Mary Jackson chooses her materials with extreme care, selecting each blade of bulrush according to diameter and hue. Her rows are perfectly even, her stitches precisely spaced, her decorative embellishments restrained and artful. Jackson and baskets destined for the Charleston International Airport, Charleston, South Carolina, ca. 1984. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, College of Charleston.
The outreach process won an “Exemplary Human Environment Initiative Award” from the Federal Highway Administration in recognition of efforts above and “beyond regulations to minimize the impact to the sweetgrass basket makers.” The Department of Transportation proved flexible in permitting basket makers to occupy the highway right of way. New stands were situated as close to the old locations as possible. Additional curb cuts were authorized if stand owners asked for them. The Town of Mount Pleasant turned a blind eye to any signage the basket makers put up. Moreover, the Highway Department offered tax incentives to roadside businesses that provided space for a basket stand: $15,000 deducted from its impact fees for transport for one stand, $30,000 deducted for two.8
No matter how well intentioned the mitigation efforts were, in the end they amounted to mere palliatives. As road-building progressed, it became clear the majority of stands would have to be moved and replaced. A new modular unit designed by Collins Engineering and built by highway workers using pressure-treated lumber, stainless steel screws, galvanized bolts and twist straps, and metal roofing was engineered so that it could be lifted and set down with a fork lift, in case it needed to be transported to a temporary location while roadwork was underway. Some basket makers welcomed the sturdy new structures and appreciated the skilled labor of the highway construction workers who built them. A few sewers have customized their stands, adding display space, windbreaks, and new signage. Many have abandoned the modular units and built old-fashioned, handmade racks further north, on stretches of road where travelers can pull off with ease.9
When construction came to an end in spring 2013, basket makers sitting in their stands looked out on a vastly altered landscape—six lanes of traffic bordered by a high, wide sidewalk and divided by a raised median. Old Babylon may indeed be falling, but new Babylon is rising with appalling speed in front of our eyes. The pristine salt marshes and national forests of the South Carolina Lowcountry are rapidly giving way to an industrial behemoth, attracting the likes of Boeing, BMW, Blackbaud, and Volvo. These corporations bring the promise of jobs—along with environmental threats to fragile eco-systems. While laws that once curbed educational and employment opportunities for black people have been struck from the books, and the ceiling on advancement in the workplace is rising for many, new global realities are altering the physical, social, and economic environment. Foreign economies compete with local producers; real estate development and the rising sea threaten the plant materials used in basketry; and access to other occupations and lifestyles draws young people away from traditional pastimes. Besides the aesthetics of the basket—its marvelous geometry, the earthy colors of the grasses, the water-tight stitching, the mix of subtlety and sophistication of form—can its role as a vessel of history and heritage, an idea as well as an object, be “sold” to an audience broad enough to insure its survival?
As globalization and the Web link our worlds, and as trends in fashion, design, and music cross social boundaries, the sweetgrass basket in all its iterations retains its power as a local symbol of individual identity and cultural distinction. Making baskets is a meditative act, a form of labor and a collective process that strengthens families and links generations. Basket makers have always known who they are and where they come from. In this era, they know they are artists too. While each sewer pursues her or his art out of personal necessity, all feel a shared sense of guardianship of the region, and a debt to a tradition sanctioned by their ancestors.