Richard Dingle's round-trip commute to work from Mt. Pleasant to the Georgia state line takes about four hours. For the last two months, he's made the trip five days a week, in search of healthy stands of sweetgrass, the primary component of his basket-weaving family's livelihood.
When Dingle was a boy, a half-century ago, he'd walk down to the creeks and marshes around his home in the Hamlin community of Mt. Pleasant, where sweetgrass grew abundantly. Today, there's not a single reliable spot east of the Cooper River for the 300 or so basket weavers living in Mt. Pleasant to obtain supplies. Instead, they've taken to driving to places like Harleyville, off of I-26, where a tract of private land allows pickers to fill out a daily form and harvest what grass they can find. For Dingle, the most dependable, hassle-free source he's found is now two hours away, growing along the shoulder of an interstate exit.
About a year ago, Kiawah resident Greg VanDerwerker attended a lecture about the history of Johns Island at the College of Charleston, where he met representatives from the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival Association (SCAFA), a five-year-old organization dedicated to promoting the historic African art of basket making. He knew that sweetgrass grew prolifically throughout Kiawah Island, and when he learned about the trouble artists have finding supplies, it seemed an obvious remedy to offer them access.
Working with the homeowner's association and resort management, VanDerwerker helped to coordinate a harvest day on Kiawah, even providing transportation and breakfast for the 20 Mt. Pleasant residents who came out to pick last July. The event was successful, and before dawn last Tuesday, the harvesters returned for a second year.
"Get a good clump in your hand like this and just pull it out," explains Benjamin Dawson, who attended the Kiawah harvest to gather supplies for his wife, who sells her work at Towne Centre in Mt. Pleasant. "Then you take it home and sort out the brown pieces and spread the rest out in the sun to dry. You can't let it stay in the weather, or it'll turn dark and rot, so then we put it in the barn, where it'll keep all year."
Dawson talks about the different types of sweetgrass — his wife prefers the coarse type that they're harvesting on Kiawah, but others like the softer, more pliable species. He and Dingle both emphasize that sweetgrass is just one of many materials used in the baskets. They also harvest pine needles, bulrush ("Russia," they call it), and palmetto leaves, which give color and stability to the baskets.
Dale Rosengarten, the author of Row upon Row, a 1986 book and traveling exhibit about the sweetgrass tradition, explains that prior to the 20th century, baskets were made almost exclusively with bulrush. The hardy, stiff plant makes strong baskets perfect for agricultural uses like rice winnowing. During World War I, European baskets were hard to come by, so a King Street merchant named Clarence Legerton struck a deal with Mt. Pleasant basket makers, generating a cottage industry that resulted in many African-American families taking up the old tradition. When development began to encroach on sweetgrass habitats in the 1970s, some artists returned to using bulrush as a component, which has led to bigger, lighter, and more creative flexibility in the baskets over the last two decades.
"Artistically, sweetgrass basket making is at its highest point, ever," says Rosengarten, who is also the curator of special collections at the College of Charleston. "What's endangered is the roadside basket stands ... and the communities that produce them, due to new suburbs and higher property taxes. This is not a tradition that can exist in isolated, nuclear families, but instead requires a village structure among relatives."
In September, Rosengarten debuts her latest project, "Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art," an exhibit at the Gibbes Museum that coincides with a new documentary and book by the same name.
Mt. Pleasant Town Council member Thomasena Stokes-Marshall sees educational outreach and collaborations like the one with Kiawah as "links in a chain" of necessities to preserve the art form.
"Kiawah is the first community that has extended this opportunity," she says. "The problems stem from replacing sweetgrass' natural habitat with brick and mortar. The grass still grows along marshes, but it's often in gated communities."
A founding member of SCAFA, Stokes-Marshall has been instrumental in organizing the annual festival, and next May, the organization opens the "Sweetgrass Pavilion" at the foot of the Ravenel Bridge, where visitors can learn about the art and see basket makers at work. An inaugural SCAFA-sponsored summer camp has attracted capacity numbers all summer, where children age 5-12 can learn the techniques first-hand.
"Most of the basket makers are now in their 50s or older, so if we don't do something, with them goes the art form," says Stokes-Marshall. "The numbers are dwindling, but we're linking the elements to keep it going."
Since the popularity of the initial Kiawah outreach, Mt. Pleasant's Hobcaw Plantation neighborhood has expressed interest in helping out, but without any existing sweetgrass today, they're examining planting for later harvests. Mt. Pleasant Waterworks has also stepped up, negotiating the use of land around their operation's center and retention pond as habitat for sweetgrass planting. A $4,200 grant obtained by Stokes-Marshall may soon lead to a greenhouse on Waterworks land to propagate the plant.
"When you work with places that are already maintaining the landscape and keeping the weeds out, it's a win-win situation to grant access to pickers," says Waterwork's Commissioner Diane Lauritsen.
For the 18 harvesters and basket weavers who traveled to Kiawah last week, the day was a rare opportunity to gather supplies closer to home than is now normally possible. For a plant that once grew rampantly throughout the Lowcountry, the pillow-case sized bags of grass harvested in one morning of picking now sell for around $150 to the mostly female artists, most of whom don't go out to pick themselves.
Richard Dingle's daughter, Lynette Youson, is among the sixth generation of basket weavers in her family. She sells her work outside of St. Michael's Episcopal Church on Meeting Street, proudly displaying original designs she's created, like three-dimensional crosses and chairs for dolls. Youson estimates she's spent about 48 hours, so far, on the one-foot diameter basket she worked on diligently last Wednesday afternoon. Her two daughters weave as well, all with the grass that Dingle provides.
"We used to come out here and pick near the gate (of Kiawah), but one day a guy came and told us not to because it was county land," says Dingle, slowly filling his sack as the sun peeks over the trees. "For awhile we'd go to Johns Island, but now that place, you know, blew up. So now we'll just ride around and find a nice patch on the side of the road, but you got to stick with them, because someone else will come by and find them too. There's still grass out there, but now there's houses, and people don't want you to get it. And I ain't a fella taking chances."