People often ask where I get the needles for my baskets. I live in the Triangle area of North Carolina, where longleaf pines are not very common. The clay and frequent ice storms are less friendly to their growth and survival, even where development hasn’t been the primary hindrance. There are specimen trees near me, including a most beautiful one that graces church property in Raleigh, but these singular trees are not easy to access nor enough to maintain the stockpile I need to complete a number of projects each year.
The Sandhills and eastern regions of the state are much more renowned for their longleaf pines. The golf communities of Southern Pines and Pinehurst are especially known for their showcase beauties. I’ve gathered needles in those towns before, but it takes some guessworks to know when the time is right to find freshly fallen needles.
A man I know owns a longleaf farm near Kinston, NC, where he and his family hand-bundle needles to sell for landscaping purposes. Farms like these offer healthy revenue for their owners and make an important contribution to longleaf conservation efforts. But I have found it difficult to cull healthy, unbroken needles from landscaping bales. I prefer the slow, arduous process of picking the needles up from the ground by hand, or occasionally, with the gentle stroke of a rake.
My favorite place to harvest needles is Goose Creek State Park in Beaufort County, NC, where rangers are undertaking a major longleaf restoration project that includes active cultivation, controlled burns, and invasive species control. I make several visits annually. I park near an accessible stand of trees and spend an hour or two beneath them, combing my fingers through long grasses and brambles, pulling up all shades of gold and brown needles, choosing the prettiest to stow away for the drive home.
An hour stooped on hands and knees yields only so many needles, but the amount is less important than the pleasure of the process. Each handful requires my undivided attention and not an insignificant amount of patience for the culling and sorting. It’s a deliberate activity and meditative process to choose each needle, to be present in the moment and on the land as both a consumer and a steward. To me, coiling a basket begins with this process, with appreciating and honoring the gifts from the longleaf trees.