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Welsh coracles, courtesy of Wikicommons.

Under the green and rolling hills of Scotland, a dozen kilometres from the seaside, several people lay buried for four thousand years. Around them lay what we guess to be their keepsakes; beads, a bronze knife, tools and a battle-axe. Most interesting, though, was that at least one of them – a teenager when he died, curled up like a baby – lay in what was guessed to be a wicker coracle, like those used on these islands into the 20th century. He was buried in his boat.

Stop and consider a few things about this. First its antiquity: Before the Ancient Greeks or the Hebrew prophets, before all but the earliest pyramids, there were Scots. Also, you don’t see boat-burials every day; perhaps it was the youth’s most prized possession, like someone today might be buried in their Rolls-Royce. Finally, consider this was a giant basket, woven together by hand, and that it carried people safely across vast stretches of cold water. (1)

That’s not as strange as it sounds; humans around the world, whether jungle tribes or Eskimos, whether in the Stone Age or the Industrial Revolution, used similar woven boats. Who first thought of it we don’t know; the first basket fragments we have were about 13,000 years old, but we have circumstantial evidence that humans might have been weaving baskets the size of boats almost four hundred centuries earlier. Not four hundred years, by the way – four hundred centuries.

You see, early humans first appeared in Australia about 50,000 years ago, and even with the ice age lowering sea levels, you still can’t walk there. To get there from Asia (presumably, because anything else would be even stranger) they would have had to set out on the ocean -- whole families in boats, not knowing if there was land out there. Obviously they floated on something, and we know of no other kind of boat-making technology for tens of thousands of years to come. Even if they only lashed logs together to make rafts, as you see in so many castaway films, they would have had to use the similar technology of weaving fibres together to make knots.

In the centuries since, cultures around the world wove boats: Tibetans floated in Ku-Drus of woven wood and yak-skin, Eskimos lashed sealskin around their long umiaks, Arabs traversed the Tigris and Euphrates in quffahs, and the Celts of the British Isles – Irish, Scots and Welsh -- had an amazing variety of coracles for fresh waters and curraghs for the sea.

Most were woven from some local pliable wood – although Eskimos used sometimes used bones -- then covered with some kind of skin, and finally waterproofed in some way. They were often rounder in flat water, like the Irish coracles, and more oval or pointed in running or sea waters, like the Irish curraghs or Eskimo kayaks. They also tended to be alarmingly tiny crafts, often just big enough for one – although a traveller to Iraq in the 1930s reported seeing woven boats large enough to carry several human passengers and a few horses. (2)

Coracles in particular had the basic shape of a bowl, and its users needed substantial practice to avoid tipping over. The advantage, however, was that once the user reached shore, the small and lightweight craft could be lifted and carried on one’s back. An English poet in the 1600s described “salmon-fishers moist, their leather boats begin to hoist,” looking like turtles as they walked away from the water carrying their boats upside-down across the countryside. (3)

On these islands coracles and curraghs were used from ancient times – the ancient Welsh myth cycle the Mabinogion mentions them, as did Julius Caesar on his trip to Britain. Irish monks like St. Columba in the sixth century travelled around isolated islands in a hide-bound boat, and Hector Boece’s 1527 history of Scotland describes their frequent use of coracles:

How be it, the Highlanders have both the writings and language they had before, more ingenious than any other people. How may there be any greater ingenuity than to make any boat of any bull-hide, bound with nothing but wands? This boat is called a curragh, and with it they fish salmon … and when they have done their fishing they bear it to another place on their back as they please.

Fishing was not just a pastime for such people, but a matter of survival; the protein they brought in was precious, especially in Catholic countries where meat was forbidden part of the year. Another common use was to gather fish and eel traps from rivers and lobster pots from the sea – also, of course, woven of wood like baskets. The traps operated on a simple principle; a bit of bait could lure an animal into the trap but, if it were shaped properly, they would be unable to escape.

Coracles also proved useful in other ways; when shepherds washed their sheep, for example, coracle-men positioned themselves downstream to catch any sheep that might be carried away. And, of course, they offered simple transportation across a landscape lined with lakes, rivers and canals, and among many islands separated by the sea.

