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From Tree to Basket: Black Ash Tree Basketry in the North Country

Episode hosts

River Mathieu

    As a resident of the North Country it's hard to have not at least heard of the small, shiny green insects known as the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB), or at the very least have seen the purple boxes used to survey for the pests hanging from trees. Join St. Lawrence University Forest Ecology student and Angello Johnson, St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Forestry Resource Program Technician and Mohawk basket maker as they explore a local black ash stand and discuss the importance of black ash trees to the community. Learn why black ash is so important to the Akwesasne culture, the history of EAB and the area, and what you can do to help protect the black ash populations from this invasive pests.

    Episode transcript

    River (00:00):

    Some of these. Yeah. Some nice sounds of this swamp. <laugh>

    River (00:10):

    Sweet. Yeah. This stand especially is a pretty cool, cool spot. I've liked working out in this one.

    Angello (00:18):

    Yeah, me too.

    River (00:20):

    New York state is home to many tree species. The North Country itself has a diverse variety with deep and expansive forests throughout the region. In the lowlands of the North Country where water flows downward and stagnates lie forested wetlands, home to a lesser known tree species. Black ash is a slow growing species of ash tree that grows in these areas. The tree itself is culturally important to many Indigenous and First Nations groups in what is now Eastern North America and the Great Lakes region. Black ash also serves an important ecological role helping to maintain water table levels within these forested wetlands. On this episode of Naturally Speaking, we'll be heading into the woods with Angello Johnson, member of the Akwesasne community and a basket maker to talk about black ash and its importance here in the North Country. We'll discuss what black ash is and the Akwesasne traditions surrounding the tree, the threats that the invasive emerald ash borer poses to black ash and how the cultural identity of people from Akwesasne will be directly affected by emerald ash borer. I'm your host, River Mathieu,

    River (01:31):

    If you just want to introduce yourself, talk a bit about who you are and what you do.

    Angello (01:36):

    All right. Well, my name is Angello Johnson and I work with the St Regis Mohawk tribe. I am the land resource technician there, and I do a lot of work with emerald ash borer and conserving the natural resources around the environment field.

    River (01:55):

    And you're a basket maker as well, right?

    Angello (01:57):

    Yep. Yep. I make baskets. I've probably been making baskets for going on eight years now and it's pretty cool. It was a tradition hand down to me by my father and my uncles and great uncles.

    River (02:12):

    To visualize the kind of baskets Angelo is talking about here, picture anything ranging from beautiful decorative baskets, with different colored strips of wood woven into the basket in beautiful patterns, to large sturdy backpack-esque baskets used for carrying heavy loads while in the field. The baskets made out of black ash have a variety of uses described by Angello in great detail. He also talks about how the area around Akwesasne is especially suited for the growth of black ash, making it such an important species for the people who have lived in that area.

    Angello (02:47):

    Akwesasne is right off the St. Lawrence River, and it's right where a bunch of other rivers come in. There's the, the, um, the Raquette River, the St. Regis River and just downstream there's the Salmon River. And that location where Akwesasne is pretty low land. So there was a lot of black ash there in general. And culturally we've been making baskets for a few thousand years and we utilize it all the way from ceremonial purposes, like when people are getting married and stuff, we do an exchange of baskets. You know, it kind of symbolizes the vows to each other, you know, you incorporate what you're gonna bring to the marriage and the basket and you trade it. Kind of like how wedding rings would be traded and from ceremonial things like that, right to childcare, we make baby baskets like bassinets to carry little ones and we use it in all different aspects of life, for fishing, hunting and trapping, things like that because the rigidity it's a really good pack for going out to the field and on the river and stuff like that.

    Angello (04:07):

    It's also used in the garden for harvesting the traditional foods and there's even ways we prepare our food with baskets. There's a certain weave we can put on some black ash baskets to wash corn, so we'll grow corn and then to preserve it we wash it a certain way with ash from black ash trees, green ash trees. And then we sift it around inside the basket in that kind of removes the hull of the seed. And then that way we can preserve it longer and goes right into our traditional meals and things like that.

