Thursday, June 18, 2015

NATURE'S GARDEN

NOTE: This post is for educational purposes only.  Learning the native plants around you is a methodical process that must be approached carefully and preferably via someone who is an expert or at least well familiar with the plants.  This holds true especially for medicinal native plants since they are as likely to cause allergic reactions, side effects, and in some cases may even be harmful to those with preexisting medical conditions.  Always, consult with your doctor before you begin using any type of medicinal native plant either by ingestion or topically.


There are two types of gardens: The garden you put in every spring or early fall and then the garden growing naturally in the woods or vacant lots around you.  It’s just a matter of learning what plants are edible or medicinal and then acquiring a sufficient body of knowledge to know either how to eat those native plants or use them for some medical purpose.


My introduction into using native plants for food began when I was only a child.  Nopalitos (Opuntia engelmannii) were a regular household item especially at my grandmother’s house where she cooked them with picadillo or scrambled eggs or even just by themselves.  My grandfather and I would make forays at the ranch looking for edibles and it was through him that I first became familiar with pitaya strawberry cactus (Echinocereus enneacanthus) and coma fruit and with other plants like the small elongated red fruit of the pin cushion cactus (Mammillaria heyderi).  My Papagrande would notice a plant and then tell me whether it was edible or had some sort of medicinal value.  We’d always speak in whispers and I’ve carried that practice into adulthood when in the woods.  The learning process began at about the age of seven and by the time I reached Junior High School I had acquired enough expertise to go looking for plants on my own.  Even so, some of my fondest memories are of walking through the quiet woods with my grandfather searching for plants to collect to eat on the spot or that would be taken back to the brick cabin that served as ranch headquarters, the place for family gatherings and sleepovers.


All these years later I still roam the woods examining the foliage and making note of where all the edible and medicinal trees and shrubs are located.  I visit those spots often to check on the various plants.  Is the fruit ready to eat?  Is there some plant nearby I can use for a tea or for insect repellent?  Perhaps there is a plant about ready to flower and the flowers themselves are edible.  I’ve learned to differentiate between the species of prickly pear growing around me noting which ones produce the best nopalitos or the best tunas or the best darts.  Yes, you read correctly; I said darts.  I keep forgetting to show all of you how to make nopal darts and so sometime this week I’ll go out looking to see if I can find any prickly pear still blooming.  When I was a kid we’d make darts from the bright yellow or red flowers and then spend an hour or so having dart games on the nopal pads.  It’s the kind of simple pleasure that ranch kids enjoy and I assure you it is in many ways infinitely more productive than the modern obsession with sitting for hours in one’s room playing computer games.  As we played darts we’d be surrounded by nature with all its sounds and smells and the intense hues of greens and yellows, reds, blues, pinks.  We’d stop to sniff the air as a group of javelina passed nearby or perhaps if we heard a deer snort not far away.  It was never quiet but it was not noisy either.  Noise is what people experience in cities and on highways.  Noise is some fellow driving up alongside with the speakers in his auto rumbling and shaking the very earth beneath you.  I always think those ignorant fools will be deaf before they reach the age of forty.  Too bad, so sad.  But in nature the sounds are soft and pleasant and comforting.


Nature’s garden is a mecca of teas.  There is the tea from salvia (Croton incanus) and oregano (Lippia graveolens).  There is the tea from colima (Zanthoxylum fagara) and from mejorana (Salvia ballotiflora).  There are, in fact, so many teas available that given a supply of water one will never be without some pleasant beverage while woods roaming or camping.  At my dad’s ranch in Mexico we’d drink a tea made from ebony beans.  The locals also made a tea from mesquite beans and from huisache (Acacia farnesiana) beans.  We ate the fruit from the brasil (Condalia hookeri) and from lote bush (Ziziphus obtusifolia).  We munched down on granjeno (Celtis pallida) and chapote (Diospyros texana) berriesHere at our place I am surrounded by duraznillo (Prunas texana) shrubs.  I’ve written about duraznillo (little peach) and about many of the plants mentioned above.  I play a game with the local birds every spring to see who gets the small peaches that amass on the duraznillo shrubs.  The birds always win.


