This was from my garden a few years ago. Soon after I planted my seeds, pawprints and bootprints emerged on my carefully-cultivated fresh soil. I knew my seeds had no hope of making it past the seedling stage unless I could find a way to protect them. I needed a fence that would keep the rez dogs out, and at least be clearly enough a fence that the humans would not accidentally walk through it.
But when I started to research prices for different types of fencing, I had a bit of a sticker shock. I didn’t have a car at the time, and besides the obstacle of getting to Bismarck, but I also couldn’t get around the idea of spending hundreds of dollars I didn’t have on a fence for a garden behind a rented apartment, that was supposedly going to save me money for food.
I mentioned this to a European woman I knew, one of the few holdovers from Camp who continued to live on the rez. She was an expert basketmaker. She suggested weaving a willow fence. I was skeptical at first: How would this work? Would it be sturdy enough? My previous attempts at basketry had been pretty pathetic – was it foolish to even try to undertake something as big as a fence? But she reassured me, and seeing as I didn’t have any other good options, I agreed to give it a try. She promised to return the next day with the supplies we’d need.
The next day, she came walking over, carrying a little red wagon behind her. Her wagon was weighed down with willow boughs, each about ½ inch thick.
The willow she brought, čhoȟwáŋžiča, Sandbar Willow, Salix exigua, is a common one. It grows all over Standing Rock. I’ve never seen one grow into a huge tree – they all seem to be kind of brushy-loooking. Čhoȟwáŋžiča is also common along riverbanks throughout the western US.
Before this fence-making attempt, my previous contact with it had only been through a tea of the bark for pain, and for using the boughs (thicker ones than we had for the fence) to form the frame of a sweatlodge. Oh, and also my ill-fated basket experiments (thankfully, my pet rabbit was kind enough to eat my mistakes).
What I learned is that willow is actually a great fencing material for a light, mostly-decorative fence. Perhaps, in the hands of a more skilled weaver, it would be sturdier and last longer, but it did what I needed it to for that season.
We started by cutting the slightly thicker boughs that would be the fence posts, about 2 ½ feet long. Once we sank these into the ground to the appropriate depth (at least 6”, so they would not easily get pulled up or knocked over), we worked to match up the willow boughs into pairs of similar widths and lengths. The next step was to begin weaving these pairs around the posts – first at the bottom, near the soil line, and then progressively further up. When we got towards the end of a pair of boughs, we would weave in a new pair, using basket-weaving or cordage-making techniques. When necessary, we would peel a piece of willow bark and use it as a string to tie the willow branches in place.
By the end of the gardening season, after weathering a few big storms, and more than a few curious rez dogs, the horizontally-woven branches were starting to come undone in places. If I had stayed there, I would have repaired it. I’m not sure how it survived the winter, and if I would have needed to make a new fence the following spring. I do believe that a fence like this, if created by a more skillful weaver than I, could quite possibly be something that could work as a longer-term fence.
At the end of the season, I noticed that one of the willow fence posts had a few clusters of fresh green leaves that had emerged from its sides. At least part of my fence was still alive.
If I were to stay and continue gardening in that spot, having a living fence that would grow up to compete with my food plants for water and sunlight, and would shade out my seedlings, would not be ideal. If I were to make another willow fence, I would probably either peel all the bark off the posts to avoid this, or make sure I was putting them in the ground upside down (root end up).
But for a fence that surrounds something other than a garden, a living willow fence could actually be a great thing. Čhoȟwáŋžiča is such a wonderful tree, with so many great qualities, so I left it for future inhabitants of all species to enjoy.