    River (04:51):

    Yeah, that's super cool. I hadn't realized any of that stuff really. That's really interesting.

    Angello (04:56):

    Basket making is a really great way to pass on knowledge from generation to generation because there's all kinds of things that tie into it as well. Like when you're making the baskets right from harvesting the log to turning it into a basket, there's a big, long process and the elders, the ones that teach, that pass this knowledge on, they really emphasize the respect for the surrounding like what nature's giving us. There's that symbiotic relationship we have with the environment and it's giving us something in return and we'll offer our prayers and give tobacco and truly approach it with that mindset that we're not only taking, but we give as well. And we carry these baskets with us throughout our lives and the way these baskets are made, they can last like hundreds of years. I have some baskets that were my great, great uncles and what they made and they're still holding steady today. Yeah.

    River (06:06):

    Wow. That's really cool.

    Angello (06:07):

    Yeah. A lot of like patience and dedication goes into this craft and that's one of the main aspects that we like to hand down.

    River (06:19):


    Angello (06:20):


    River (06:21):

    Super neat. So why black ash in particular what are the quality of the wood that sort of allow it to be a good tree for making baskets?

    Angello (06:33):

    Yep. Well, the structure of the growth rings itself, it's a real porous, the growth ring structure of the black ash. And the way we process it, we take the blunt side of an ax, back in the day we just use a long carved stick, a mallet basically. And when we hit it with that mallet, it crushes those fibers and it releases the growth rings from each other and they become pliable. And once they're nice and pliable like that, you can work it down. It has a really nice, smooth grain. It splits really nice into these nice, fine pieces that you can really refine down to workable splints.

    River (07:22):

    Angello has just described to us why black ash is such a good tree for making baskets, the ability to pound the log and peel apart each growth ring to create a splint, and then weave that into a basket is not shared amongst all trees. And many tree species do not exhibit the same growth pattern as black ash, making it much more difficult to pound, say an oak or a maple log and peel those rings apart. And so I guess what are sort of the qualities of the particular trees and you're going to harvest a tree, because you're not using all the trees, right?

    Angello (08:07):

    Yep. So, one of the main things you really want to look for with the quality basket tree is its environment. You know, you want to find a place where it's really growing nice and healthy and fast. Lowland wetland areas right on that threshold from upper to lower wetlands, you'll find a lot of black ash and like a Southern aspect, facing hills and things like that, you'll really find some good black ash if there's some wet areas down below and things like that. It's also the forest community, I guess you could say, like the other trees around it will have an effect on them as well. I've noticed in the time I've worked with it, whenever I harvest trees close to coniferous trees there's a competition for nutrients in the soil and it affects the quality of the split.

    Angello (09:07):

    And you can really see it when you break it down to refine it, right? So there's all these different types of things you gotta look for. You also want to take a really good look at the tree. You want to look for any bends or wounds that might affect the growth of it all because if one side's damaged up top you can kind of see the effect in the splint all the way down to the trunk, close to the roots. If there's a big limb that snapped off years ago on one side of the tree, you can actually read it in the splints themselves - once you cut it down and harvest it, you start peeling it off and you'll notice the growth rings get real tight, real small on the sides that are damaged. So these are all things you kind of look for before you harvest a tree.

    River (09:57):

    Angello has showed us that there's a large amount of traditional ecological knowledge surrounding black ash and the ways in which his people have used it to craft baskets for thousands of years. This knowledge, however, and the ways in which it's passed down from generation to generation is under threat. Emerald ash borer, or EAB was introduced to United States in the 1990s. First detected in Michigan in 2002, the insect lays eggs on the inside of the bark of ash trees. When the larva emerge, they consume the vascular tissue of the tree where nutrients in water flow throughout the trunk. In doing so emerald ash borer has the potential to kill 100% of the, ash trees in a given area, with a few trees having genetic resistance to the insect. From the time of detection, EAB has spread throughout much of the Northeastern United States and into Canada where it is now spreading back into the United States into places like Akwesasne and the Northern border of the North Country.

