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Prairie Loving is an Art

Article overview: At Native Lands Restoration Collaborative, education is central to our mission, and we believe art is everywhere. In addition to offering restoration workdays, we find meaning and importance in gathering to learn about all of the gifts the land offers, by engaging in events such as the Fiber and Dye Walk and Gather on August 28, 2023.

 

The evening was still warm, but pleasantly so in comparison to the recent heat wave. A couple dozen artists, prairie lovers, farmers and other sorts of Lawrence denizens gathered at Blazing Star Prairie for a late summer Fiber and Dye Walk and Gather.


A group of participants gather on the raised deck behind Courtney and Ryan’s white farmhouse in North Lawrence. In the foreground, Sunday the dog lays in a bed of wild strawberries happily showing her tongue.


We started on the old farmhouse deck, making new connections, catching up with friends, drinking tea and perusing the gorgeous display of local plant-dyed yarn, harvested plant materials, how-to books and handwoven baskets.


A display of art books, natural fibers, dye demonstration sheets, and jars filled with plant materials are spread out along two tables on the wooden deck. The top book reads “Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes.”


Foraged and found fibers on display, courtesy of fiber enthusiast Liz Bonny.







Courtney Masterson began with a welcome, introducing the current staff and board of Native Lands Restoration Collaborative, and explained her and Ryan Riedel’s relationship to the land - as the present land stewards in a succession of people who for millennia have maintained a relationship with the prairie, currently known as Blazing Star Prairie due to the spectacular abundance of purple Liatris pycnostachya growing naturally on site.


A photo taken at peak bloom of prairie blazing stars and compass plants, as seen at the Open Prairie Walk at Blazing Star Prairie earlier in the summer. The blazing stars have tall, cattail-like inflorescences, in a gradient from deep purple at the bottom to bright purple at the top. The compass plant’s blooms are atop five-foot tall stocks, yellow and reminiscent of their other sunflower family members.




Courtney stood in dappled sunlight and introduced two friends, our other guides for the evening: Liz Bonny, of Harvestry by Hand and Kaw Point Fibershed, and Kimberly Comstock, also a local fiber artist and teacher.


From left to right: Kimberly Comstock, wearing a yellow-orange plant-dyed shirt, a matching scarf and denim overalls; Courtney Masterson, wearing a bright green, yellow, blue and purple tie-dyed shirt; and Liz Bonny, wearing a denim button-down shirt. The three are smiling and Courtney has her arms around the other two.


The trio invited us to gather materials to create solar dye jars as we walked the land. (Linked here is an informational sheet created by Kim, Liz and Courtney, containing many more details on harvesting and creating with respect and intention.)


An example of a solar dye jar. A large Mason jar contains a handkerchief which is pre-mordanted, meaning ready to accept dye, and the leaves, stem, flowers and seed pods of an American senna plant (Senna hebecarpa). The jar will be filled with water and placed in the sun for a designated amount of time to impart the plant’s natural dyes upon the handkerchief.




A participant rolls showy partridge pea and goldenrod up into a handkerchief. Where the plants are touching the handkerchief they will impart a more intense dye.







Bedrock guidelines of the craft became apparent the moment harvesting was mentioned.

“Keep in mind the weight of your fabric. A lightweight fabric like these handkerchiefs won’t require much plant material at all,” Kim said.

“And always keep a sustainable harvest in mind,” Courtney added. “Think 15-20% of the plant’s population- and that’s for the group of us combined, so be mindful of each other as well.”

Later, Courtney spoke a bit more about sustainable harvest.

“I feel that we should be thinking holistically anytime we ‘take’ from a landscape. The plants we celebrate as native food, medicine, fiber and beyond are also invaluable resources for wildlife- their food, their shelter, their medicine. Our use of native plants should be sustainable, to ensure the generations that come after us are able to maintain these relationships.”

Courtney teaches from a thicket of prairie plants, with a couple-dozen participants gathered on the path listening and asking questions.


This philosophy was quickly demonstrated as we entered the field.

