sled with chickens in icy conditions. Always take a running start with a plastic sled. The more people you can pile onto one sled, the more fun. Aspire to be as brilliant, curious, engaged, and adventuresome as the Wrights.
Full Moon Hike and Sauna with ADP - Elise invited interns and artisans to hike along the Superior Hiking Trail up to Pincushion Mt. At the overlook, we gazed off at Superior’s shoreline and watched the sunset and the almost full moon rise. After a good sweat in the sauna, we shared food, drinks, advice, and lots of laughs in the kitchen of her cozy abode. Lessons learned: be grateful to be amongst incredibly kind and creative people, make fresh salsa more often, and wear socks when running naked in the snow.
Menogyn Field Trip - Also wear socks when jumping through holes in the ice to submerge in icy lake water between sauna sweats. It was so nice to finally get up the Gunflint Trail. We had a great day touring the impressive YMCA camp, petting sled dogs, studying maps, exploring cabins, and sliding down icy trails on our bums.
COVID-19 - Campus has been quiet since the cancellation of classes. We have made good use of the time thus far -- sledding at Sweet Heart’s Bluff, learning carving grips from Mike, cleaning classrooms with Ben, building blogs with Jake, and constructing shaving horses with Rose. Although the future is uncertain, I am thankful to be here and feel fully prepared to be a useful set of hands and a steward of this school and its mission.
I spent three days working with fifth graders. They’re full of incredible creativity and searching: wandering eyes, fiddling hands, impulsive chatter. At once they are engaged and distracted. They talk at and over each other answering questions not asked. So centered within themselves, many of them possess an energy that is genuine and untainted by the insecurity that accompanies adolescence and adulthood.
Jake and I sit on a 100-year-old rug made by Elise’s great grandmother. The young students come to us calm and curious, excited and ambitious. We teach all thirty of them to sew small pouches from scraps of wool blankets cut into rectangles. We sew up the sides and make a flap. Before we began, Jake, Elise and I worried our fifth graders might find it too frustrating to enjoy. Both groups proved us wrong, pushed through the initial frustration with knots, and kept threading their needles. It seemed enough for them to know that they were making something useful that they could take home. And a pouch has endless potential.
Once we provided tools and walked them through the basics, their minds and hands ran wild devising and creating all kinds of peculiar fastening systems: thread hinges and pulls and button holes.
Here at North House, I feel like a fifth grader again: so engaged and distracted, full of wonder and excitement about all that surrounds me.
I am reminded of when I was younger. My mom supplied our home with tools and art supplies and embraced my brother and me with her own creative spirit.
As little ones, we had time to create, experiment and explore without the pressure of making good grades or crafting a livelihood. We could ask questions about the world and how it works without feeling ignorant. We could try new things without a fear of failing.
At North House I feel cradled and coaxed in a similar way. This program says: Here are your tools, here are your mentors, here is your space and time to exercise your head, heart, and hands. In exchange you must be kind and welcoming to our community, observant, and useful.
I would say that is more than a fair deal.
I am smiling. Pure joy. During class we sit around stitching and knitting, steeping dyes from onion skins, marigolds, chamomile, and osage sawdust. The older women enlighten the younger ones on the wonders and woes of growing old. Bev tells us about ironing out her crooked stiff fingers in bed under her warm belly when she wakes up.
Stefania tells us about teaching her three granddaughters to spin and knit. I’m hit with a sharp and disappointed twinge remembering my grandfather back home. Slowly withering. I visited him before I came and learned that his grandmother taught him how to knit and crochet over the winters he spent with her. “Don’t tell anyone,” he said. His shame kept him from sharing his skill-- a lesson that could have tied me more closely to him, to my great grandmother, and to those before them.
I am getting an education by sitting back and listening.
The more I learn through the lens of craft, the more I understand things forgotten and repressed in me. I spent over half my life time stressing and studying, afraid to fail. What did 15 years of straight A’s add up to? A profound, hollow realization that I don’t know much.
Unless I learned it with my hands or heard it as a story, the grade school lesson is lost to me. The learning was rote.
While I was “learning to think” at the elite “Governor’s” highschool I was forgetting it all -- math, biology, chemistry, physics. I made the grades, but I struggled. I assumed these subjects did not suit me. My brain simply could not juggle numbers and facts. Now I ask myself: Why was I learning earth science while sitting in a classroom and not resting on a stone or molding clay in my fingers? Why wasn’t I learning fractions with a tape measure in my hand while building a workbench? Why weren’t we harvesting edible weeds, tending indigo vats, and fermenting our food to learn about the biological and chemical systems that feed life?
There is a sense of sadness that accompanies learning something new when it strikes you as something you wish would have known sooner.
Now, I am crafting my own education and building upon it with each new adventure.
I am grateful to feel like a fifth-grader again here at this folk school -- where learning to open up a machine and replace a blade is like unwrapping a gift, where instructors take us skiing and teach us to sheath our tools with woven birch bark, where sausage-making students won’t stop giving me homemade cookies at community chili feeds.