    Angello (11:00):

    We found emerald ash borer in Akwesasne back in 2016, it popped up in one of our purple sticky traps that we had hanging up throughout the reservation. That was for a forest pest detection survey, it turned up EAB one year and that kind of put it on the radar for Akwesasne. We've heard about it incoming, but we finally saw it in 2016, one bug in one trap, and then by 2017, 2018, we did another round of forest pest surveys and we start seeing it more and more throughout the community coming from the west and from the north that in mind. We could see the invasion coming basically. So what we did was we set up a delimitation survey where we established over 200 sentinel trees throughout the community.

    Angello (11:59):

    And what these sentinel trees do is, it attracts the emerald ash borer to that one specific tree. And we harvest sections of the tree off of that bait tree, setinel tree. And from there we carved back the bark and we were able to get some good data for population density and the current spread. There were some algorithms we were able to punch the data into, we got a heat map of Akwesasne showing where the current spread is and population densities. And we took that tool and we were able to kind of set up new barriers for detection, new boundaries from the spread going eastward. And within, since 2018, well, since 2016, actually that first bug we found until now, it's only been three years and it's all the way across the community now from, from the west all the way to the east side.

    River (13:08):

    Right. And so what sort of efforts are you guys doing to sort of mitigate the spread of EAB? Both sort of at Akwesasne and then also outside of Akwesasne. So within the North Country itself.

    Angello (13:25):

    Okay. So after we got the data for the population densities and the current spread, we were able to submit that data to USDA APHIS. And we work with them and New York state DEC and US Forest Service. And we came up with a plan for releasing parasitoid wasps in the region. They've been doing research with parasitoid wasps for about the last decade or so to see how effective it is. And there's a handful of different parasitoid wasps we've released this year, is the first year for releases. So we're really hopeful that they get established and they can combat the EAB right on that front wave of infestation. And we do that in Akwesasne and in, some of the state forests surrounding the community on the North Country.

    River (14:29):

    The wasps that Angello is talking about here are typically raised in a laboratory and then released into the wild. Once in the wild, two species of the wasp will essentially locate an emerald ash borer larva and then lay eggs inside of this larva. A third species of wasp will typically find emerald ash borer eggs and lay its own eggs within that emerald ash borer egg, hence the term parasitic wasp. In talking with Angello about the steps that his community are taking against emerald ash borer, I thought it would be important to ask him what he thought the general community of the North Country could do in order to help prevent the spread of EAB and maybe even help to raise awareness about this invasive insect that's going to be devastating to the area.

    River (15:18):

    So do you think, do you think there's anything or I guess, what do you think the most important takeaway from the work that you all do? As well as the movement of EAB into St. Lawrence County and Franklin County, what do you think the biggest takeaway would be to someone who is not necessarily involved in forestry or just is sort of a general member of the public. Or what could they do to get involved with these issues and work towards solutions?

    Angello (15:54):

    So for the general public it's good to realize that black ash and ash trees in general are culturally significant resource and the decline of the ash trees in the North Country, it's also going to be leading to a lot of hazards roadside and around people's houses. You know, these trees get real brittle and turn very hazardous once they're infested with the EAB long enough. And for the general public that's number one concern, safety, someone has large stand they can go in and do some selective harvesting to thin out the ash trees so that they don't become a hazard in the very near future. There's also, if you have a valuable, nice ash tree in your front yard, you know, it's a tree you really like there's injections you can get that will protect the tree up to three years.