Nature’s garden provides all sort of tubers and stalks and leaves and seeds.  There is a plant called mala mujer (Cnidoscolus texanus) that is blooming and I look out my bedroom window and see scores of mala mujer in full bloom in my “backyard.”  But woe to the poor soul who happens to bump into a mala mujer (Texas Bull Nettle) wearing nothing but Bermuda shorts or perhaps who sees the succulent white flowers and stoops to pick one.  Like its small cousin ortegia (Urtica dioica) (stinging nettle) the hairs on the mala mujer (bad woman) inject a potent mixture of histamine, formic acid and serotonin—except that in mala mujer the inoculation is about ten times stronger.  A lady wrote me recently saying she had mowed her lawn using a weed eater and had decided to mow the mala mujer as if they were just another small shrub.  Fortunately, she was wearing glasses but she had on shorts and a short-sleeved shirt and when she mowed the bull-nettle it sprayed all over her.  Instantly, her skin was on fire.  The pain was horrific.  Her neck, face, arms and legs became nothing more than giant red welts that felt as if someone had poured acid on her skin.  Her email to me was written in desperation.  Dear Mr. Longoria what can I do?  I’m in terrible pain.  I wrote back and told her to make a paste of baking soda and to apply it directly to the welts and irritated skin since the baking soda would help neutralize the acid.  She said she’d taken a Benadryl tablet but it had done little good.  I advised her to keep taking the Benadryl since it would counter the histaminic effects of the nettle.  Then I asked her to please see a doctor if the pain did not subside.  She wrote back saying she would take my advice.  She made the baking soda paste and applied it to her body.  I can only imagine what she must have looked like covered in welts and red irritated skin.  I imagine the pain was excruciating.  But here’s a little secret…or perhaps a secret that most people don’t know but that now you will know.  The seeds of mala mujer are quite tasty.  They are large seeds and one simply gathers the seed pods (very carefully!) and places them on a table then allows them to dry.  When the pods ripen they burst open exposing the seeds.  You roast the seeds or can even grind them up to make a coffee/tea drink.  So you see even the most vicious plants are edible.  In fact, stinging nettle (ortegia) can be harvested, boiled (which destroys the toxins) and then eaten.  They are rich in vitamins and taste somewhat like cooked spinach.  Another one of my favorites is called pepino del monte that grows wild all around this area.


Medicinal plants abound.  I make a very effective insect repellent from a species of lippia known as Lippia alba.  A species of croton (Croton incanus) also produces an effective insect repellent.  This species called salvia is used as a medicinal tea to treat bronchitis.  One late summer when the ragweed got me bad I drank salvia tea on a daily basis to help with the congestion.  The inner bark of the chaparro prieto (Acacia rigidula) was used to treat diabetes and arthritis.  The “juice” from the leather stem or Sangre de drago (Jatropha dioica) was used to heal mouth sores and tooth aches.  Some claim it was also used to treat kidney disease.  A toxic concoction made from pita (Yucca treculeana) leaves was used to induce abortions.  Alcoholic “medicines” were made from prickly pear, mesquite beans, and agave and from various wild berries.  The list of medicinal plants is extensive—far too long for a blog post.  In my novella, The Trail, I incorporate many of the traditions of South Texas especially those related to native plants.  But native plants are not the only “wild” foods available.  In northeastern Mexico the nopal rat is considered a delicacy.  A scene in The Trail revolves around the consumption of nopal rats.  By the way, I’ve had a number of requests to bring out The Trail in a paperback edition.  I have heard you and have asked to have inexpensive paperback editions printed for my blog readers.  Those should be available soon.


The root from the guayacan (Guaiacum angustifolium) makes an excellent soap as does the root from the agave.  Agave stalks, by the way, are edible and quite tasty and the root bulb is sometimes cooked in a pit overnight.  Excellent dyes can be made from colima, chapote, coma (Sideroxylon celastrinum), brasil, tuna and several flowers.  Sealants can be concocted from nopal.  Glue is made from mesquite sap (Prosopis glandulosa).