“Always keep in mind which insects use the plants we are harvesting, and put their needs first. Can anyone tell me who uses this Common Milkweed, or Asclepias syriaca?” Courtney asked, forever the teacher. “Monarch butterflies!” was the answer from the crowd.


IllinoisWildflowers.info is an excellent resource for discovering the faunal associations (plant-wildlife relationships) of many prairie species. Above is the description for a related Milkweed species.


Liz demonstrated: she scanned the plant she’d picked until, sure enough, she found a leaf with tiny white eggs, and placed it at the base of another plant.


Liz and Courtney scan a stalk of milkweed, searching for monarch butterfly eggs. A couple of leaves are partially eaten, evidence of insect activity.






As Courtney, Liz, and Kim spoke, their hands were already fast at work pulling long strips of fiber from the epidermis of the stem. Liz even hand spun a bit of fiber and passed it around. “That’s a lot harder than she makes it look,” Kim told us with a smile.


Liz smiles and holds a ten-inch long hand woven boat up to the camera, with freshly spun milkweed fibers and a Bidens aristosa flower sitting atop. The low sun causes a magical lens flare behind her.


Our guides were sure to point out the preciousness of fiber and fabric to anyone living in a pre-industrial world, especially Indigenous peoples. “It's so labor intensive, creating textiles has to be a community experience, or else you’d go crazy working on it all alone,” remarked Theresa Martin, a local basket weaver, inspiring some knowing chuckles.

As we ventured deeper into the prairie, our ensemble became animated with discussion. I heard one group tell each other about hedge apples or osage oranges (Maclura pomifera), taking a whiff of the dense fruit and speculating on which animals eat it. The fiber artists explained how the tree’s sawdust produces a vibrant natural yellow dye. At the head of the pack, our guides pointed out the willow tree (Salix nigra) beside the pond, remarking on the spectacular bendiness of the bark which is coveted in basket weaving. I heard a pair of folks toward the back discussing the medicinal aspects of the willow tree, recalling what they’d learned about using the bark’s salicylic acid as a natural aspirin. As I overheard, I touched the bark and imagined what it would feel and taste like in my mouth, and wondered what sort of scenario I may find myself in to earnestly try it for myself.


Yellow Bidens aristosa blooms and buds, with participants scattered behind.









Kim believes that this spontaneous curiosity and connection is crucial in nurturing a relationship to the land, whether that may be as an artist or a conservationist.

“When we open our senses to fully engage with our surroundings, it awakens a kinship with all other living beings.” Kim says. “When I'm smelling, touching, carefully looking and sometimes tasting the plants with gentle curiosity, I'm reaching out to say ‘hello’ and letting answers come in the lingering feedback. Inviting and sustaining conversation in this way, helps us find our way back to that feeling of family. We belong to the prairie and it to us!”

Participants are gathered in a field of prairie plants, listening to Courtney and taking photos. The sky is striated with clouds.


We arrived at another clearing and met many more family members.

Courtney Masterson pointed out rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), one of her favorites. “The oldest shoes on this continent were found in Missouri, made out of rattlesnake master fiber, and they look like the day they were made,” she told us. This inspired a few awestruck faces, no doubt also reveling in the thought of another era on this same land, and the too often overlooked splendor at our feet.


Theresa Martin grins and holds up her freshly harvested rattlesnake master leaves to the camera, which resemble yucca leaves giving it the scientific name Eryngium yuccifolium. She wears a purple patterned flannel and a straw hat.







Blooming rattlesnake master in the foreground and the setting sky in the background, taken at an Open Prairie walk earlier in the summer. The blooms are 1 inch diameter ball-shaped groupings of small white flowers above each spiny bract. The nodes of the plant have spines, as do the margins of the leaves, though they look sharper than they feel.


The crowd dispersed around different plants as their attention was grabbed, asking each other questions, harvesting fiber and seeds, and joyfully announcing their discoveries in the golden light. Many of us crushed and inhaled the narrowleaf mountain mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium), and my friend Annabelle Wilder gleefully collected some of their almost dust-like seeds.

“One of the best things about falling in love with seed collection is that I don’t have to be sad when the blooms are gone,” Annabelle mused. “I’m just as excited to find the seedheads and collect the seeds.”

