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Environmental Leadership Center
Warren Wilson College
Campus Box 6323
P.O. Box 9000
Asheville, NC 28815-9000
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by Casey Doyle
Walk down to the river trail on Warren Wilson’s campus. While the first thing you may notice is the bamboo forest growing near our college garden, there is another, perhaps more ecologically and culturally important plant growing not too far away. River Cane is a shoot-like plant, thin with about a one-inch diameter, and tall, reaching up to twenty feet. More fascinating however, is a part of the plant that cannot be seen. Dr. David Cozzo, director of the Revitalization of the Traditional Cherokee Artisan Resources program, visited Warren Wilson for a lecture on River Cane, and revealed this fascinating, hidden aspect of the plant. He took a shovel and began to dig around the base of the River Cane, revealing an intricate rhizome system several inches below the soil. All of the River Cane shoots are connected by this complex root structure that crosses and expands below the soil, making the different shoots all part of the same plant. This often unnoticed ecological beauty of shoots, leaves, and rhizome is captivating, just as captivating as the cultural uses for the plant.
Cherokee Indians have embraced River Cane as a resource for artistic works and practical uses throughout their history. Dr. Cozzo, described the cultural importance of River Cane; he called it “the plastic of the South East Indians.” The seeds and young shoots of River Cane were consumed by Cherokees, while other parts of the plant were used to make weapons, instruments, homes, and a variety of other items. River Cane is so culturally important to the Cherokee however, because it is used to make traditional double weaved baskets. Dr. Cozzo explained that this basket weaving is a piece of who the Cherokee are; “They are taking this tradition with them to claim a part of their culture,” he said. There is a problem however, as River Cane now only occupies 2% of the land it used to grow on. Much River Cane growth has been destroyed since the exploration of the Americas by Westerners as the cane was cleared for development, grazed on by animals, and destroyed in fire.
Cozzo said, “we have skewed priorities… this is a problem, the knowledge that River Cane is a valuable resource isn’t out there.” The Revitalization of Traditional Cherokee Artisan Resources, has been working with communities to find, harvest, and preserve River Cane. While Warren Wilson’s River Cane is too young to harvest and use for basket weaving, Cozzo stressed the importance of having students, professors and community members in Buncombe County be aware of and on the look out for River Cane.
The Cherokee’s loss of River Cane is an example of how the destruction of resources can threaten cultural practices. If River Cane is lost, how will the Cherokee be able to authentically preserve their century old tradition of basket weaving? Like the imperative and beautiful rhizome system that connects the differing shoots of River Cane and enables its survival, every society is connected to and dependent on natural resources. On a greater scale than the Cherokee, how will our society as a whole ever maintain tradition or connectivity to the natural world if we fail to realize the true importance of the ecological world and the affect it has on our culture?