Over the course of the past year I have been thinking through how we can go about using natural raw materials and and employing them in the fabrication of day to day objects. Of course, we’ve been doing this for millennia but I’m rather keen to use certain types of natural materials. An oak tree can be felled in order to build a house. That’s a pretty obvious kind of day to day requirement. But structural timber takes centuries to grow. I’m interested in using stuff that take a year to grow: natural materials that shoot from the ground in spring, seem to effortlessly grow to full maturity in a matter of months, and then either die or lie dormant over winter. These are the materials that I am interested in. Mostly because, costing little more that a bit of fertile soil, light and water, they are essentially free of charge.
Of course, we can’t build a house out of a few stooks of rye grass and some spindly bramble cane, but you can make other useful objects to alleviate the pressure we place on our planet to enhance our lives with material objects. The coil basket has fascinated me for years. I first cam across this technique of basket making when I attempted my own beehive – using an old fashion bee-skep. Since then, I have become addicted and I spend whatever free time I can muster (between work and kids) playing with different species to make different forms of basket. I fell upon rye grass because, having been used to stuff horse collars, I knew it was a very durable straw. For the binding I have, despite a brief love affair with bamboo, returned to bramble cane with renewed vigour. No two bramble canes are the same and it can make for a difficult plant to get any uniformity with. But let a favoured plant spread to, say five or six plants (it will do this naturally if unhindered) and ensure the same growing conditions for each plant. This is best achieved if they are all racing upwards to the light through a dense and well-clipped hedge. In good fertile soil, and well-moistened, each plant will produce a couple of canes each in a calendar year. These can be split into four and processed to make fine, pliable canes with which to bind the twisted and coiled rye grass. Light-weight, durable and, despite the hours of processing (which in any case is good for the mind), completely free of charge.
Of course, we need to bear in mind that if we all went out and flayed the landscape of grasses and brambles, the world would be a poorer place. Take only what you need, propagate intelligently, let at least two thirds of a grass crop go to seed and be sure that next year more of the same will be available. The best thing about this basket is that when it has had its day, it can be chucked back into the hedge and will rot down without a trace – going back to the earth as it would have done if it had been left there in the first place. It’s great to think that a useful object can be made from natural materials that are essentially just being held in a state of suspended decay.