Each region had its own design – not just region as in “Europe,” but as in each local village or stream; small Welsh rivers like the Teifi, the Taf, the Wye, the Monnow, the Lugg, the Usk, the Dee and the Severn each had their own styles of coracles, each apparently made for the conditions of that place. (4)

Irish coracles and curraghs were woven from willow or hazel, and typically built upside-down. Locals here began by planting a row of hazel rods straight into the ground, continuing in a wide curve until the row came back to where it began. Then, when the rods looked like the bars of a large cage, they wove withies – thin strips of wood – back and forth between the rods along the ground. This would be the gunwale – the “rim” of the boat – when it was flipped over.

Then the hazel rods --- the bars of the cage, as it were -- were bent down across the oval to make a wicker dome, until the whole structure formed a large, solid basket. Then a covering was lashed to the frame – cow-hide was typical, although horse-hide and seal-skin were also used. Finally, the cover was waterproofed – in recent years with tar or some other petroleum derivative, but originally with tallow or butter.

Such ingenious craft opened up new industries, crafts and food sources for ordinary hunters or farmers, allowing them to traverse lakes and rivers easily and travel between islands. They allowed people on islands or in remote areas communicate and trade with the rest of the world. They let people create their own craft for the unique conditions of their place, with nothing more than local resources, knives and skill. In short, for tens of thousands of years human survival depended on such small and unlikely-looking creations.


1) T. Watkins, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration, 1980

T. Watkins, The excavation of an Early Bronze Age cemetery at Barns Farm, Dalgety, Fife, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 112 (1984) p. 48 – 114

2) James Hornell, “Coracles of the Tigris and Euphrates,” The Mariner's Mirror, Volume 24, Issue 2, 1938

3) Andrew Marvell, “Upon Appleton House,” 1651.

4) James Hornell, Water Transport Origins & Early Evolution, 1936.


tornadoDarden describes a family of five who lived on a farm outside of Higdon, Ala., a small community in the northern part of the state. They had no storm shelter, but they did live in a home that he says was well built.

On Saturday, Darden and a partner visited the family. "The mother and three daughters were there at the time," he recalls. Looking at the wall-free ground floor — all that remained of the home—"I introduced myself and said: Thank God y'all were not home. "Her response? "Oh, we were here." With no storm shelter and nothing but a slab foundation left, "I really thought she was joking," he continues. "I asked: Where were you at?"

She led the two men to a spot on the storm-swept slab, where nothing but a small patch of hardwood flooring and a scrap of carpeting remained — parts of each pulled up by the tornado. The rest of the flooring vanished into the vortex and hasn't been found. The patch is all that was left of the interior hallway in which the family huddled. "They were not touched," he says, in a voice tinged with amazement. "They were not sucked up. They didn't have a scratch on them."

— Pete Spotts, “Lessons From the Wreckage: How Alabama Could Help Tornado Preparedness,” Christian Science Monitor, May 4, 2011

With thousands of flattened homes and numerous devastated communities in the aftermath of this week's widespread tornadoes, and roughly 1/3 of the population of the United States under a tornado watch today as storms continue across the Midwestern and Southern states, the following tornado safety and survival tips could help save some lives! Though nothing can guarantee absolute safety in the path of a tornado, outside of a shelter with reinforced concrete and steel walls, understanding something about the nature of tornadoes, safety tips for surviving a tornado strike, and which common folklore is to be trusted or ignored, will improve your chances for making the right decision if that day should come when you are confronted by an approaching tornado.

Tornado Facts and Myths

• It is commonly believed that tornadoes happen mostly in the spring, but the peak of tornado season varies with location, and tornadoes can occur any month of the year. For example, the peak of tornado season in the northern plains and upper Midwest is June or July but it is from May to early June in the southern plains, and even earlier in the spring for the Gulf Coast.

• There is a myth that tornadoes can only spawn and strike in relatively flat areas, but they have actually occurred in high areas of the Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevada, and Appalachian Mountains. Though more frequent in the flatter areas of the plains states and the southeast, tornadoes have been spotted in such varied locations as Vermont, upstate New York, Nevada, and one hiker spotted and photographed a tornado at 12,000 feet in the Sequoia National Park of California.

• A common myth is that trailer parks attract tornadoes. They certainly do not attract tornadoes, but due to their light weight and lack of heavy-duty anchoring to strong structural foundations, trailers are extremely vulnerable to damage from tornadoes.

