It perches on my desk like a trophy. Its base is five inches in diameter, and its sides are punctuated by lopsided holes and protruding stems. It stands 10 inches tall and lists slightly. The handle is braided, pigtail-style.
An eyesore maybe, but a badge of triumph nonetheless. Though it took blood, sweat and, if not tears, a major blow to my self-esteem, my first foray into basket-weaving yielded a treasure I will always cherish.
Basket-weaving is a joke, I thought--the stuff of summer camp and Martha Stewart Living.
Not so, says Jean Tierney. It's about coming "back to the earth, seeing what you can do with nature types," she explains. Tierney is the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission naturalist who has overseen "the Basket Bunch," a group that meets monthly to fashion baskets from natural materials, for the last 13 years.
"Sometimes we don't make a reason to get outdoors," she continues. Basket-weaving "makes us tied into our natural surroundings better."
Tierney sends me the Basket Bunch's newsletter, which provides the group's monthly itinerary and a list of supplies that participants will need: a sharp knife, needle-nose pliers, loppers, work gloves and clothespins.
Enthusiasm, fortunately, is not on the list.
When I arrived at Harmony Hall Regional Center on a recent Wednesday morning, there were over a dozen people already assembled, most wearing shorts and T-shirts with name tags on them. They were homemakers, retired bureaucrats, teachers and folk artists, some of whom have been part of the Basket Bunch for years. A chorus of oohs and aahs rang out as members showed off the previous month's handiwork.
Audrey Dienelt, a 71-year-old retired psychologist who was the session's leader, announced that it was time to car-pool to the site where we'd harvest the material--this month it's weeping willow--needed to make the baskets.
We traveled to a house where Dienelt had convinced one of her Fort Washington neighbors to let us plunder her weeping willow tree. It was about 10:30 a.m. and already 70 degrees. Two or three of us pulled down the branches and took turns lopping them off. From a ladder, Dick Smith, 68, sorted the branches into piles on the neatly trimmed lawn.
Smith, who used to work in life insurance, began weaving 12 years ago when he bought a kit for his granddaughter. "To me, it's been a great hobby," says Smith, who owns a farm in Harwood with his wife and teaches basket-weaving to community groups.
"It's therapy," he says. "The world gets busy. Through the process of basket-making, I find myself. In college, 'Basket-weaving 101' is a joke, but it's really a serious hobby, and a productive one."
Smith scoffed at the thought of profiting from his favorite pastime. "I don't sell my baskets," says Smith, who that day was the Basket Bunch's only male. "They're like my children."
Back at Harmony Hall, we held the branches over the garbage cans and slid our gloved hands down each one to strip off the leaves. Several piles of thin, slightly moist, green reeds remained. It was time to start weaving.
Dienelt demonstrated a simple technique that creates a much sturdier basket than the standard in-and-out weave. She made it look easy, but my fingers refused to obey. As she demonstrated the maneuver for the sixth time, I was tempted to toss the green knot out the window and flee the room.
Just Cindy Rowe, a 53-year-old folk artist from Severna Park, and I remained at what we dubbed the remedial table.
"It looks like a drunk made it," Rowe declared of her basket.
Ten-year-old Avery Browen, who was visiting Rowe from New Jersey, tried to comfort his aunt. "Oh, it's perfect," he assured her, examining the tiny basket. "You can just say, 'That's how I meant for it to look.' "
The rest of the Basket Bunchers were generating multiple masterpieces. Smith fashioned a perfect, sturdy basket. Persis Suddeth, a 71-year-old Bowie resident who is a 12-year Basket Bunch veteran, created an elegant basket in an intricate, laced pattern.
At 1:30 p.m., though, I was still sitting across from Rowe, still flustered and frustrated. By then I'd abandoned Dienelt's fancy technique and adopted the one I used on construction paper in kindergarten. I declared the basket finished, but it still looked like a twisted clump of green.
"No offense," Rowe said with a giggle, "but next time, I'll know to sit next to someone who knows what they're doing."
The Basket Bunch's next two outings are from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Aug. 12 (cattail leaves) and Sept. 23 (morning glory vines) at Patuxent River Park, 1600 Croom Airport Rd., Upper Marlboro. Dues are $10 a year, $12 for those who live outside Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Visitors are welcome but must call ahead for a copy of the group's newsletter and each session's location. Call 301-627-6074. Beginners are welcome. Really.