Lois Conner Bohna: Acorns, Baskets, Fire, Water, and Learning in California

(Crossposted at Firelighter)

Recently I talked with North Fork Mono/Chukchansi Yokuts basketmaker Lois Conner Bohna at her studio in Coarsegold, California as she worked on a new cooking basket. 

The application of fire to the land is necessary for all the materials Lois uses in her basketry – deergrass, sedge root, redbud, brackenfern root, buckthorn, and sourberry all respond to burning by growing strong, straight shoots or roots – and for the acorns that Lois will cook in her basket (fire and smoke under or near oaks destroy insect pests and parasites). Fire also “cleans up” areas – sedge beds, for instance – by removing thick growth, duff, and dead plants so that basketmakers can access the resources.

Yokuts and Mono basketmakers use two basic weaving techniques: coiling and twining. A cooking basket is coiled, but Lois started with twined baskets – baby baskets – about thirty to thirty-five years ago. Her aunt, Clara Harris, taught her how to twine and Rosalie Bethel was her coiling teacher. Lois strongly emphasizes that in order to learn basketry it’s absolutely necessary to go out and gather materials with elders. And she went everywhere with her teachers, assisting them for eight years before weaving her first basket. It takes a long time, Lois says, to form a relationship with plants, because the plants have spirits: they are subjects, not simply objects to be harvested and manipulated.

What’s the nature of that relationship? “It’s all about giving back to your teachers and to the land,” says Lois. The reciprocal exchange of gifts is a cyclical process, just as the stiches and forms of a basket are cyclical and round. For Lois, giving back to the land includes burning it. “I take care of plants, tend them, give them what they need, give them their medicine. Fire spurs new growth in redbud and sourberry, and fire cleans up and rejuvenates the land.”

In fact, fire is a principal factor in the health of the forest. Fires maintain open meadows, and by altering plant transpiration, evaporation, and the infiltration of snow and rain into the soil, fire affects yet another cycle: the water cycle. Lois cites historical accounts to point out that at one time a network of interconnected meadows laced the entire upper watershed of the San Joaquin River with grasslands and wetlands, extending dozens of miles from the foothills to the crest of the Sierra Nevada. Now, out of some 600 meadows in the Sierra National Forest, only about a half dozen are still functioning well enough to store water far into the summer and slowly release it into streams to help sustain their flow through the driest period of the year. If more fire were applied to meadows, not only would it restore many important basket plants and other cultural plants, but it would also restore the hydrological processes of a healthy watershed.

Another reason to reintroduce fire is to sustain oaks and acorns. Lois says the oaks in the Central Sierra are sick and incapable of producing a healthy, significant acorn crop. However, this year she found plenty of acorns further south, on private property where the trees benefit from the smoke pouring from nearby chimneys, drip irrigation keeps the trees watered, and the ground is manicured and free of competitors and parasites. Under these excellent conditions, Lois was able to gather 3000 lbs. of acorns while leaving enough on the ground to sprout into new oak seedlings and even to feed the area’s deer, squirrels, and birds.

As we wound up our conversation, I asked Lois what she thought of the design of the Henry Madden Library at California State University, Fresno, a design that incorporates basket motifs throughout its interior and an exterior that includes a three-story-tall, continuously running video mural of Lois herself in the act of making a large basket tray. Lois replied that she appreciates how accurate the deer-print and other patterns are on the library’s furniture, ceiling, walls, and steps. She also thinks of the video as an appropriate analogy for university students to consider: just as basketmaking is a lengthy, reciprocal process, so does a university education consist of sustained, reciprocal exchanges of teaching and learning. But, so far, Fresno State is only telling part of the story at Madden Library, and Lois recommends that the university find a way to teach more about the interactions of fire, water, plants, and basketmakers and other people. A good start might be an informational display in the library about the interactions of fire and water. The key will be to dig deeper into all that contributes to the making of a basket, and to find more ways to get that deep knowledge inside the institution.