    Angello (17:08):

    That's one way to preserve trees. We have certain sites that we've also been injecting trees with to protect . seed source. So we're actually standing pretty close to a spot right now where we did some tree injections. We go in, we measure the trees, collect the data, and we try to preserve the nicest, healthiest looking trees. So that way they can pass on the genetic resources once the EAB wave kind of crashes through they'll be left standing and they'll be able to provide seeds for future remediation efforts. So if people really want to help they can go to their local municipalities and sit in on some meetings and see if they're taking any action towards EAB mitigation. And if they have a good viable black ash stand, they could open it up to the town to come in and treat those trees to try and save those seed sources. And just being a open and present and transparent with what what's going on in people's backyards and in the state force, things like that.

    River (18:40):

    With all of that being said, there's definitely some hope for black ash in the face of the emerald ash borer invasion. The efforts of people like Angello and the collaboration between Indigenous groups, government agencies, like the forest service, as well as collaborations with private conservation groups has allowed for a lot of progress to be made in the fight against emerald ash borer.

    Angello (19:01):

    I'm pretty hopeful for the preservation of the ash trees. We've done a lot of seed harvesting and collections and the Assistant Program Manager, Les Benedict with the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, he actually sent tens of thousands of black ash seed to cryo-storage facilities out in Denver, Colorado. So we have a lot of seeds saved over there, and there's like a 1% chance of genetic resiliency in the ash trees. And in those seeds that he sent down there, they found some with those genetic resiliencies against the EAB. So pretty hopeful on that. And when the EAB first started coming around, it was like just as I was starting to get really good at basket making, you know, starting to make a name for myself.

    Angello (20:06):

    And I was really getting into the swing of things. And to hear that the EAB were coming to devastate the black ash and that resource, I was just heartbroken. It was something so near and dear to my heart and culturally, emotionally, spiritually, significant for our people, and to see that it threatened in such a way is just so heartbreaking. But since then I've been working really closely with the environment field in the environment division and I've taken those steps since 2016 to where we are now and there's light at the end of the tunnel. There's definitely a lot of hope for preservation in the future. But I feel like we are gonna get hit with the wave of EAB, no matter what we are gonna lose a lot of the forest, but we still have those seeds and these pockets of high value stands that we can protect until this wave passes through and then we can start to rebuild the forest from there.

    River (21:20):

    Right? Yeah, definitely. And I think I'm definitely oftentimes feeling myself being a very pessimistic person when it comes to sort of forest changes and black ash. But hearing you talk about all of those things definitely gives me a bit of hope and just knowing that there's a lot of work going into sort of the preservation of these species. And I think that the genetics, that's sort of a promising route too. I was not aware of that. That's pretty awesome. Is there anything else that you would like to say?

    Angello (21:55):

    I just want to thank you for inviting me out here to have this talk with you. It's always great to share what I know, what I have, I really appreciate folks like you, putting in that effort in the forest to really help these species go along. I just want to really put it out there and say thank you everyone who works in the environment field and takes care of our Mother Earth like this. And it's really heartwarming to see that there's so much drive in people to take care of these kinds of things and it makes me happy to see that I can be a part of the solution.

    River (22:59):

    And thank you so much for coming out and meeting with me. This interview has been great and I hope to keep working with you and talking to you about these things in the future. Thanks so much!

    Angello (23:11):

    Yeah, definitely.

    River (23:14):

    Angelo has alluded to this idea of symbiosis between his people and the natural world. I feel very strongly about the idea of symbiosis between the natural world and people. And I think that this symbiosis when embraced by all of us, could lead to a world that is much healthier and happier paving the way for a sustainable future in which both humans and the natural world can thrive. Understanding things like the emerald ash borer invasion and attempting to help preserve black ash is a part of embracing this idea of symbiosis. Angello has also described to us how important black ash is to Akwesasne and the ways in which his people have used it to craft baskets for thousands of years. EAB will surely have an impact on black ash and Akwesasne culture. However, through collaborative efforts, the preservation of this culturally important species is possible. For more information on emerald ash borer, find the links attached to the podcast webpage. Also to get involved, you can take Angello's advice and head to your local town meetings to find out about conservation efforts and EAB in your area. You could also get involved with citizen science projects, run by an organization like SLELO PRISM. Again, see the link in our bio.

    River (24:27):

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