My recent visit to the Lowcountry of South Carolina led me to a group of women who have inspired me. The Gullah women, Edith, Marie, Eyvette, Geneva, and hundreds of others like them are carrying on a tradition of weaving sweetgrass baskets along with their stories which began in Sierra Leone hundreds of years ago and continue today. With (mostly) women passing the skills down the generations, they have preserved a unique culture from the coast of South Carolina to North Florida and the Sea Islands.
Using a piece of bone or an end of a spoon, they weave in slice after slice of the Lowcountry marsh grasses: palmetto, bulrush, and pine needles, coiling them into surprising shapes and sizes and of a staggering level of craftsmanship. Strands that have withstood floods and droughts, wind and frost, are as strong as the women themselves. Creating beautiful shapes that become rice winnowers, fruit and bread bowls, and dry leaf pots, these women tell the story of slavery, parenthood, and a culture held together with a unique Gullah language and spirit the likes of which are seldom seen in this country.
When I talked with Edith she was working on the base of a new piece. I asked her if she had a drawing or some type of plan for how she would complete her coiled basket. She said in a wistful tone and a salty drawl, “No, I let it tell me what it’s gonna be. Sometimes I have a plan and when I’m finished it’s nothing like what I thought I was gonna to make.” Then she looked at me and her entire face crinkled into smile, happy I had asked.
It was just then I understood. When I write, my fingers type furiously and I think I am taking my story to one place and then I let my mind go and the story decides what the final shape will look like. I like to imagine I am a weaver of stories, folding in nuanced pieces of character and the human condition like the strands of palmetto and bulrush.
I smiled back at Edith and told her we are sisters in creating. She nodded her head, already knowing this.
I walked on and wondered what else she knows.