In other parts of the U.S. and the world, emerging plants might be tulips or daffodils. It might be a favorite local wildflower. Whichever flower or shrub it might be, it is a announcement that spring has arrived. In the Aleutians, we expect spring near the end of May or even in the first weeks of June. I look for the emergence of medicinal plants that have become virtually nonexistent in my pharmacy. It seems that my favorite time of year has arrived a bit early. Well, except for fishing season, and berry picking season. There is hiking and camping, but there is nothing quite like the emergence season when everything is fresh and new. And loved.
Unangan weaving has the reputation of being some of the finest weaving being done today; for millenia, for that matter. It can take a weaver many months to complete a project. It also has the reputation of being some of the most beautiful weaving, exacting in the details of process and design. So much goes into weaving each project that it should come as no surprise at how time consuming even the first steps can be.
If you have ever been to the Aleutians during the summer, one of the first comments you are likely to make will be something about the abundant, large grass growing on the beach shores and up into the meadowlands. You are looking at tix^lux^, or wild rye grass, or in the scientific lingo, Elymus mollis. It is this beautiful grass that played such a large part in the lives of the Unangax^.
Weaving used to be a very utilitarian aspect of Unangan life. Grasses were used to weave fish baskets, berry baskets, clam containers, floor mats, wall coverings, room dividers, mittens, socks, burial mats, capes….you name it and it was probably a woven product. The beauty of the fine weaving, though, was not recognized until the Unangax^ were invaded by Russian fur procurers and items began leaving the region, either as items taken forcibly, or, in later years, as items of trade.
I am lucky that my mother has passed on the art of gathering and curing grass for basket weaving. It is no longer a common occurrence. I miss seeing women returning from the hills carrying large bundles of grass over their shoulders. Those bundles were tossed and dampened and protected from sunlight for up to 2 months, depending on conditions. Then the grass was stripped down to the inner blades of grass; the ones that were at the center of the blade, thus protected from the salty elements. One large bundle is reduced to a bundle measuring, perhaps, an inch in diameter.
Just so you know, both my daughters have been on the August grass gathering forays.
In the throes of summer, where temps range from the low 40’s to the mid 60’s, time flies by. It is a perfect time when the seas are just right, the clouds are high and scattered, the sun is shining, and the fish are running. The grass is lush and green and wildflowers are full of bumblebees. A spellbinding moment in time when the “other half” is patient and peaceful. These are the times that I think of how my friend Tiny remarks on Unalaska’s spectacular beauty and how he believes that heaven is a local call. He is so absolutely correct.