This blog is about Bushcraft (Woods Craft) and preserving nature, and in another world most of what laymen call Woods Craft is known as the field of ethnobotany.  Most people aren’t really all that interested in taking Woods Craft to the highest levels.  I understand that and know that for many the field of Bushcraft is mostly about talking about knives and making bow-drills and camp shelters.  Bushcraft can be practiced in many ways.  The majority of aficionados do not aspire beyond the most rudimentary skills.  But for those seeking a “Ph.D”. in bushcraft then a thorough knowledge of nature’s garden is essential.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

CANNING CHILE DEL MONTE

As you’ve noted from reading this blog we do a lot of foraging around here.  The surrounding brushlands provide us with plenty of food and the addition of a garden gives us fresh greens and fruits on a yearly basis.  Over the next few weeks we’ll focus on edible plants that are available during the spring and early summer months.  (For you knife lovers there’ll also be a couple or three knife posts.)  There’s an old saying that South Texas is a land of perpetual drought interrupted by an occasional monsoon.  Those monsoons usually come in the way of tropical storms or even hurricanes.  Right now people who are old enough to remember are talking about the summer of 1967 when Deep South Texas received an abundance of rain to the point that the ground was saturated.  Then in mid-September a hurricane named Beulah steered a course directly up the Rio Grande and within a few hours had dumped close to 30 inches of rain.  And then it continued to rain for a month afterwards.  If you were a waterfowl watcher or duck hunter you were in paradise for about two months.  If you were a farmer you bellyached for three months.  If you were a rancher you gave thanks for the abundant grass.  If you were a deer hunter you were thrilled by the rich foliage and the fat deer.  If you were a city boy you complained about the trillions of mosquitoes.  And if you were a kid you had the time of your life swimming and wading and splashing around in all those freshly made ponds.  Well folks, this year is looking a lot like 1967.  We’ve had rain since about mid-January and though the forecasters are saying we’re going to have about two or three weeks without rain it looks like they might be wrong since the clouds are thickening up as I write these notes.


With all this rain the chile del monte (chile pequin) is growing abundantly all around us.  My two youngest sons make forays into the woods and come back with a bag full of chile every morning.  Some of the chile is eaten raw with lunch or supper but most of it gets canned.  Here’s how we can chile del monte:
1) Wash the chile thoroughly.
2) We use pint size Kerr jars and we sterilize the jars before canning.
The Ingredients are as follows.
½ cup chile del monte (chile pequin)
Red onion ring chopped into four pieces
Four thin carrot slices
A small garlic clove
½ of a bay leaf
About a half cup of white distilled vinegar
One or two teaspoons of sugar
1/4 teaspoon of salt
In addition to washing the chile you want to wash the onion, carrot and garlic.



Pour the vinegar, sugar and salt into a saucepan and heat, stirring constantly, until it comes to a boil.  My son, Matthew, layers the ingredients in this order: Peppers, garlic, onion and carrots and then repeat the process adding the garlic and bay leaf until the jar is full.  After all the ingredients are nicely layered he pours in the cooled vinegar solution and then places the jar in the refrigerator.  My family loves chile del monte prepared this way but I’m more of a purist and when I feel like spicing up my food I’ll eat a pepper (that’s all I can take) raw.  Bon appetite.  

Monday, June 1, 2015

THE REAL ECO-TERRORISTS

As of this writing the yearly inflows of smoke from Central America are wafting through the sky and reaching points as far north as Oklahoma.  The result of slash and burn agriculture an archaic method of planting that has long since seen its day.  A thousand years ago when population densities were but a fraction of what they are today the Indians of the region would burn off a section of the forest and plant their crop and then move on after the harvest.  It might have taken ten or twenty years before the Indians returned to that same plot of land.  But today with human densities reaching their saturation points most of the forest is continuously burned and thus denuded and the resulting erosion and desertification exacerbates the problems inherent to those areas.  Human population pressures increase crime rates (as sociologists have been predicting for decades) and so the people move out.  In this case they journey to the United States, a country already facing population saturations and diminishing resources, and thus the problems in places like Central America and Mexico and Asia and Europe and the Middle East are simply brought here.  No, this is not a political problem as much as it is an environmental nightmare and we are losing that battle.  We can no longer be a dumping ground for everyone.  Those days are long gone.  Add to that the fact that the great “Democratic Experiment” has begun to fade as we enter a world of Fascism wherein corporations, banks and a billionaire aristocracy control the government both Republicans and Democrats alike.  No, it’s not socialism or communism we have to face (despite the ever present scare tactics from agenda driven politicians and certain “news” networks)….it’s Fascism that threatens to destroy the United States.  Here’s a basic definition of Fascism.

