for Abe Sanchez, Diania Caudell, and Marian Walkingstick
We gather the juncus, and the juncus gathers us . . .
Abe Sanchez (Purapeche), Diania Caudell (Luiseño), and Marian Walkingstick (Acjachemen) are Native American basketweavers. It’s a beautiful spring day, and we’re hiking in the San Diego back country to gather Juncus textilis, also known as basket rush, one of the most important traditional basketry plants. The road to the site is a deeply eroded dirt path, almost impassable by a 4 wheel dirve, so we walk from the main road.
To reach the creek where the juncus grows, we first must walk by an area where people have dumped their derelict appliances, unstuffed couches, smashed satellite dishes, outdated computer monitors, broken ceiling fans, disentegrating cardboard boxes, non-disentegrating plastic bags, and crushed miller lite cans.
There’s even a dismembered Ford, glass from its shattered windshield scattered everywhere along on the path. Beyond the Ford is a stand of canyon sunflowers, rare to find in the wild anymore.
The stench of a rotting carcass covers the normally fragrant and aromatic smell of sage scrub. Wild grape vines have begun to grow over the debris. We stop to photograph this attenuted relationship to the land, this utter indifference to wild beauty.
The path to the creekbed is lined with black sage, live oak trees and wild grapes growing everywhere, twining up the trees and carpeting the ground. Wild blackberry covers the ground and streambanks as well. We spot a rogue non-native calla lilly escaped from someone’s backyard growing amidst the poison oak. Everywhere there are last season’s sycamore leaves from the huge old trees growing on either side of the stream. We hear the intermittent croak of an invisible frog and birdsong above the sound of the water flowing in the creek.
We opt to walk upstream in the creekbed, because we feel more stable in the shallow water than on the slippery rocks lining the sides of the creek. We also can more easily avoid the ever present and prolific poison oak. We note a rogue non-native geranium growing on the streambank, and climb over boulders and downed sycamore branches that block our path.
In the May heat, it’s surprisingly cool. We’re covered head-to-toe because of the poison oak, and Marian is wearing her goofy aviator hat. Everything seems to thrive in this freshwater riparian ecosystem with its lush canopy of oaks, sycamores, and willows shading the creek.
I stop to shoot a lizard sitting above the stream on old juncus needles and sycamore leaves.
Dark green juncus overhangs the streambank in great profusion. We feel a bit like explorers in the tropical jungles hacking our way through the overgrowth. Except that we’re not here to hack but to harvest. And we’re surrounded by chaparral.
This is AWESOME!. This is SO SWEET!
Abe, Diania, and Marian are ecstatic. This is incredible juncus.
There are 225 species of juncus growing worldwide, but the Juncus textilis we’re harvesting grows only in California. Juncus is from a Latin word meaning to join or bind, referring to the indigenous use of the plant.
It’s difficult to pick up the unmic-ed voices on video of Abe, Diania, or Marian over the sound of the stream. It’s a first shooting video footage while ankle-deep in water on a shifting and unstable surface. I’m careful not drop the video camera as I climb over the boulders and under the downed sycamore branches in the streambed.
After walking about a quarter of a mile, we come to a beautiful seasonal waterfall. We climb up the rocks and sit, totally enveloped in the lush green sound of water cascading down the rocks.
Diania speculates that this area may have been a traditional gathering site for juncus, a critically important plant that profoundly helped shape Luiseño culture. In Southern California, it’s very difficult to find undisturbed stands of juncus. Loss of habitat from development and the invasion of non-native species has greatly diminished riparian ecosystems that can support thickets of juncus as well as an incredible diversity of life.
It’s also extremely difficult to find juncus in areas not subjected to the spraying of pesticides and herbicides by government agencies and private landowners. This is, of course, a serious threat to the continuance of this vitally important cultural tradition.
Our particular juncus stand is completely hidden from view. There are no signs that it has been harvested for years.
“This is like HEAVEN!” Marian tells us. It’s hard to hear each other over the sound of the stream, so we just listen to very welcome sound of water flowing after the worst drought year recorded in Southern California history.
Abe climbs the rocks above the waterfall. Careful Abe, we tell him. The rocks are slippery from the water and lichen, and they’re steep as well. Abe wears his signature field trip hat that he wove with juncus and yucca????. He has circled the brim with bold and intricate designs inspired from Chumash basketweavers. Water beetles crawl around the top, and he’s woven a maze-like design on the rim. Abe teaches basketweaving throughout California to indigenous people of many different tribal affiliations.
Our pants are now wet to our knees as we carefully make our way back downstream. Abe can’t stop harvesting, so Diania and Marian join him. They try to avoid the poison oak intertwined everywhere in the stalks of juncus. “Leaves of three. Let it be.” Marian and Abe wear gloves for harvesting to protect themselves. Diania isn’t wearing gloves, because she’s busying taking photographs. I can’t frame a photograph of juncus without poison oak showing up in my viewfinder as well.
This juncus is thinner and stronger than other juncus we’ve harvested in the area. “Good for string,” Abe tells us. He speaks of the value of gathering from different areas, how each kind of juncus can be used by basketweavers for a different purpose. Abe is impressed with the rich brown color at the lower end of the juncus stalk. It’s this section of the juncus that he will use to create the intricate designs woven into his baskets.
After harvesting enough juncus for future baskets, Abe places the collective bundle on his shoulder to walk downstream. Abe, Diania and Marian are all members of CIBA, the California Indian Basketweavers Association, whose mission is to preserve, promote and perpetuate California Indian basketweaving traditions.
In their commitment to revitalize the indigenous cultural tradition of basketweaving, Abe, Diania and Marian are a vital part of the on-going California Native basketweaving revival.
This revitalization is of critical importance. Until recently, traditional California basket weaving was an endangered art. Yet in the past, nothing else touched indigenous people’s lives so completely. Native Californians used baskets for cooking, sifting acorn meal and serving food, storing water and household goods. They wove harvesting baskets, seed beaters, winnowing baskets, granaries, burden baskets, fish-trapping and fish-netting baskets, cradle-board baskets, intricately woven gift and ceremonial baskets. Some of their houses and ramadas were essentially large woven baskets.
In Southern California, it was Juncus textilis that was used to weave many of these different kinds of baskets. The juncus was interwoven with other native plants such as deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens) yucca (Yucca whipplei), sumac (Rhus trilobata) and willow (Salix species).
As basket weavers, Abe, Diania, and Marian’s lives have become intimately woven into the land. Gathering juncus is part of a sacramental cycle, the renewal of a relationship with a place and a cultural practice that is hundreds of years old. Gathering juncus not only honors the ancestors and the critical role juncus played in their lives, but also involves cultivating a profound respect for species other than our own. For Abe, Diania, and Marian, basket weaving is a luminous thread that connects them to the larger struggle for indigenous environmental, cultural, and linguistic restoration.
At the end of our collecting trip as we hike back to the car, we give thanks for the wild tenacity of this remnant stand of juncus and the generosity of the natural world.
We give thanks to the ancestors, and to each other, go home and prepare a fantastic lunch.