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Pomo Basket

by Michael Potts

 the center of a basket     Basket weaving is america's original technology. As long as our things proliferate and wander, we need this gentle organizational tool. Starting with mindful harvest of the grasses, reeds and willows, through the contemplative patterning and plaiting, from the beginning of human reckoning in these parts, baskets contain the best and most lasting bits of our culture.
    Solar architect Steven Strong defines sustainability simply: that we may keep on doing what we keep on doing. Yet how can we be sure that our actions and means are sustainable? In less than a lifetime, DDT has won a Nobel prize for its contribution to human health, and then been banished from our continent as a major environmental threat. Nuclear energy, which we learned in grade school would provide infinite, safe, cheap energy, now promises merely complexity and risk.
    After more than a century of global industrialization, scientists assent to three observations:
  • Everything spreads, but nothing disappears.
  • Quality rests in structure and concentration.
  • Green cells are the only significant net concentrators and producers.
Sustainability appears to occupy the terrain bounded by three principles --
and three prohibitions --
These ideas seem to be the perimeters within which every life form on the planet exists one: us.
    No matter how completely our lives rely on industries based on extraction of fossil fuels, we must grapple with the fact that we are poisoning our planet. Industry's strategy -- heat, beat, and treat -- is primitive compared to the subtle energy-efficiency of photosynthesis. There can be no doubt that such primitive methods waste at least half the energy consumed; when we compare modern products -- a plastic container, for example -- with a more natural substitute -- a Pomo basket -- we might reckon that nine parts of energy out of every ten consumed are squandered while producing an inferior product. Surprisingly, this is good news. If we waste so much making drek, we need only attend to efficiency and quality in order to secure a good life within sustainability's perimeters.
    Walk with me, out gathering basket materials. Walking in the probable footsteps of a gatherer from an earlier millennium, we find hardy native plants mixed with aggressive exotics which would surprise our predecessor: hardy asian immigrant periwinkle adds a lithe, verdant accent to the light golden native reed. One fundamental measure of land is the indigineity of its life-forms: how much of the local flora and fauna have been there for a century? For a millennium? In Caspar, as in much of the United States, the fraction ranges from half to less than a tenth, since most of the biomass has been around for less than a thousand years; most of the change has taken place in the last hundred years, a staggering, unprecedented change in biological terms. Look around you: how many of the prevalent species are actually from another continent, bioregion, or watershed? This leads us to questions: Are these good changes? How will they be continued, or reversed, if we and our ancestors are to live here for another millennium? We enter a heady, challenging time of many questions.
    Who among us has time to learn to weave baskets, then to weave all those we need? Harvesting, considering next year's harvest as we go, being sure to leave enough of each plant for future harvests... to do this well, we must learn the habits of the plants and the web of life which relies on them. In this swift-paced modern world, who can find time for such a study?
    Time, curiously, has become one of our most precious and endangered resources. It is also the essence of sustainability. If we are in a great hurry, as we seem to be, to exhaust the planet's resources while bringing the carefully sequestered hydrocarbons back up out of their safe hiding places to choke the atmosphere, we will surely not have time to play with our children, dig in our gardens, care for our neighbors, or learn to weave baskets. Embedded deeply in a mechanistic, materialistic, dehumanized culture, we are completely surrounded by people who have made the same choices: to bruise home and family in favor of wealth.

Nature can take care of our needs,
but not necessarily our greeds.
    -- Gandhi

    Our collective wealth is nothing more than a remnant of the richness humans have extracted from the planet, yet our means for accounting value and success are seriously out of date. At the dawn of the industrial age, capital was rare, resources were abundant, and most 'civilized' humans were hardly better off than slaves. Return on investment was enshrined as the measure of benefit, the bottom line ...and there is no doubt our 'standard of living' has improved. Now, barely a century later, capital is abundant and humans may live better, but resources are becoming frightfully scarce. While Rome burns anew, accountants (our tribal storytellers) still tell tales which treasure capital and urge exploitation of nature. We are not the first culture or species to encounter such a dramatic turn of values, but many among us believe we are the first species to be faced with the unbearable opportunity to revise our means and lifestyles to avoid extinction.

