All That We Need
At the beginning of May 2020, I spent some time away in the bush for the seasonal, traditional spring food gathering. As a sustenance hunter and forager, this is an important part of my physical and spiritual life. Some of the most profound lessons I have ever learned have occurred while sitting in wait at the base of a tree while watching the life all around me. The connections that provide meaning are palpable and enduring. I hold those connections even when I am away from those natural areas.
On a particular walk, a birch tree showed me its shedding skin. Having been so inspired by traditional basket makers, birch bark biting art and, more recently, some artists in “Breathe” and never having worked with birch except for making the odd pair of earrings, I thought it would be an interesting exploration to see what could be done with birch. I accepted the tree’s gift and brought it back to camp not knowing exactly what I would do.
I often look to nature to signal different things. Birch was already telling me that it contained the potential to make something useful out of it (or not – depending on how well I could hone my existing skills). Of course, birch has been used in a multitude of ways by our various communities. At the very least, it would help me build a fire! That very thought reminded me of the story about how Nanabush went to get fire from Thunderbird. After stealing the fire, he changed into rabbit and ran as Thunderbird threw bolts of fire at him while chasing him. Birch offered Nanabush protection but suffered burn scratches from the bolts that can be seen today as dark scars on these trees. This story was also a reminder me of how communities share the transfer of knowledge orally. This is how children learn that Birch is a safe tree to seek shelter from in a storm.
A few days later, another sentinel came to mind. The Moccasin Flower (aka Pink Lady Slipper Orchid) grows in our area for a brief time in spring. The delicate flower requires a special balance in the earth to grow. (I’ve tried to transplant it but have been unsuccessful.) As a traditional food gatherer, I know that when this flower appears, it is the right time for certain hunting activities.
The Moccasin Flower also reminded me of another story. Briefly, this story is about how a community had fallen ill during a harsh winter but had no medicines left to treat the people. The illness had become so bad that even the Chief and the Messengers were ill. One of the last members still well enough to make the harsh trek to another village to obtain medicines was a young woman whose husband had also fallen ill. Determined and brave, she set off in the winter cold. As time went by, the woman’s community began to worry that she had not come back yet. A search party of the few remaining healthy went out to look for her. When they found her frozen body, she was clutching a birch basket filled with medicines. They also saw her tracks in the snow were stained with blood from her bare feet. She had sacrificed her life so that others could live. When spring came, the Moccasin flowers started to grow where her feet had stained the snow.
The story of the Moccasin Flower now has a new significance for me in these days of Covid-19. This is the moment when I decided I would make a mask with the birch bark. I hadn’t planned on making a third mask. (Side note: Turns out I was actually still mourning the vandalized destruction of an outdoor public art installation I had made merely a year ago... The idea of putting my soul into another art object for potential public viewing took quite a few days to talk myself into.)
With the very little experience I have with birch bark, I knew that it would be quite delicate to work with. I had to be patient. I had to be in a positive mindset. I had to be focussed. The slightest tug of thread in the wrong direction would certainly cause my work to fall apart. As long as I remained vigilant in how I treated this special material, it gave itself to me. I was amazed at just how much sticking of the needle it could actually take!