In coming months, I hope to walk into the woods of my family’s East Tennessee homestead in the foothills of the Smokies, cut down a white oak, and later emerge with a basket made from it with only an axe, a knife and my hands.
Back in mid-summer I wanted to scout out a tree suitable for basket making while the forest was at its peak.
I asked my dad to accompany me on a foray in the woods of the 100-acre farm where he grew up, and it proved to be challenging in a couple of ways.
Finding the tree required way more effort than I predicted, even though the back lot of the property is covered with lofty, huge white oaks that I thought would have many offspring. But the more formidable reckoning came with memories.
As a child I roamed these woods exploring around a big cave that contained the remains of ancient Native Americans, and sipping from a spring with the freshest, coolest water imaginable. I hunted squirrels while navigating the leafy open forest floor shaded by a dark green canopy of hardwoods. This was the way my father, Ray, remembered the area, as well.
However, after Grandpa died the land was parceled among relatives and culled for lumber. Thickets of brush, poison ivy and other opportunistic vegetation now dominate the understory of forest.
The sight of it all pricked at me much more than the thorns with which we tangled.
Yet, I stood amazed at the sight of my 77-year-old father, who was disabled by severe wounds received in the Korean War, scrambling through the thicket and over the jagged limestone outcrops. I struggled to keep up as he called out possible tree candidates, most of which proved to be young hickories that shot straight to the sky, instead of the hoped for white oaks.
When we emerged onto a field behind the woods, Dad stopped and looked beyond its lush green to the crest of the Smoky Mountains in the distance. “Plowing this field was the last thing I did before I left for the service,” he said. Then he was silent for a long while.
From this beautiful field, the path of his life took him to a horrific war, and eventually back home to a young bride, a career as a mechanic and craftsman, and later raising two sons who are more comfortable carrying a backpack than a briefcase. A life well lived with love and service for others.
As for the white oak that will be a basket: Spotted near the edge of a clearing after we had given up for the day and were bumping along in the pickup truck on our way back to the barn.
Above, prototype of the basket planned for the project. Made of reed and painted with red milkpaint.