by Sarah Hatfield
I collect the produce from my garden in a wire basket. I store my kindling in a circular basket made of wooden splints. My catch-all container in the mudroom is a sweetgrass basket. Two squat baskets with lids decorate the top of my bookshelf. Useful things, baskets. And all of them are pretty, too.
From the moment baskets were born, people have used them as a canvas. Intricate designs, complicated patterns, myriad colors, innovative weaving techniques and materials, and numerous shapes are all ways that the weaver has found to put expression into these utilitarian containers. The basket to carry wheat from the field must be a different style than the one used to catch fish in a river. The basket that nestles a newborn must be different than the one used to carry water. There is no limit to the styles and shapes of baskets.
The purposes of baskets are almost as varied as their appearance. Baskets were used to store and transport dry goods, carry water, catch animals, strain foods, and cradle babies. They were used as cooking utensils and as the molds for the first clay pottery.
No one really knows the story of the basket. Being usually made of small plant parts, they are quick to rot and decompose. I imagine that one day a woman got tired of trying to carry all the food she needed for dinner, found an empty bird’s nest, and filled it up with seeds and berries and carried it home. Of course, upon arriving home and seeing the thing filled with bird lice, she promptly dumped the food in the woods and set fire to the nest. And then said to herself with conviction “I will make my own nest to carry the food and it will be better.” Thus the basket was born.
Okay, maybe that’s not how it happened. No one knows. But there are tons of baskets with a ton of history and I am not going to bore you by going into it. I will tell you a bit about the cornucopia basket, though, since its season is approaching.
The cornucopia basket (from the Latin cornu copiae meaning “horn of plenty”) is a symbol for, well, plenty and abundance. It is very old and featured in many works of art to represent, well, abundance. Its symbolic origin is steeped in Greek mythology, though there are two myths, so take your pick. Either Zeus, in his infantile enthusiasm, broke off the horn of his goat nursemaid and then in apology promised that it would always provide her unending nourishment (hence “horn of plenty”). Or Hercules was wrestling with the river god Achelous over a girl and ripped of one of his horns, which Hercules and the girl kept and filled with flowers and fruit for their wedding. Or maybe the river naiads kept it and filled with flowers. Or Hercules, being Zeus’s son, inherited the horn from his dad. Whichever variation gave birth to the symbol, the cornucopia is still one of the commonly recognized styles of baskets.
We use it often this time of bountiful harvest, as a decoration on the center of the table. This year, rather than buying one, or trying to find your in your attic or closet, you could come and make one! We are hosting a basket-making workshop and the style will be a cornucopia! You could make your own horn of plenty, using natural reeds and traditional weaving techniques. Basket-maker Laurie Ennis is joining us once again to demonstrate and teach this style to you. Registrations are due October 20 and the cost is $48, or $36 for members. The class runs from 10:00am until 1:00pm on October 25, so you might want to bring a snack! This promises to be a fun project with plenty of learning! Who knows? You might come up with an idea for a new basket and add to the wonderful history of these containers!
Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 and the state line, between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk, and the Nature Center is open 10:00am-4:30pm daily except Sundays when we open at 1:00pm. Visit our website http://jamestownaudubon.org, our Facebook page, or call (716) 569-2345 for more information.
Sarah Hatfield is a naturalist at Audubon.