Hawks and turkey vultures soared overhead. Field sparrows cried their quick, descending peeps, and cicadas and cricket frogs bathed us in their rhythmic white noise.

I stopped beside the pond with Liz, watching the sky impart its changing colors on the water, and asked her why she finds it important to consider the artistic capacities of the prairie, aside from solely taking the strict scientific approach, which is more commonly invited in Western society in the context of climate change mitigation.

“Art is an access point – look at all of the diverse people it has drawn in to find a sense of place here,” she told me. “Many artists are only taught with store bought, manufactured materials - but so much can be gained by walking through every step; gathering, processing, and creating.”


On the display table, a sheet contains sample plant-dyed cloths in varying shades of yellow and brown, with handwritten notes indicating the variables in solvents and time. The impressions left by a hammered flower and a steamed plant are also displayed on cloth affixed to the paper by a clothespin, and a label reading “Partridge Pea.” Kim spoke about the delicate experimentation required by the craft of native plant dyeing.




It seems so obvious, when enjoying such a beautiful evening, to enter the prairie before the craft store. But finding a teacher and a community is essential in taking that first step into exploring Indigenous practices in art and beyond. Native Lands Restoration Collaborative is proud to provide a space where folks can learn from each other how to engage deeper with the land.

Liz confided that she’s learned to be a respectful conservationist through her artwork. “Work with native fibers and dyes has been a part of my intentional work with my land and community,” she shared with me as we walked back toward the house.

Bidens aristosa blooms in the foreground, with a participant holding a basket in the background and light filtering through a tree, creating a lens flare.






As we returned to the deck, I felt that energy had shifted in the crowd, changed by groundedness and discovery. Content with the company of friends, plants, and the setting sun, I looked beside me to see something that made my heart swell.

Emily Hartford, a local textiles artist, was tucking some final strands into a wreath made of sericea lespedeza, aka Chinese bushclover (Lespedeza cuneata), an introduced plant that I have witnessed taking over too many prairies. She held the wreath up for me to photograph, and then wrote the plant’s name down on a notebook in her harvesting basket. It is so joyous to see art come from the plants we often remove in massive amounts, which normally end up burned, decaying or hauled off. These plants did not ask to live here, away from their homelands, and are only doing what is coded in their DNA. Art feels like a gentle, cathartic end as we do our best to steward the land back into balance.


A six-inch diameter wreath made of Lespedeza cuneata held up against the setting sky by its creator, fiber artist Emily Hartford.














Many folks who care about our environment and landscapes lovingly dedicate their time to ecological restoration, which usually involves invasive species removal, prescribed burning and replanting native species. I asked Courtney King, a beloved Native Lands intern, why she thinks we as a Restoration Collaborative should spend time connecting to the prairie in a manner other than simply “managing the land”.

This is her response:

“The sole focus of restoration isn’t just removing invasive species, but is also about honoring the native species that have remained on this land for millennia. Native plant species of Kansas have had an intricate relationship with Indigenous People for thousands of years. It has been only 500 years since the arrival of Europeans, in which most of the traditional ecological knowledge of native species has been lost.

Many Indigenous Tribes view plants as beings, in which they deserve our utmost respect as equals—we steward them in return for their food, medicine, and fiber, which allow us to live fruitfully. We also honor them in our cultural, traditional practices.

(Re)establishing relationships with native plant species will allow people to find connection to place while building a community surrounding native ecosystems and their increasing importance today.”


Kim also spoke to me about (re)connecting to nature in the wake of genocide to Indgenous peoples and wisdom. “The separation we feel from our habitat - this idea that a prairie, forest, or other non-human curated space might provide for us like it does for other beings - it's so tough to bridge!” Kim referenced a quote from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.

“Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world, receiving the gifts with open eyes and open heart.”

And so, in the dusk we drove home, artists and prairie lovers all the same, with a deepened connection to our home, a deepened awareness of the gifts she offers, and a deepened capacity to care for her as she does for us.


 

Written by Apolonia Arteaga - Board Secretary

Photos by Wendy Holman - Board Chair



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