Richard Nolan keeps a close eye on the ash trees in his yard. One of them is dead, another is dying: the top of the tree is barren, many of its leaves are browning.
Nolan is looking for evidence of the emerald ash borer – an invasive species that has been decimating ash-tree populations across Turtle Island and threatening the Haudenosaunee traditional practice of basket-making.
On Wednesday, Nolan announced via Facebook that his basket business, Turtle Clan Baskets, is closing up shop, because the black ash wood required for the baskets has become scarce.
“I knew it was coming,” said Nolan.
Black ash is the preferred wood for basketry because it is pliable, said Nolan, but unfortunately it happens to be a favoured target for the borer. The trees grow slowly and take about 50 years to mature. Once infested, most trees last between three and five years before dying, though 99 percent of ash trees will be dead within 10-15 years of infestation.
When a tree becomes infested, the larvae kill the tree by boring into the cambium and sapwood below the bark, cutting off the water and nutrient supply from the root system. Scientists fear that ash trees of all species could disappear entirely from North American forests altogether in the next 20-30 years.
Nolan has been making baskets since 2008, when his girlfriend took a basket-weaving class through the Ratiwennahní:rats program, and Nolan’s curiosity at her unfinished basket got the better of him.
“I said, ‘I think the basket’s talking to me,’ so I finished it. And then once I finished it, I said ‘hey, that was pretty good,’” said Nolan. “It kept going from there.”
It wasn’t long before Nolan’s baskets had a professional quality to them and he felt confident selling them. To date, he has made over 1,300 baskets of all different shapes and sizes. He’s also taught countless Haudenosaunee of all ages how to weave baskets, everywhere from Kanatsiohareke to Onondaga, and of course, all over Kahnawake. It’s been important to him to keep this cultural practice alive by teaching it to the generations after him.
One of his most prominent students has been Chelsea Phillips. She was saddened to hear the news, for Nolan’s sake, because basketry is his passion, but also for the wider cultural significance.
“I was so honoured when he asked me if I would take over for him one day,” said Phillips, who has spent two hours a day for over a year receiving lessons from Nolan at his house.
“If he’s already closing, I don’t know what that means for the future of what I’m doing with him,” said Phillips. Her goal has been to continue Nolan’s legacy, teaching the next generations how to make baskets and keep the practice alive. Phillips still intends to teach as much as she can despite the dwindling black ash supply.
“I’ll miss it, but like I say, everything good comes to an end at one time. You can either accept it or reject it,” said Nolan. “Live with it and just continue on. Another door will open, I just don’t know when.”
Nolan has a few splints left from his black-ash stores and estimates that it will be enough to make 10 more baskets. These last baskets Nolan plans to keep for himself, though more than a thousand of his baskets populate homes all across Haudenosaunee territory.
“Maybe if somebody’s really outstanding, I’ll give ‘em a gift of a basket,” said Nolan.
“One day the ash will come back,” said Nolan. “When (the emerald ash borer infestations) started, a lot of places saved seeds and they’ll replant them.”
Cole Delisle, environmental projects coordinator for the Kahnawake Environment Protection Office (KEPO) is currently engaged in efforts to create a seed bank that will protect the future of ash trees on the territory.
If the ash tree does come back, there will be Kanien’kehá:ka who know what to do with it, in no small way thanks to Nolan.
This article was originally published in print on Friday, June 16, in issue 32.24 of The Eastern Door.