• Another common myth is that you should open your windows to allow the pressure to equalize should a tornado strike your home. Do not waste your time opening windows. If a tornado strikes, it will blow out the windows, and the last place you should be is near a window, where there is the greatest danger from flying debris and glass.

• There is a common myth that owing to the direction of rotation of tornadoes in the Northern Hemisphere the southwest corner of a building is the safest place to be. This myth is totally false. Corners are areas of buildings that are most prone to damage. The safest areas are in the center of the building in a windowless room or closet, and on the lowest level (in the basement if there is one).

• There is a common myth that highway overpasses provide protection from tornadoes. In fact, the underside of a highway overpass often acts as a wind tunnel, channeling high winds and debris, and there are a number of reported deaths of people who parked under an overpass while seeking shelter from approaching tornadoes.

Tornado Prediction and Warnings

A tornado watch is issued by the National Weather Service (NWS) when they have determined that local conditions are ripe for generating tornadoes. Once a tornado watch has been issued, it is advisable to stay tuned to your local radio and television stations for further updates. If you live in tornado country, the use of a NOAA weather radio is highly recommended, especially those models that have a battery backup and can emit an audible warning whenever a severe weather alert is issued. This is the time to turn on the audible alarm switch on your NOAA radio to alert you if the watch is upgraded to a warning. Once a tornado watch has been issued, stay alert using your eyes, ears, and other senses to watch for signs of an approaching tornado, and make sure you have access to a safe shelter. Watch for unusual behavior on the part of pets and animals that might be an indication of an approaching tornado.

Once a tornado has been spotted visually, or on weather radar, a tornado warning is issued. Once a warning has been issued, you should take immediate precautions and seek shelter. If you live in a mobile home or other poorly protected building, you should seek shelter elsewhere, if possible. Bring your radio with you to listen for status updates and an “all-clear” signal when the warning is over.

Note: Sirens and severe weather alerts may provide advance tornado warnings, but tornadoes can occur in any season and without warning!

Tornado Survival Tips and Strategies

• If you are at home, seek shelter in the bottommost floor, and innermost area, such as an inner hallway, bathroom, or closet. Stay away from windows, outer walls, and building corners. Do not waste time opening windows.

• If you have a “safe room” (a specially constructed room protected by reinforced concrete and/or steel), a basement, root cellar, or storm cellar, those are the safest places to be. In the basement, the safest place is under a sturdy table or mattress, and in a position that is not directly below heavy items on the floor above, such as a refrigerator or piano.
• Protect yourself as best as possible. Wear a bicycle or hockey helmet, if you have one. Crouching in a bathtub or shower stall can provide improved protection, as can lying under a sturdy table or overturned couch.

• If you are in a car, do not try to outrun a tornado as it can travel at speeds in excess of 70 mph. However, it is worth taking a moment to watch the tornado closely, comparing its motion to a fixed object on the ground, so as to gauge its direction of travel. If you see it moving to one side or the other, and can travel in the opposite direction, then do so. If it does not appear to move to the left or right, it is headed straight for you. In that case, you must make a decision. If you have the option of traveling to the right or left, then do so, but if you are stuck in traffic, or the tornado is very close, you must abandon your vehicle and seek shelter, since tornadoes can easily pick up cars and even tractor trailers, sometimes throwing them hundreds of yards. If possible, pull your car to the side of the road and do not park in lanes of traffic, since with the heavy rains that often accompany tornadoes, a driver traveling at high speeds might not see your car parked in the middle of the road.

• If you are stuck in your car with an impending tornado strike, crouch down as low as you can, with your seatbelt buckled, staying away from the windows, and shielding your head with your arms and hands.

• If you are in the open, perhaps having abandoned your car, seek shelter in a building or culvert, or lie down flat in a ditch or depression and cover your head with your hands. Not a pleasant thought, but people have survived tornadoes by doing this! Stay away from cars and trees, since they will become heavy flying objects with the power to kill and maim.

• Do not park under an overpass, since these tend to act as wind tunnels funneling debris and magnifying winds.

• Avoid shopping malls, theatres, gymnasiums, and other buildings with large open interior spaces where the roof might easily collapse. If inside of such a building, with no time to seek shelter elsewhere, seek shelter under a doorjamb or next to an interior wall that may provide some structural support and protection in the event of a building collapse.

