- March 1, 2013
Šilėnai baskets – twined with roots
Although this year’s Kaziuko mugė can pride itself on a record-breaking number of salesmen – 1,600 people – it will not be participated by many folk craftsmen, for whom recently Kaziuko mugė has been unreachable for a simple reason: stands are too expensive. For how many baskets need to be weaved in order to cover the daily fee of 90 litas…?
This is why authentic and unique products, for which the Vilnius region has been famous since the year dot, are becoming rare. Products made in China and their derivatives have overcome the faire which is still associated with folklore, although nowadays it has nothing to do with traditional craftsmanship.
Vilnius folk art used to be the basis of Kaziuko mugė, a capital faire which originated exactly 410 years ago. Fortunately, even today Vilnius is surrounded by villages – Krawczuny, Nowosiołki, Ciechanowiszki, Wojwodziszki and others – in which the decorative Easter palms are made.
There are also villages where men still weave baskets, carve trenchers and trugs in the winter and take their produce to Kaziuko mugė at the beginning of March. Perhaps not to Vilnius… but certainly to Nemenčinė, where this time next week a range of unique products will be sold at the Nemenčinė Kaziuko mugė, including baskets.
One of a kind baskets! Since they are made of… pine roots by only one household in Šilėnai, Zujuny county.
…A 20 minute ride from the capital district of Pilaitės seniūnija, left turn from the Vilnius-Suderwa route, a few kilometres through a virgin forest, and here we are in a small village nestled upon the right bank of Neris. It is so beautiful in the summer that many nouveau riche Lithuanians built their mansions here, where they are remote from populous regions. Accidentally, we encounter one of such specimens of modern agritourism (private, of course), when driving from Rokantiškių, since the “no entry” sign which stands here in the summer has not been removed. Thanks to this meandering we have a chance to be personae non gratae among newly raised buildings in a local park.
“No, ma’am. Nothing can be built here in Šilėnai. Even house refurbishments need special permission.”
“It’s for us, locals. Newcomers are apparently smarter than that. Look here, even in our settlement they built houses…,” says Irena Krupowicz bitterly. We met her by the church and now she leads us to her house so that we can experience the art of twining unique baskets from… pine roots.
I ask repeatedly: “Pine roots, but how? Do you dig them out in winter?”
Mrs. Irena smiles indulgently at my ignorance and explains: “No, we have to collect them in the autumn so that we have the basic working material for the winter.”
Her foster grandpa, Henryk Wojciechowski, is the senior craftsman. He is the only one in Šilėnai who makes such baskets. Although not long ago every man in the neighbourhood could weave. “Zapolski, Zimitrowicz and many others made them,” says Mrs. Irena.
She thinks for a moment, as if she tried to remember something, and then adds:
“It’s different with the ones made of pine roots. They are good for all sorts of things: berry picking, house use and church. They are white, beautiful and strong. But you have to be agile and patient to make such beauty out of gifts of the forest. My grandpa, Henryk Wojciechowski, is the unchallenged master in this,” says our interlocutor.
Mr. Henryk has been handicapped for a long time. As a small child he caught cold and his legs gave up.
“My parents did all kinds of things to make my legs work again. They even sat me down on an anthill so that the ants would heal my legs with their bites. I remember it well,” says Mr. Wojciechowski. “One leg was healed. We couldn’t afford a doctor at the time. The other one, look, the one that just hangs there like a sock, remained numb. For the whole life. But now both my legs don’t work and I can’t walk… Everything fell on Irenka here, the daughter of my late brother, who takes care of me and my sister-in-law who’s also in a wheelchair,” continues the elder.
He is saddened not only by his incapacity, but also by the attitude of doctors. For when his doctor assigned him disability pension, he thought that Wojciechowski was faking: “You’re a fraud,” he shouted, as Wojciechowski relates. “You want to be assigned the first disability class? You’re fine in the second!”
Now he receives one and a half thousand (»EUR 435) a month for everything: food, fuel, medication… Thanks to his craft he is able to earn a little on the side, although when one thinks of all the work which needs to be put into making such baskets, it is not hard to imagine how much they would have to cost.
But who would pay for that? People are poor, so 10, 20, 30 litas barely cover several loaves of bread and a return ticket to the city. There is nothing left.
Whereas, as Wojciechowski reminds, his father used to come back from the city with half a bag of rye for each basket. Now one comes back with one loaf of bread…
Values have changed. But for him, basketry is not only profit (however small), but also the way of life. For every basket is different. They differ in shape, details and material. Wojciechowski also uses willow for weaving but, as he says, such baskets are mainly for domestic use – storing potatoes, blueberries or wood. The ones made of pine roots, on the other hand, are extremely elegant. White and fragrant with soil and the forest…
Mrs. Irenka helps him with twining, although the base, handle and, most importantly, the “lock” is made by her grandpa because it guarantees durability.
“Our baskets can serve for 20 years or more, it they are treated well,” says Wojciechowski. He himself treats everything with care. The ground where he grew up, the near-by forest which provides blueberries, fungi, roots, sticks for handles, hazel and hagberry (particularly strong) for those who are not idle.
The Šilėnai baskets were brought to Poland by Mrs. Irena. This year they will also be sold in Warsaw.
She is so efficient in packing them that as many as 60 can leave Lithuania in one go. In Poland they were sold instantly. Although basketry is no stranger to the country, baskets made of roots are a rarity there.
No wonder this unique product was awarded a number of diplomas wherever it was presented. It has a “collection of diplomas”: from the Mayor of Vilnius, from Jerzy Bahr, who was the Polish ambassador in Vilnius, from the authorities of the Vilnius region, the organisers of the “Polish Flowers” festival in Nemenčinė. Thanks to Michał Treszczyński, one of the organisers of a folk exhibition which was held as part of the festival, the baskets spread like wildfire.
“He comes from Šilėnai, where his parents live to this day,” says Mrs. Irena, “It is thanks to him that our baskets are famous.”
Irena seldom leaves Šilėnai because she has to care for two disabled people at home.
“But this year I’m going to Nemenčinė for sure. My sister’s family will take care of the household,” she says.
Her life has not been happy recently. She had to move to Šilėnai from a city where she lived with her husband in order to take care for her mother and grandpa. The husband was taken by a terrible disease. Luckily, she knows everyone in Šilėnai. Both her sisters live here: Ania’s family next door and Janias – by the church: a wooden church situated by a crossing of three roads, with an interesting interior design, whose main alter is decorated with a painting of the Holy Trinity, said to be miraculous. According to a local legend, the painting revealed itself on a willow to shepherds minding cattle. It was probably created at the end of the 17th century (or the beginning of the 18th), and in the 19th century it was already considered miraculous by the locals. Old records say that in the 19th century there was yet another miraculous painting in the church, depicting the Holy Mother. Its author is believed to be a local organist, to whom St. Mary revealed herself in a dream.
Although the story of the Šilėnai church does not belong in this report, it is nonetheless interesting, just like the people who live here and create such unique objects. From the gifts of nature.
Tłumaczenie Aleksandra Christ w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Aleksandra Christ the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.