Map of air pollution events in the USA as of late May 2015

Note above the swath of yellow stretching from South Texas to southern Oklahoma.  That is smoke from slash and burn agriculture in Southern Mexico and Central America.  Also note the spot of yellow in northwestern New Mexico.  That is the result of coal-fired electrical plants.  A once pristine area is now a smoky, smoggy, filthy region and the bought and paid for politicians in New Mexico are doing nothing to stop it.  And do you want to know why?  Because the Fascists are in control just like they are in control in Arizona and Texas, and a host of other places not the least of which is Washington DC where today we have a Congress, Supreme Court and perhaps even a president who are but minions to the aristocracy that runs this country.  Also note the southwestern corner of the Texas panhandle.  There’s nothing there other than dirty coal and filthy power plants and poisonous air.  Of course, look at Southern Arizona and Southern California and the Upper Midwest and Delaware and Maryland and you see what trillions of tons of air pollutants do to the air we breathe.  Every day, all year long; it’s the world you live in.




The above two photos are taken from a satellite showing the extent of light pollution and more importantly air pollution from the Eagle Ford Shale region in Southwest Texas and the oil fields in North and South Dakota.  Of course you hear ad nauseam the collective bovine scat from the crowd that tells us: “We’re creating jobs for the region.”  Never mind that the people are being poisoned to death and that the land is desecrated and the water severely polluted and the air fouled to the point that in some places it’s like smoking five to ten packs of cigarettes a day.  No, none of that is important because the scam is to convince the easily duped that what counts are jobs.  But, of course, the real scam is that the polluting industries are making billions of dollars and the more often than not uneducated and ignorant are working those jobs and to them it’s all about a temporary fix and they‘ll worry about the long-term ramifications later.  But you see, we don’t have the time nor should we even have the patience to deal with that sort of rhetoric.  Call it “collateral damage” if you want but the truth is that we must stop this War on America led by the polluting corporations, the big banks, Wall Street, the National Chamber of Commerce, the United States Congress, the Supreme Court and now it seems even the President himself.  If for no one else then do it for your children, your family, and yourself.  Remember the famous words of that boxer who raised his hands and said, No Mas!  No More…NO MORE!  And so now I have a question for you.  Who do you think are the real Eco-Terrorists?  Who are the people who are terrorizing the land, the water, the air and the people of this country?  Who are the people who are fracking our diminishing underground water supplies?  Who are the ones who are pumping trillions of tons of noxious coal residues into the air?  Who are the people who are poisoning our streams and rivers, our lakes and bays?  Who are the people who own the politicians?  Those are the real Eco-Terrorists.

Monday, May 25, 2015

THE EXPLOITATION AND CORRUPTION OF BUSHCRAFT

You know things are getting out of hand when the marketers and spin doctors and capitalists twist a concept to the point that it barely resembles what it was originally.  Take bushcraft (woods craft) for example.  Somewhere along the line it became less about using intrinsic skills acquired through living with the land and instead morphed into buying products from knives to sleeping bags.  Somehow people got the idea that the acquisition of things instead of the attainment of know-how makes one a better woodsman.