This article is adapted from When Disaster Strikes: A Comprehensive Guide for Emergency Planning and Crisis Survival by Matthew Stein


Filson and Rohrbacher’s AtFAB line of do-it-yourself furniture allows anyone with access to a CNC (computer numerical control fabrication) machine to build stylish, modern pieces.

You can select and download a pattern via the AtFAB website, then cut the separate components from any flat material with the use of a CNC machine. After the different pieces have been cut, construction of your new piece of AtFAB furniture is as easy as sliding the interlocking pieces into place and securing them with a handful of hardware.

Patterns for each piece are optimized to create as many components as possible from a single sheet of raw material, and fall under the creative-commons license. The company explains that the entirely digital process "eliminates the energy-intensive waste of global shipping, dispenses with middlemen, and creates local manufacturing jobs."

Don’t have a CNC machine lying around the house? Filson and Rohrbacher has your back. The company suggests finding locations of public fabricators near you at 100kGarages as well as Fabhub.


Partially daubed wattle, Photo courtesy of Wikicommons.

Houses take a lifetime to pay off these days, and even a prosaic shed, barn or coop requires a heavy investment of money, time, skilled labour and imported materials. For thousands of years, though, people around the world used an ancient technique to build homes and other structures quickly, using nothing but local material and simple, easily learned skills.

“Wattle and daub,” as it’s called, takes its name from its two components; a “wattle” was a wicker fence or wall, and the “daub” was the clay plaster – often containing hair and straw -- used to fill in the cracks of the wicker for insulation and privacy, until a smooth wall was created.

Even without the daub, wattles were useful by themselves; farmers could make them as modular, lightweight “hurdles” a metre or two high and across, and then uproot them, carry them to a new position, and stamp them into the ground where needed.

According to author Una McGovern, farmers usually began building wattle hurdles by putting the posts – called sails or zales – into place. Boards of wood with post-sized holes in them, called gallows, kept the posts steady while the farmer wove slim cuttings – “withies” – of willow or hazel back and forth between the posts. At the end of the hurdle the withy would be twisted for greater flexibility, wound around the last zale, and woven back in the other direction. Usually a gap would be left in the middle of the hurdle, called a twilly hole, which allowed a shepherd or farmer to carry a few hurdles as a time on his back.

McGovern writes that hurdle fences were vital to medieval agriculture; by keeping sheep confined without the need for permanent infrastructure, they allowed tenant farmers to graze sheep on a patch of land, letting them manure the fields one by one and deposit the fertilisers necessary for cereal crops. (1) Fourteenth-century woman using a wattle hurdle, from the Tacuinum Sanitatis. Courtesy of Wikicommons.

The same technique could form the walls of a house; typically logs or timbers formed a skeletal frame, with zale posts set in a row between the floor and ceiling. Builders wove wattle between the posts and smeared in the daub, which hardened around the wattle like concrete around rebar.

Not all ancient builders loved it; the Roman architect Vetruvius, in the first century BC, moaned about its hazards in hisTen Books on Architecture:

“As for ‘wattle and daub’ I could wish that it had never been invented,” Vetruvius wrote testily. “…But since some are obliged to use it either to save time or money, or for partitions on an unsupported span, the proper method of construction is as follows. Give it a high foundation so that it may nowhere come in contact with the broken stone-work composing the floor; for if it is sunk in this, it rots in course of time, then settles and sags forward, and so breaks through the surface of the stucco covering.” (2)

Vetruvius’ disdain notwithstanding, however, the technique proved popular throughout the ancient world, among Sumerians, Chinese and Mayans alike. If kept dry the walls would last for centuries, and even now restoring or demolishing old buildings in Europe sometimes reveals wattle inside the walls.

The technique is similar to building in cob, that mixture of sand, straw and clay, mixed with water and squeezed together – usually by humans walking on it. In cob building, handfuls of the mixture – the word “cob” comes from an Old English word for “lump” – are stacked them on top of each other in a row, stomped solid by people’s feet, and then another layer of cob added, until people have a wall.

The straw binds the clay and sand together; instead of a wall’s mass hanging on a few large structures like girders or beams, it hangs on the many tiny structures of the straw. Once the cob dries it can be almost as durable as stone. Bricks are basically cob that has been baked in an oven, and concrete uses a similar principle with gypsum powder, sand and gravel.

