She peels the willow switch with a knife
pointed away from her in one long motion like a sigh.
There will be no more fruit cake.
After the death of my paternal grandmother, Ruth, I took up a trowel and began heaving the hard earth from itself. I recall a similar motion, a service learning project in Yosemite National Park with 73 curious city bred 8th graders.
The students and I, dug after the deep roots, followed them to a tangled source of thorns. We ripped out invasive non-native blackberry bushes planted near the Awahanee Hotel by some innovative chefs near the turn of the century. While the dark purple preserves made the tourists happy, the bushes wreaked havoc on the native raspberry canes and bracken fern used by the Miwok for basket making.
We enter a museum, the still artifacts of intricate baskets and tools whisper. Then, we see her, sitting on a low platform surrounded by basket making tools and weaving a basket of her own. She is a living piece of history and a volunteer named Julia Parker. Some students step near, she smiles at them and explains what kind of Miwok basket she is making and shows them how. She asks them what traditions they have learned. Some say cooking, one girl is learning how to knit. I hear Julia Parker tell my group of 8th graders,
“it is important to be able to do something with your hands”
as she demonstrates Miwok basket weaving. This sticks with me like a seed. I teach, but do I really produce anything with my hands?
The one week Yosemite Institute trip, gives education a good name. We see a bobcat 10 feet away, we feel geology with every step, we see the direct effect of people on the environment.
One lesson learned when 12 teens caution a man and woman cruising through the valley in a convertible. The couple is about to toss some Cheetoes overboard- “Don’t feed the coyote!” The students yell for they have seen firsthand it does more harm than good to give wildlife a taste of human food.
My tastes for human food have changed. I remember when our family chose a more healthy planet-friendly diet, it involved donating a lot of food to homeless shelters. We saw the film, Diet for a New America by John Robbins and progressed quickly from free range to vegan. It just made sense.
However, we didn’t think to tell my grandmother. (Not recommended!) We visited one spring to find her usual “spoiling the grandchildren” treats. She had stocked the cabinet with sodas, cheese puffs and her fresh homemade beef jerky. We steered clear. (No pun intended) She couldn’t understand why we weren’t eating anything. We asked for watermelon instead and told her that we were now vegetarian. The usual you-will-starve-not-get-enough-protein-what-is-your-mother-thinking conversations ensued.
She calmed down. And later, she helped us build more vegan friendly traditions- baking fresh strawberry rhubarb pies and baked potatoes with all the fixings. But the jerky still needled her. As she lay dying, she demanded not Proust’s window-to-watch-her-casket-construction, but rather, she recalled the abandoned beef jerky. How could we turn away from something she marinated for days- then carefully dried for 14 hours with so much love and care? We should have told you, I offered. Our non sustainably raised meat animals are like blackberries, I thought. They have deep sharp roots.
We planed to make a strawberry rhubarb pie (with the rhubarb from her sister’s farm) when she came home from the hospital. She didn’t come home from the hospital. So we made rhubarb pie in her honor and my dad ate the last of her homemade fruitcake. There will be no more fruitcake made with Ruth’s hands. And not eating it is not an option- it won’t sit well in a museum. Like seeds, traditions require that we share them; we have to enjoy them, plant them, harvest them- keep the cycle going.
3 years later I am doing those things I saw my grandmother do with her hands. Digging a hole for vegetable scraps, planting mint near a dripping faucet, sporting bright yellow gloves to juice fresh pomegranates, picking olives to hit with a little stone, saving seeds, freezing peaches, drying persimmons, and making strawberry rhubarb pie. I am growing heirloom tomatoes, kabocha squash, three types of basil (Thai, purple and Italian), bell peppers, heirloom dry beans including a red and white patterned Christmas Lima bean that looks too beautiful to eat.
Baby Kabocha Squash
I have finally tended something with my hands into a shape, a basket of memories, traditions, love and appreciation. Oh, yes, and I have raspberry canes that will one day bear fruit and be fit for making baskets.
For more information about Julia Parker, visit Yosemite Basket Makers
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