The Long View

The Long View

Jonathan Kline

Jonathan Kline’s sleek and sturdy forms have enriched American basketry. But these days, the artist sees an environmental threat on the horizon. Photo: Matt Wittmeyer

Armed with a chain saw and a keen eye, Jonathan Kline will head out on his tractor in May or June in search of a substance that’s essential to his craft – and endangered.

He’ll find it on a damp swath of his neighbor’s land: black ash trees, their leaflet-feathered branches swaying above dark gray trunks. He’ll choose one or two trees that look tall, straight, and healthy enough to yield the smooth, supple splints (long strips of wood) he’ll weave into baskets and sculptures prized by curators and collectors.

But this spring, as he has for the past several springs, Kline is intensely aware of a looming threat, signaled by tiny, telltale D-shaped holes. These would signal that the armies of Asian beetles that first landed near Detroit more than a dozen years ago have finally invaded Trumansburg, his rural outpost nestled between two Finger Lakes in upstate New York. “I’ve yet to see the emerald ash borer, but it’s moving closer every year,” says Kline, 61.

In fact, the dreaded beetle was detected last fall only 40 miles to the west, in Hammondsport, New York, says Mark Whitmore, a forest entomologist with Cornell University’s Department of Natural Resources.

He and other EAB experts say the alien insect, which hitchhiked on packaging for automotive parts, had plenty of natural predators and resistance in its native Asia. But in North America, says Whitmore, “we have no indication at all that there’s any resistance to EAB.” Insecticide can control EAB, but the treatment is too costly for widespread use. Thus the beetle, whose larvae feed on the inner bark of ash trees, has spread quickly – despite quarantines on the transport of unprocessed wood such as firewood.

When – not if – the beetle infests his region’s black ash trees, Kline says, ‘‘that’s going to change dramatically the way I work.”

“Right now, I go out and cut a tree or two and work with them as I need them. It’s a pace that hasn’t changed in years. But once I see an infestation, I’m going to go out and cut enough trees to last my whole life.”

The beetle attacks all varieties of ash, including the white ash prized by makers of furniture, baseball bats, and some baskets. But craftspeople like Kline are more selective. “There is not a substitute for the black ash tree,” he says. “It’s unique in the way that the growth layers separate from each other.”

Kline describes his laborious process: After cutting a black ash tree, the artist finds the parts that are straight and knot-free, usually 8 to 10 feet long, then, with a tractor and truck, takes them back to the studio near his home on a 60-acre spread where he’s lived for two decades with his wife, weaver Flora Marranca.

He shaves off the bark with a drawknife. Then he pounds the bare log with a 3-pound steel mallet, crushing the spongy outer layer of springwood so that the underlying latewood peels off easily. Compared with the 1-centimeter-thick rings of the white and green ash, those of the black ash are only about 4 millimeters thick. Each log yields about 100 pliant, evenly grained, sour-smelling splints – enough for about 50 baskets ­– that he coils and stores.

Before weaving, Kline soaks the coiled splints in water, then trims and shaves them. The artist then weaves the resulting sleek strips “by hand and eye” – using neither forms nor glue, only casein-base paint, and rims and handles carved out of shagbark hickory harvested from his own land.

Kline calls his craft “the ultimate elemental thing: You go out into the woods and cut a tree and make something beautiful and useful.’’

The results of Kline’s labor – ranging from tabletop baskets to 7-foot-tall abstract sculptures – can be viewed in galleries nationwide (and on his website, of course).

Last fall, four of Kline’s baskets were displayed in “A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery.

Kline’s role, as well as his work, have become even more valuable amid the threat of EAB, says Nicholas Bell, the Fleur and Charles Bresler senior curator of American craft and decorative art, who curated the show.

“He plays a very important role in maintaining the transfer of knowledge from generation to generation,” Bell says, noting that Kline apprenticed with fourth-generation basket maker Newt Washburn, then, in turn, trained his young neighbor, Jamin Uticone.

“Jonathan is the linchpin between the generations,” Bell says, “and is also key in demonstrating that this isn’t a static tradition, it’s a constantly evolving force.” Having mastered the traditional basket-making techniques, Kline has “developed a more modern aesthetic,” Bell says.

“I like very minimalist design,” Kline says. “I’ve never really been that interested in weaving techniques and pattern. I’m more interested in creating strong, functional forms.”

And he plans to continue creating those forms out of black ash for years to come, hoarding logs if he must – waiting for the day when he can teach the techniques to his baby granddaughter.

Sebby Wilson Jacobson is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher in Rochester, New York.


A Threat to Traditions

Jonathan Kline’s concerns about the future of his craft are echoed by other basket makers throughout North America, including Native Americans whose culture and craft have been rooted for millennia in the black ash, which they call “the basket tree.”

Theresa Secord, a Penobscot artisan who led the founding of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance 20 years ago, fears that because of EAB, black ash basketry could disappear like other cultural traditions, such as the Penobscot language. Her group is collaborating with the University of Maine’s forestry department to prepare for the worst, preserving traditional techniques via videos of basket makers at work, experimenting with freezing black ash logs.

Using her great-grandmother’s basketry tools, Secord is training her young niece. Other basket makers, she says, are saving black ash seeds for their grandchildren and marking trees they’ll harvest and throw in the family pond, an age-old preservation technique.

Combatting the pest with chemicals is not an option for basket maker Les Benedict, the Black Ash Project coordinator for the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment, in northern New York around the St. Lawrence River. He worries about the potential collateral damage to wildlife and human life: For many Native Americans, the black ash has long been a source of medicine, treating everything from earaches to intestinal ailments.

Advocating natural methods to counteract EAB, he trains members of his community to identify, collect, and prepare black ash seeds for shipping to the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado, where they are frozen – a cache for re-establishing the trees should the danger ever pass or resistance methods improve.

Noting the many losses his people have faced over the centuries, Benedict says, “this basket making was the one thing that held strong. Now this is being threatened.”

Tens of millions of ash trees have been killed as EAB has spread throughout the Great Lakes basin, south into Tennessee, as far west as Colorado and as far north as Quebec. Of the 20 or so varieties of ash in North America, black ash is perhaps the most vulnerable; it is the least common, slowest growing, and most depleted by decades of over-cutting.  ~SWJ