Last Saturday, January 9, Abe Sanchez and I went to Cuyamaca Rancho State Park to gather deergrass (Mulenbergia rigens) and basket sumac (Rhus trilobata). Abe uses deergrass as the bundle foundation, or warp, for his elaborate baskets, and split sumac as the coiling material. The photo above of a gigantic thicket of sumac growing on the side of the road was taken right outside the park .
At first glance, it looks as if the Rhus has not been recently burned or coppiced to produce the straight shoots necessary for basket weaving, but Abe was able to find many perfect shoots—long, flexible new stems with no lateral branches.
Abe is always a bit cautious about how many sumac shoots he gathers, because he’s very aware that he’ll need to split them as soon as possible when he returns home. After about three days, “it’s almost impossible to split.” The other consideration is that “it’s very hard on your hands. It’s very labor intensive—your tendons, your hands, you really wear out your hands splitting sumac.”
At the entrance to the Rancho Cuyamaca State Park campground, we stop to talk to the very accommodating ranger. Abe shows her his permit, and she is very enthusiastic about Abe and other basketweavers using park resources from what were once their ancestral gathering grounds to help revitalize their cultural practices such as basketweaving. In the image below, Abe gathers deergrass, aka Mulenbergia rigens, a perennial native bunchgrass. Abe is wading waist-deep in the lush deergrass to gather the golden flower stalks.
Basketweavers and botanists agree that deergrass is one of those native plants well-adapted to fire that will regrow from its base in the spring after a burn. Fire eliminates the skirt of accumulated dried leaves and dead thatch, helps to recycle nutrients, and induces the production of healthy new flower stalks. Native Americans regularly burned deergrass stands as part of their traditional land management practices. In Tending the Wild, Ethnobotanist M. Kat Anderson estimates that tribes enhanced deergrass stands by setting small-scale controlled fires every two to five years. Abe and other basketweavers still love to gather the superior deergrass stalks found growing in recently burned areas. Large areas of Rancho Cuyamaca State Park burned in the Cedar Fire in 2003, and the deergrass still looks as if it couldn’t be happier. (You need permits, of course, to gather inside the park).
Although the heat and drought-tolerant deergrass is now grown as an ornamental landscaping plant, Abe prefers to gather deergrass in the wild. “If you grow it, and you water too much, it gets too thick. When deergrass grows in the wild, it’s going to stay thinner, and it’s going to be nicer” for basketweaving.
In the photo above, Abe beats his bundle of deergrass stalks against the rock to scatter the deergrass seeds for wildlife and to help disseminate the seeds for germination. Our friend, basketweaver Rose Ramirez, also speaks of tapping the stalks of gathered deergrass to shake out as many seeds as possible for the songbirds that feast on them. Abe and Rose’s gathering practices, similar to all the Native people I’ve worked with and documented, are respectful, sustainable, and enhance rather than diminish the environment.
Here’s Abe’s most recent basket, which I wrote about in an earlier post. The white color is split and peeled sumac/Rhus trilobata, the brown is juncus/Juncus textilis, and the black is dyed juncus. Abe used deergrass as the foundation around which he coiled the sumac and juncus. Abe creates some of the most beautiful and intricate baskets in California, and is invited to give classes and workshops all over the state.
California baskets are world renowned for their beauty and watertight weaves. When immersed in water, deergrass expands, helping make the baskets watertight. Abe wove this chil’cut, or women’s basket hat photographed above, for his friend and basketweaver Marian Walkingstick. It also can be used as a cup or bowl when turned right-side up. If you look closely, you can see the bundles of deergrass (warp) around which the juncus (weft) is tightly coiled.
Grandmother would prefer to use the chilcut as a food bowl instead of a plate. She would diligently wash before and after using as food for eating. It seemed like ceremony. She would carefully and thoroughly wash and dry, patiently hold the chilcut towards the sun turning the chilcut around so as to—that to make sure that the surface of chilcot received the rays of the sun. Satisfied she would then ceremoniously put it on her head. Perhaps to receive spiritual nourishment. Perhaps to say thank you great Grandfather for all that you have given me.
—from the Henry Rodriguez Archive Collection, Luiseño, 1920-2002
On the drive home, the pungent smell of cut sumac suckers permeates the car. Luckily, both Abe and I really love the smell, but a few people I’ve met can’t tolerate the smell. The smell actually helps basketweavers ID the plant, because sumac and poison oak look very similar, but only sumac has what Abe calls “an unforgettable smell. I love the smell of sumac. To me, the smell of sumac is very hypnotic.” So we return home, happily hypnotized after a day of gathering, photographing and hiking in the park.
The photograph above of deergrass growing on the Pechanga Reservation in Temecula, CA. was shot by my CSUSM student, Cameron Sanchez, in Spring 2009. Native plant specialist and basketweaver Willie Pink (Cupeño/Luiseño) runs the nursery and garden area at Pechanga, and he’s careful not to overwater the deergrass. Although several of the Native basketweavers and gatherers with whom I work have successfully fought to obtain access to public lands such as Cuyamaca Rancho State Park to gather materials necessary for their cultural survival, many choose to grow their important cultural plants as well.