Wattle and daub shares most of the advantages of cob: It is completely ecological, requiring no chemicals, no pollution, no machines, generates no toxic waste and is, one might say, dirt cheap. Such walls share cob’s ability to act as a thermal mass, absorbing heat during the day and releasing it slowly at night. Moreover, while cob walls are often very thick to hold the weight of the house, wattle walls can be much thinner and require less material.

Of course, wattle and daub is probably not suitable for modern homeowners unaccustomed to mud walls. That doesn’t mean, however, that it has no relevance to today’s homesteader; animals don’t tend to mind such all-natural surroundings, as long as the interior remains warm and dry, and neither do garden tools.

Such do-it-yourself building methods require almost no money and little skill, only time and labour – which made them practical choices for thousands of agrarian years, but impractical in an age of wealth and convenience. In this age of widespread unemployment, however, many households have less money and more time than they are used to, and might find some older techniques to be viable once again.


1 – Una McGovern, Lost Crafts, published by Chambers, 2009.

2 – Vetruvius, Ten Books on Architecture, Chapter 8, Section 20.

Top photo: Partially daubed wattle. Courtesy of Wikicommons.

Bottom photo: 15th-century woman using a wattle hurdle. Courtesy of Wikicommons.



When a storm threatens in the country, you know the power is likely to go off at some time – it’s really more a question of when and for how long rather than if, so those of us who have lived out here long, know it’s best to get ready. We keep a lantern on our bedroom dresser all winter, candles and matches in ready supply, a plug-in flashlight – that turns itself on immediately when the power goes out so that there is a little light while you get things together and the trusty Coleman stove with filled propane tanks. Since the well water (powered by electric) will not be working, filled coffeepot and jugs of fresh water have to be stored nearby.

We usually keep our entry full of firewood but at this particular time it was low, so Rolfe shoveled a trench through the 14” to the wood storage area and we loaded up a couple wheelbarrows-full of wood and brought them in for immediate use. Another way he spent his day was in shoveling snow off the roofs of our two greenhouses. They are made of plastic and aluminum and 14” of snow is a little heavy for sitting atop them! He has a long-handled broom for this purpose and had to pile up and pack the snow to make him taller so he could reach nearly to the top of the greenhouses. This task had to be performed more than once daily, so even though he’s skipped his exercise in the morning, he felt assured that he’d gotten more than enough of a workout by day’s end. In the greenhouses, in fall, we install some extra posts for holding up the greenhouses in case of these events, but in times of deep snow, one must do more! If the snow is soft, you can tap gently on the ceiling from the inside to get the snow to slide off, but this snow was not going anywhere without his help!

When we lost the electricity, it was 5 o’clock or so, so we decided a vodka-lemon-tonic was in order. And, since the work day was done – it was time to celebrate the night!! Happily, I had shopped on Wednesday, for food and supplies to bolster us through the coming weather. Rolfe and I have two different methods with our computers when the power goes out, he (intelligently) has a backup battery on his computer which gives you a couple minutes to save everything and then turn it off. I, on the other hand, just save like crazy at the first sign of a “brown out” or “flicker” of lights and turn everything off ‘til things become more reliable. Anyhow, the computers were safely shut down and it was time to relax! We got out cards and played, til time to “rough it” and make dinner on the Coleman stove. But, after dinner, we wanted to relax and began to think a little harder.

We invested in a generator several years ago, it was a used one and unreliable to begin with, but we followed up with investing in a total tune-up (a must) and we were ready to put that baby to use. A benefit of Rolfe’s earlier shoveling to the woodshed was that the generator was in a building nearby and it wouldn’t be very hard to hook up and give us availability to a movie night! We had a heavy-duty extension cord already coming across the drive nearby (relative to our fairly recent Christmas lights – serendipity rocks!!) so with a quick trip down the trench, we were soon set up for a night of relaxation with all the creature comforts. I must admit, the more ready you are for a winter storm, the more life in the country remains a fun and glorious adventure. We’ve also weathered storms without these comforts and trust me, it is sometimes much less enjoyable. In particular I am reminded of a November storm in the 90’s where my parents were visiting. We hung very close to the fireplace, working on puzzles while we had daylight, to the point that my Dad commented that he really needed the power back on so we could “quit having all this fun having to work on puzzles”, not his favorite pass-time. We had given he and my Mom our master suite upstairs (we lived in another location), where we had a skylight over our waterbed, on the floor, and we laughed at their challenges of getting a wave going to surf their way out of bed.

