As part of an ongoing effort to make content more accessible, LAM will be making select stories available to readers in Spanish.
Atlas Lab connects Mariposa County’s future to the native landscape.
Sourberry, red willow, redbud, sedge: These are some of the plants native to the meadows and creek sides of Mariposa County, at the mouth of California’s Yosemite Valley, where for thousands of years the women of the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation have woven them into baskets—for gathering food, for cradling infants high and safe while the women work, and for receiving babies as they’re born.
Most recently, Miwuk basketry is the focus of a public art installation helping to inform Sacramento-based Atlas Lab’s development of a Creative Placemaking Master Plan for Mariposa County. As a demonstration project to invite community input while broadening perceptions of the possibilities for public art, the temporary installation is located beside a footbridge crossing Mariposa Creek, where once-plentiful native plants are now struggling in a landscape transformed by settlement. “The strength we have as landscape architects is to reveal these hidden histories,” says Atlas Lab’s founder and principal Kimberly Garza, ASLA.
To produce the work on display, a tribal elder, Sandra Chapman, taught a circle of Miwuk women how to weave a receiving basket, handing on knowledge that her family has preserved through millennia. “To be in the tradition of weaving, you have to slow down a lot,” says Clay River, the managing director of the Miwuk Nation’s healing center and a participant in the weaving circle. “You have to let the plant tell you how to work with it.” Basket making requires knowledge of whether a plant is healthy, when and how to harvest it, and how much to take without taking too much. Then there’s the process of scraping off the leaves and prepping the bark—splitting and soaking it or wrapping it to dry—and waiting months for it to season, or, if it’s for use right away, knowing how long it can soak without rotting and when it’s malleable enough to work. That’s just building up to being able to sit to weave, which takes patience: “You’re pressing these tiny strips of bark in and out of these sourberry sticks,” River says, “and you have to be thoughtful of how the color is interweaving and how the material is reacting. It takes hours just to make a little bit.” The weavers fill the hours with their stories.
“The baskets are an expression of our local sense of place, heritage, and identity,” says Mikey Goralnik, ASLA, a planner with Mariposa County. With Ah-Lo’-Mah’ (Miwuk for “basket”) as the first in what will be a series of placemaking installations, “we’re trying to expand the way people think about our history and the events that make this a special place,” he says.
Katharine Logan is an award-winning writer on environmental design, sustainability, and well-being.