To get the most while giving the least
is unethical, anti-social, abusive and in fact is the evil at the heart of predatory commerce.
      -- James Hillman's Kinds of Power

    When we contact other cultures, as in developing countries, we are generally harsh in our judgment of our hosts' lackadaisical attitudes toward time and wealth. It is easy to see that the conquistadores of earlier centuries wrought evil in their zeal, but is it possible that our enthusiasm for 'civilization' (as we define it: democracy, cars, TVs, and fast food) is even more wrongheaded and evil? Having accepted Haolewood values in our own lives, are we sure that they serve us so well that we feel good imposing them on other, more ancient, earth-rooted cultures? Or is our cultural zealotry based on the principle that misery loves company, especially if we can turn a profit thereby?
    Before industrialization swept the globe, indigenous peoples, like all natural life forms, lived in perfect dynamic harmony with their environment. When a vine was taken for a basket, words of thanks were given. Wonderingly, we say, "They use everything they take!" but this misses the deeper, more meaningful truth: they take only what can be immediately used. We great-grandchildren of dominion can scarcely imagine a time before garbage. In our lives, as in any closed system, we must find time to deal with the inescapable fact that waste is not sustainable. No other species has ever created waste. To survive, we must get back in step with every other living organism by acknowledging that we do not own the world, or even a tiny part of it; like all other living organisms, we are infinitesimal (although infinitely valuable) parts of a magnificent whole.

Nature bats last.

    A new basket grows organically in our hands: we bend and weave wet reeds with our clever hands, and order emerges. The shapes are curved, human, pleasing, the texture benign and familiar. There is much room for practice and for art. A well-woven basket made from the right stuff holds water, and can be used for cooking. With only slight changes in material and technique, this flexible technology, weaving, can produce clothing, shelter, games ...all the essential human necessities and delights. The finished work is pleasing beyond any mechanistic definition of function, conferring on maker and user alike a heightened sense of participation in the planet's greater web of life.
    We need baskets now more than ever; in them we find a metaphor for our noblest inter-relationship with all the life on our planet.

    I was glad to learn from my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary that Hedonics is the science of human pleasure. I wonder why no one ever told me before? Now, at last, I know what I'm doing! Getting from here to a sustainable life while holding our hedonics at a satisfactory level is not going to be easy. My friends and I have compiled a very preliminary list (which follows) of some of the transitions from unsustainable to sustainable which now face us. Your additions are welcome.
    Please note, the following is not a black/white comparison; we do the things listed below to make life more pleasurable. While considering some of these items, like hunting and second homes, it is important to remember that the left-hand column is not judged to be wrong or unpardonable: items in the left column feel good and in some cases even offer folks their clearest insights into the importance of sustainability. Nevertheless, we must recognize that, for one reason or another, these behaviors are simply, regrettably, no longer sustainable. The time has come for us to evolve beyond our selfish wastefulness and wean ourselves toward the more responsible activities of a mature species. I am deeply pained by the unsustainability of my own chocolate addiction, and pray with Saint Thomas for relief "...but not yet!"
    It is well worth noting that some of the following 'unsustainables' can be converted to sustainability quite easily, simply by changing the consciousness or motive power behind the activity. Some will be much tougher. When we find an object or behavior whose principle purpose is to garner profit or solve a problem for its purveyor -- for instance, 4WD vehicles for folks who seldom or never leave the pavement -- the transition may be joyous. Like the pioneer heroes in my book who live 'under their own power', those who undertake a more responsible life report that they find themselves richly and unexpectedly rewarded by their reconnection with the values and awareness which inform every other species participating in the grandeur and rightness of nature.
    I invite you to consider these hedonisms; how can we move our weight toward sustainability?

H  E  D  O  N  I  S  M  S
plastic containers

golf courses

volunteer grass
mowed with a push-type
or solar powered lawnmower
better: let the grass grow
for the bugs and birds
gas & diesel automobiles
public transportation
human powered vehicles
"hybrid" vehicles
jet airplanes
solar-powered trains
wind-powered ships & boats
downhill skiing
snow shoeing
leaf blowers
rakes and brooms
many children
one child
fast food
home-grown food
uncooked organic food
factory farms
community gardens
'corporate' farming
chemical agriculture
companion planting
family farming
kitchen "victory" gardens
integrated pest management
as a principal protein source
beans and rice
soy products
food preservatives and stabilizers
packaged foods
local produce
whole foods
centralized economies
farmers markets
craft fairs
local barter economies
fur clothes
(except for subsistence hunters)
wool clothes
many layers
machine made
hand made
domestic products
extracted materials:
plastic, metal
grown materials:
natural fibers and biomass
asphalt roofing
vinyl floor, carpet
clay and metal roofs
wood, tile, linoleum

fossil-fuel powered HVAC
super windows
excellent insulation
natural ventilation
biomass heating
electric or gas-fired hot tubs
wood-fired or solar-heated hot tubs
allopathic medicine
drug therapies
integrative medicine
eclectic and preventive strategies
maximized income
optimized income
multinational corporations
stock markets
home-town business
local investment
absentee ownership
second homes
local ownership
first homes that work
contact sports
trophy hunting
fossil-fuel powered "sports"
'personal best' games
wildlife viewing
human-powered play

    Please add your two cents worth to this conversation, sustainably, by emailing us through the link below. Then join me in the garden. I've got snails on the cabbage again.

-- Michael ;>

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updated 29 August 1999 : 16:28 Caspar (Pacific) time
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