As husband dearest and I laid on the floor of the living room “sleeping”, I spent the night awake, listening to the trees as they groaned and bent and swayed dangerously and limbs crackled to the ground, and pretty much trying to hold up all the trees and spare my parents having a great one crash in through their skylight! In the morning, when I inquired how their sleep was, they said great!! They had the blessing of being sound sleepers and while I waited up and worried, they slept the night away, no problem and had not even been aware of their imminent danger.

As we finished the movie, the power came back on – what a happy surprise, we could turn off the lantern, brush our teeth with the lights on, wash our dishes, flush our toilets, refill our water set-ups and in general celebrate this moment of power but get set up for the power when it was gone again, and settle in for a great night’s sleep.Red Beets

And, as quickly as the power returned, it was gone again. By morning we were back in pioneer mode without computers, lights or power and this time, a first in my memory, the phones were down too. (We live in a cell-phone free zone). When you can’t be on the phone, it’s very different than not wanting to be on the phone! We did use the snow to our advantage, though, and did a "flash chill" on some red-beets for lunch - they just taste better cold!

We put on boots and suited up to go down to get the morning paper – surprise – it wasn’t there. But, already our exercise for the day had begun. As I mentioned, each time we ventured out, it was more comfortable to be out in the snow and at this point it was still all intact and virgin looking except for the few trenches that we’d constructed. In addition to the trench to the woodpile/generator, we had to dig our way out to the chicken house. In these cold times, their water freezes and has to be served up fresh and food must be supplied. We did not choose to let them out of the house to walk in the 14” of snow, so they too were stuck indoors. And, the path to the greenhouses, so we could check on the temperature and keep the roofs snow-free. The only other sign of us was boot tracks from our trudging. As lovely as everything was, this storm came with no sun or blue sky, so photography was difficult, things were mainly in shades of black, and white and gray.

Rolfe feeds the birds and though we threw out bird seed, it was getting sunk down in to the snow and our little friends were having a hard time retrieving it. So, we cleared off the entry porch and fed the birds there, a real joy to have them so close as we lay on the couch to read – our only possible entertainment being once again without electricity, and not wanting to run the generator all day.

I was snuggled up with a blanket, deeply involved in my book, as was Rolfe, enjoying our little mini-vacation where no one ventured out. There were still no sounds of vehicles going by and our driveway was still 14” deep with now, our little car buried. Then, to my amazement, there was a knock at our door. A friend of ours said that they were on their way to Portland (2-1/2 hours north of here and experiencing a much deeper snowstorm) and had a flat tire and their jack wasn’t working so since they were sitting in the middle of the highway, could we please help them out. So, off the couch we go, Rolfe had to brush the snow off our car to get into the trunk and locate our car jack and as they returned to fix it, another car had happened along and by the time we reached their car, the problem was already taken care of.

We advised them to go back home (only 15 minutes into their journey) and forget the long aggravating, possibly car or life threatening task ahead of them. But, she is a new Grandma and it was baby’s first birthday party. So, who knows which way they decided to head. I have an e-mail in to her to find out how that story wrote itself. But, the funny thing is, even living way out in the country, you are really never alone. Someone can come by even when you least expect it!

By Sunday at 12:30 in the afternoon, our power came back with the phones not far behind and it is amazing how quickly we forget what it’s like to be without power. But, on this occasion at least, we had found this to be an excellent, restful, but with busy-ness holiday from normal life.

And, now it’s Tuesday. Amazingly, due to a little warm up in temperature, and the beginning of rain the snow is almost gone and we can go about our normal lives – driving, computing, etc. But, with a heavy winter rain storm, the creeks arising, and I gotta go do dishes and fill water pots. It’s not only snow that causes power outages!

