27 April, 2009

Cedar Dreams


One of the fibres I aspire to spin is cedar bark. Weaver Melody Oakroot, in Spin•Off’s September 1986 interview, recommends pounding the inner bark lightly with a mallet before spinning cedar wet on the thigh. She spins two strands, staggering their lengths.

Oakroot finds her cedar bark ready pulverized on logging roads,* but I knew from school that First Nations traditionally harvested cedar bark sustainably from living trees. A quick search on Youtube turned up a video of just that. The bark was stripped vertically, leaving a smooth surface on about a quarter or less of the tree’s circumference. (Never strip bark horizontally: you would girdle the tree and kill it.)

I looked and I looked at that smooth surface. Its height, its width, the edges of bark, they all gave me that same frisson of recognition I got in the lower level of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston when I rounded a corner and saw a Tsimshian bent-corner box. (Also cedar.)

“You know me,” the tree said, confidently. I mentally added lots of silvery-grey weather-beaten patina on the surface, and agreed that I did know it. I saw trees like that as a teenager living on the North end of the Island. “Hello,” I said, absurdly pleased.

The ‘Namgis First Nations surveys blocks of forest land that local forest companies select for harvest in order to identify and protect culturally modified trees. They list these trees in a database, as evidence of their traditional territory.

To be sensitive to this considerable significance, I’m not going to be out culturally modifying cedar trees.

(Also, harvesting wild materials period should only be done with a mentor to prevent over-harvesting and damage.)

I've noticed similar sensitivity on the Ravelry group Cowichan Inspired, about the Ravelry members' concerns over fair use. They question whether their desire to make a Cowichan sweater could lead them into co-opting traditional Native designs, profiting off a people group's cultural heritage (or doing them out of a sale), treading the thin line between borrowing and exploiting, or simply using something one is not entitled to. If you are not West Coast Salish, can you make an authentic Cowichan sweater?

I am not after anything authentic with cedar bark. I just want to experience and understand its spinning properties.

Again, logging waste means a tree died, whereas removing bark involves less disruption of local ecology. On the other hand, as the lady with the fur coat said, it was dead when I got it, and up-cycling industrial waste can be environmentally virtuous too.

Hmm. At any rate, cedar spinning will have to wait until my next trip back to the Island. Cedar trees in Virginia don’t look anything like what I’m used to.

* My esteemed father knows of a mask maker on Vancouver Island that sources his materials the same way.

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