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Harvesting Spruce Roots - spruceroot.jpg (3195 bytes)

Each Summer I have the joy of being able to spend my vacation at North Point, Raquette Lake, New York. My husband's brother lets us have the run of his cabin and his grown-up toys. While the rest of the family is out boating, fishing or water-skiing I love to spend the afternoons quietly weaving a basket or collecting native materials for my work. It seems so natural to be weaving there. It is one of the most remote and beautiful places I've ever been. The gentle waves lapping against the shore of the lake, the mountains, the blue sky and the billowy white clouds reflected in the water, the soulful call of the loons make my connection to the land seem so complete and making baskets of native material so right. Between the cabin and the shore of the lake there is a stand of spruce trees. Come to think of it there are spruce trees just about everywhere near there, but this stand is so convenient, it's where I end up going to harvest the roots.

Tree roots of many kinds can be used for basketry and spruce roots perform wonderfully when used for coiling or stitching. The stitching can be done in a wide range of stitch variations. When split they can be used for knotting, plaiting or twining. They serve well for use as weavers in ribbed baskets or even for rims. They were frequently used by Native Americans in their Birch Bark containers, hats, footwear and canoes. The Vikings even used spruce root to secure the planking on their ships.

If you don't mind getting your hands dirty spruce roots can be fun to gather as well. Roots can be gathered most any time that the ground isn't frozen. Only collect on private land, with the permission of the owner, or be certain to obtain the proper permits. Locate a young root from a mature tree several feet from the trunk and with a digging stick unearth and follow the root to its tip. A root can be up to twenty feet long. The ones growing in shallow humus or sandy soil are the most collectable and are likely to be the most consistent in diameter. Be certain not to take more than a few roots from any one tree and it is traditional to thank the tree for its gift to you. Once you have taken the root from the ground, remove the bark before the sap dries and coil it up to cure.

I like to run the roots across the rough surface of the rocks at the edge of the lake to help remove the bark. It is convenient with the water right there to rinse off the bark scraps. You could also use a bucket of water and a groove cut in a slate shingle or a V-branched stick to help remove the bark if you don't have a lake at hand. The roots will be creamy white if they are debarked immediately after they are dug, but they will darken if they are allowed to soak at length before debarking.

The roots will have to be split before they can be used to weave with. This splitting process is much like splitting ash splints or willow rods. A cut is made into the end of the root and the root is split down its center. A fair amount of practice is necessary to develop the control necessary to keep the split progressing along the center. If the split "runs out" use more pressure on the thicker side.

At this point you will still have to sort and grade the materials that you have prepared before you use them. The outside of the root has a luster which makes it preferable to use where they are most visible. Thicker root sections that grew closer to the tree can be used for rims. Keep the two splits of the root together in the same coil so that you will have matched pairs. Choose carefully when you select which materials to use in any of your projects to be certain that the scale and flexibility of the material matches the use you plan to make of it. Roots are quite porous so they both dry out quickly and reconstitute rapidly from a dry state. Soak them before use and keep them wet as you work.

Well, the Summer afternoon has passed quickly and as I look up at the clouds I am reminded of the Indian legend of the Spruce Root Basket.

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