How to Power Up for Power-Free Day

Coleman stove
Extra propane tanks for lantern and stove
Filled teapot for coffee and filled jugs of water
Generator, filled with gas
Extension cords to run generator
Groceries and necessities so you don’t need to go out
A good book to read
Backup batteries for flashlight


Sign In The Snow

We moved out to the Pacific Northwest from Ohio oh so many years ago for many reasons, but one of the big ones was a milder climate. At that time, Rolfe (husband dearest) was a builder and the winters seemed mighty long to his cold fingers, toes, legs, ears, nose, well, you get it. Anyhow, most years, we are blessed with receiving that mild kind of weather but this year, along with the whole rest of the country we received the Artic Snowfreeze Storm. It landed on Thursday and shut just about everything down. Then, it continued on Friday and by Saturday we had 14” out here in our mild climate.

I had a lot of fun watching the depth grow and change – looking out the window behind my computer, I could see the snow fast overtaking everything. Our espalier (pruned early this year and looking great!) had almost no remaining trunk with all that snow, and looked like it sprung out with its side-flowing branches almost immediately from the ground. My little fig tree (not even knee high yet) kept building snow until less than 1” of its highest limbs were showing – could determine its location mainly by the marker stick beside it. We live over a mountain pass off a State Highway where they take great care of the road, but during this particular storm, things became mighty quiet and there was hardly any sound of passing cars. This storm was serious, and a time for all to be home.Snowed Over Green Houses

We hunkered down, happy to still have electricity – an iffy thing during our infrequent storms. Workers were called off; after all, even if they could make it here, how could we know what conditions would prevail by the time they wanted to return to their own home. And, much of the work is outdoors. What’s a person to do under 14” of snow? The first day, I could barely stand to go outside. It was cooooooooooold and we’d recently returned from Mexico where we experienced 85 degrees daily. So my body was quite rebellious to the whole outdoorsy idea. But, there are necessities that draw you out (we are, after all, a mail-order seed business — — with a functioning computer and thus wanted to get those orders off to our customers at the earliest possible moment.

Each time I ventured out, I became more accustomed to the temperature and began to find it more and more delightful with each experience. Rolfe may not have found it quite as pleasant since he was the one who was in charge of getting up on the 8 ft ladder with a push broom to get the snow off the greenhouses so that they wouldn't collapse. That's tough work but he survived and the greenhouses did too. Sadly, many in our area did not fair so well.

Snowy AdventurerWe also were very proud of our post office and delivery person for staying open and carrying on following their old adage “Through rain, and the sleet and snow…….” It is hard to imagine fulfilling one’s job under these conditions – pulling over to each unshoveled individual mailbox to deposit our orders and bills and junk and to take away our fulfilled orders. Kudos to the mail-persons!! And, it was actually a treat for my husband and I to work just the two of us, a rare event these days in our business. Happy is the couple who can work together after 41 years and call it a treat! As darkness drew near, real darkness came when the lights (and all electric) went out in late afternoon. Then, our “pioneer” skills were really called upon.

Posted by Janet

Continued next time. . .


Three baskets made by the author

When I was growing up in the USA, people used “basket-weaving” as slang for insultingly easy busywork, like the college courses given to ringers on the football team. The implication was that weaving a basket requires no intelligence and has no purpose – the ultimate time-waster.

Few people today have ever woven a basket --- even the insult sounds antique, a relic of an age when schools taught practical crafts. Fewer people still have any idea how vital basketry was to human survival for tens of thousands of years, or how many things can be made from basketry beyond decorative containers.

Homestead Uses for Baskets

For example: Animal traps. Armour. Beehives. Boats.

Cages. Chairs. Chicken coops. Coffins. Fences.

Hand tools. Hats. Huts. Sheds.

Tables. Wagons. Walls. Weirs.

You get the idea. Basketry has been used to make all these things at one time or another, and a few aficionados still make many of these things out of woven wood here in rural Ireland.

Basketry History

Because wood decomposes, we don’t dig up basket bits as often as we do arrow heads or sculptures, but they were probably much more commonplace and vital to our ancestors. Archaeologists have found basket pieces as old as 13,000 years ago, and woven impressions on ceramics – indicating fibres or baskets – from as much as 29,000 years ago. (1) We also know that humans reached Australia at least 40,000 years ago, and must have either woven a basket-and-hide boat, as the Irish did into the 20th century, or made a raft with the related technology of knots. For all we know, the technique could be as old as hominids; certainly some apes use primitive tools, and I know of no reason that Australopithecines could not have woven baskets.

