I’ve been messing around with tree bark lately…more specifically, from a Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) that came down in a storm back in early July. I was working at the Gladie Visitor Center one rainy morning when some visitors reported that a tree was down across one lane of the nearby road. I walked out to size-up the situation, taking my trusty Silky Bibgoy, which has been a fine companion in the backcountry for moderate trail work. In most cases, we let the highway crews deal with blow-downs on state and county roads. Fortunately, this tree wasn’t too large for me to handle on my own, being around 50 ft in length (former height), and I noticed almost immediately that it was a Slippery Elm. It didn’t take more than 10 minutes to cut-off the upper branches that were blocking the lane and then drag them off the road.
But as I was sawing, it occurred to me that this was prime-time for bark harvesting; for in high summer, the sap flow in trees is at its strongest. This particular Slippery Elm was already felled by natural forces, and it seemed to me that to leave such fine material to decay slowly over time would be wasteful. My prudent, inner-aboriginal self took over, and over the course of the past few months, I have made 3 baskets from this tree.
Slipper Elm (Ulmus rubra) leaves. The Latin species designation ‘rubra’ likely derives from the fact that its winter buds are red, though the inner bark and sapwood also turn a red-orange colour after being exposed to oxygen.
Last week I decided to make a quiver, for a friend and co-worker requested it, and because I just love working with my hands in the manner of aboriginal peoples, to make things like simple containers that we today take for granted. I am reminded of ‘The Giving Tree’ by Shel Silverstein, a favourite book from my childhood, when crafting such fine material….and Slippery Elm is quite the giving tree. Indigenous Americans have made medicinal use of the inner bark¹, and even today it is a common ingredient in natural cough medicines. The inner bark can also be processed into exceptionally strong cordage. But the focus for this post will be its use in basketry.
As stated previously, summer is the best time to gather bark for making containers. During the colder months, bark will adhere tightly due to diminishing sap flow as the tree enters a sort of hibernation period. Tulip-tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra), willows (Salix spp.), poplars (Populus spp.) birches (Betula spp.), and Basswood (Tilia spp.) all possess decent bark to work with.
**Lest this post be misunderstood, I would like mention that I do not advocate the needless skinning of live, healthy, standing trees. I have seen trees that have withstood countless cuts, chops, and stabs from all manner of metal instruments by thoughtless, irresponsible campers, and they are a sad sight to see. Sad because, as is almost always the case, disease enters through the wounds and causes severe internal issues, like heartwood rot, and soon enough the tree becomes a hazard. Maybe I’m overly sentimental, but I believe that these pillars of the Earth have a far greater purpose than to be so carelessly disposed-of for the entertainment of delinquent bipeds.**
That said, this post isn’t intended to be a how-to so much as it is meant to portray the range of possibilities one has with quality material, a fair amount of patience, and respect for the resource. In keeping with the aboriginal aspect of things, I chose to make this quiver as primitively as I could, using stone tools for much of the construction.
I used a simple hand-axe (local Kentucky hornstone) to chop an outline of approximately 20 inches length. That section was mostly knot-free – knots can cause splitting issues. The other tool is a simple prying bar I made out of a branch from the same tree, though I tapered one end like a flat-head screwdriver. This tool is used to gently lever the bark off the sapwood as well as to make short, careful slicing motions down the length of the piece to separate it from the trunk. Don’t put much pressure on the bark – push against the sapwood with the tool too avoid splitting. This step can take awhile, so patience is a worthy asset. Small splits aren’t worth getting upset about.
Because this piece was harvested rather late in summer, and because that part of the tree is no longer growing, I used the flat of my hand-axe to carefully pound all around that section of bark before using the prying tool. This often helps loosen the inner bark fibres from the sapwood. Using a simple wooden mallet works just as well.
With the sides are removed from the sapwood, I used the prying tool to work on the underside of the lower end. Once I had about 4 inches separated, I could push the tool up to remove the rest. My efforts yielded a good 20 inch section with only a small 3 inch split. For a quiver, I don’t consider a minor split or two to be an issue at all. Throughout the construction process, I recommend keeping the bark section damp, as it improves flexibility and workability.
Now comes the tedious part of drilling holes to sew the piece together. This took some planning, as well as listening to the bark’s input….by which I mean reading the grain of the bark (which typically runs vertically), a lot like how a traditional carpenter reads the grain of wood before he takes a bite with his chisel. My drill is a simple flake, made of Kentucky hornstone, which I refined with some direct percussion and pressure-flaking.
For all three previous baskets, I used the bast, or inner bark, from the same tree to sew them into shape. In the background of the above photo, you can see two of those baskets, as well as the fibres I use. The darker stuff is the Slippery Elm bast, but the lighter-coloured fibres are those of dogbane. I collected 13 dogbane plants back in late May, and then let them “season” for a few weeks before I processed them. I will add a post about my method of extracting the fibres from dogbane in the near future.
With the holes made, all that was left to do was sew up the piece and fit a wooden stopper for the bottom. This took some trial-and-error, but was facilitated with my saw. I cut a round 4.5 inch x 3/4 inch section of downed Canada Hemlock for a tight fit in the bottom. I chose to use no aboriginal adhesives (such as pine/spruce pitch glue and hide glue) and instead keep it a simple friction fit. I tied-on three lengths of extra dogbane fibres to reinforce the bark from the exterior, braiding their ends together. This helps counteract the outward push of the wooden stopper and adds some natural decoration.
Here is the finished quiver! It was rimmed with a wide piece of Slippery Elm bast. I used dogbane fibres for all the sewing. My co-worker loves the quiver and will be using it now that deer archery season has opened in the county. This probably took me a little over 4 hours total to make from scratch…4 hours of taking my time. Aside from using my saw to cut the wooden stopper for the bottom, everything else was completed with aboriginal tools.
Source of Research