Thus we know that at least some of our forebears practiced the craft while they still lived alongside mammoths and sabre-toothed cats, and might have slept in basket-framed huts, and kept predators out with basket fences. Some might have caught eels in basket traps, which they might have gathered while paddling rivers in a basket-frame boat. They might have begun their lives rocked to sleep in basket cribs and returned to the earth in basket coffins.

 “The technology of basketry was central to daily living in every aboriginal society,” wrote Neil Sugihara, and baskets “were the single most essential possession in every family.” Early humans must have regularly cropped basketry plants as they would edible plants, and burned woodlands to encourage their growth, according to anthropologist M. K. Anderson. Anderson even proposes that some of the first agriculture might have been to grow basketry crops, not food crops – baskets might have created civilisation. (2) (3)

Starting a wicker basket

Let’s clarify some terms: basketry involves weaving thin sticks or wood strips in some way; if it used only plant fibres, it would be “cloth.” Baskets can be woven with any one of hundreds of plant species; here in Ireland writers spoke of using dogwood, privet, larch, blackthorn and chestnut branches; broom, jasmine and periwinkle twigs; elm, and linden shoots; ivy, clematis, honeysuckle and rose vines; rushes and other reeds, and straw. Perhaps the most popular, however, was willow -- highly pliable when steamed, lightweight and tough when dried, and growing so quickly that a new crop of branches up to two to three metres long can be harvested each year. 

Weavers here in rural Ireland traditionally cut their willow from massive century-old stumps that had never been mature trees, but kept growing each year, fed by their roots and new shoots. The shoots were trimmed each winter and left to dry for several months, then steamed to make pliable again – the wood shrinks as it dries, so simply weaving the green shoots would result in a loose and rickety basket.

Types of Baskets

Baskets come in several types, classified by the way they are woven, like coiled, plaited, twined or wicker. Modern Westerners are unlikely to have seen most of these, although once I knew what “twining” was I realised I had seen it in home-made floor mats. In twining – an old Native American technique -- are wound around a stick, twisted, and wrapped around the next one, until a row of fibres going in one direction wrap a row of sticks going the other. The sticks would seem to limit this approach to flat surfaces, but bending and shaping the sticks allows twining to create a variety of containers and shapes. 

Coiled baskets wind flexible wood strips or fibres in a spiral, starting in the middle and working outwards. The spiral pattern limits them to circular objects like bowls or hats, but that still leaves many uses. For thousands of years beehives were made this way, called skeps – it was only in the 19th century that humans discovered how to make modern beehives with slats that can be removed, allowing beekeepers to collect honey without destroying the hive. Straw hats are still made this way, using bits of straw that are plaited – braided – together and then sewn into a spiral. Victorian children earned money this way, and contemporary writers described gangs of teens loitering on street-corners gossiping while folding straw together, as teens today might stand around texting.

Wood and other fibres could also be plaited, with flexible materials criss-crossed like threads through cloth. The Irish flattened and plaited bulrushes for hundreds of years into mats and curtains; rushes were harvested each year, flattened and interwoven, and set to dry. Here too, the approach would seem to limit plaiting to flat surfaces, but as the rushes must be woven while green and flexible and harden as they dry, they can be plaited around a mould to create boxes, bags or many other shapes.

Wicker, however, probably remains the most versatile technique, weaving flexible but sturdy material like tree shoots around upright sticks that provide support. Wicker is the form used for fences, walls, furniture, animal traps and most containers – when I say “basket,” you’re probably picturing something fashioned wicker-style.

All of these techniques could be practiced today, and while that’s true of many traditional crafts, most of those require substantial training, infrastructure, and an investment of money and time. Basketry, however, requires only a few days of training to learn basic techniques, and can use materials that be harvested naturally from almost every biome on Earth. It can be practiced around a modern working schedule, and can beautiful, durable and sustainable tools and furnishings for all areas of life.


(1)    Archeologické rozhledy, 2007, Baskets in Western America 8600 BP: American Antiquity 60(2), 1995, pp. 309-318.
(2)    Fire in California's ecosystems, By Neil G. Sugihara, p. 42
(3)    Anderson, M.K. – The fire, pruning and coppice management of temperate ecosystems for basketry material by Californian Indian tribes. Human Ecology 27(I) 79-113. 1999.

Furnishings made out of wicker (courtesy of WikiCommons)

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