I’ve seen YouTube videos made by well-meaning folks about not disturbing the land when they camp.  They call it stealth camping or dispersed camping and the object is to leave no vestige of their sojourn after a day or two hiking and camping.  But invariably these same campers are laden with all sorts of backpacking gear, fancy walking sticks, innovative stoves, modern tents and assorted paraphernalia.  It’s important to note that the mining, manufacturing, transporting and marketing of all this equipment produces a significantly greater impact on the environment (the land) than any preoccupation with keeping any specific woodland undisturbed.  Don’t get me wrong; I’ve been practicing a form of stealth camping for decades.  My object is to become invisible to not only the animals around me but to anyone who might wander by.  If you’ve kept track of this blog you know I abhor noise of any kind and I live in a cabin in the woods.  I maintain a minimalist lifestyle predicated on the ideas of self-sufficiency, recycling and leaving as little an environmental footprint as possible.  Ultimately, however, it is nature itself that draws me into the woods and I have felt a oneness with the land since childhood.  All of this is not to say, given today’s urban society, that we must not purchase things to aid our visits to nature.  Besides, the acquisition of skills takes decades and is not really something that one “practices” as if taking a class in history or biology or whatnot.  Note that most of you are masters of the environment in which you live.  In that sense all of you are survival experts because you have an implicit understanding of how to negotiate and persevere in the world in which you grew up.  Bring a Bushman to your world and he has little to no survival skills nor will he be able to learn them quickly if at all.  Don’t berate yourself for not having bushcraft skills.  Your “bushcraft” is a different sort of expertise living in a world dominated by modern capitalism with all its benefits and accompanying negatives.  You find yourself in a survival situation every time you take your vehicle onto an expressway but you think nothing of it.  Ask a Bushman or Brazilian rainforest dweller to do the same and he would probably not last long.  Even so, we have badly mangled the land or said another way: We have desecrated the earth through a collective gluttony and avarice derived via the economic systems we embrace and the accompanying obsession with hyper-consumption.  Nonetheless, when it comes to classic bushcraft (that is to say when it comes to living in harmony with the woods around us and at the same time not depleting resources far away) we should perhaps keep in mind that simplicity and frugality is the key.  Bring simple, unprocessed foods that can be cooked on the spot and not freeze-dried packages that are not only processed but like other things the product of mining (for the packages), manufacturing, transportation and marketing.  Keep your tools simple and your camping equipment basic.  Learn to be frugal and in so doing you will move closer to becoming self-sufficient and gain a deeper understanding of the true meaning of woods craft.

Monday, May 4, 2015

TRAIL KNIVES

Years back I spent a couple of weeks at the edge of a jungle far to the south of where I live now.  It took nearly two days traveling in and out of canyons in a couple of Jeeps and then hiking inland after the road fizzled before we established a camp at the top of a hill.  The area was infested with fer-de-lance snakes and all sorts of stinging insects including a species of scorpion that looked like it’d been hatched in hell.  The nearest village was about sixty miles away and the closest town of any consequence was 150 miles to the west.  In the jungle there were no established trails with the exception of a number of crisscrossing game paths and an assortment of old cuts made by an oil exploration group about ten years previous.  The cuts were mostly overgrown but we could still make out their directions by examining the lowered tree canopies where the ever rapacious oil people had sliced open the land like leaf-cutter ants denuding a garden.
There were three of us in the group along with four young men we’d hired in the village sixty miles away.  Like most of the people in the region they were of Indian decent and their Spanish was mixed with many indigenous words.  They’d lived at the edge of the jungle all their lives and knew a thing or two about the land.  We’d brought along two tents: One for the workers and one for the three of us.  We packed enough food to last a week but planned to replenish our supply with fish and the plants we’d forage along the way.  We had lightweight sleeping bags and a couple of kerosene lanterns with, if memory serves, about a gallon of lamp oil and a couple of extra wicks.  Small creeks and rivulets bisected the region and we planned to refill our canteens with stream water after we’d boiled it.  Hats, leather gloves, seven machetes, a lima plana (mill file), a first aid kit and some emergency medicines, matches, ropes, eating utensils, metal pots and cups and three pounds of coffee were included in our kit along with extra clothes and several bars of soap.  I carried a Case sodbuster in my pocket along with a couple of bandanas and I’d tied a USMC KaBar, its leather handle wrapped in paracord, to my backpack.

My old KaBar compared to two Mora knives

I was the only native plant lover in the group so while the others sat around camp listening to tinamous whistling in the canyons and parrots and mot-mots singing and cackling in the nearby woods, I roamed the hidden trails amazed at the jungle’s beauty.  Twice I walked up on a couple of ill-tempered fer-de-lance snakes but on both occasions I was able to skirt the vipers and keep going.  After about a week we decided to break camp and head down to a large river eight miles to the north.  Our plan was to meet up with an eccentric, blue eyed Spaniard named don Carlos who’d built a house along the river with a fishing pier and had also taken up residence with a young Indian girl named Lupita.  It took us almost a day to reach don Carlos’s dwelling, a main house built from lumber brought up the river with a covered area and large brick cheminia on one side.
When we finally trudged up to don Carlos’s compound we learned he’d acquired a motor boat from a man who’d come to fish and managed to bring the boat up river after nearly losing it at a shallow spot about twenty miles from the compound.  After fishing for nearly three weeks the man decided to call in a float plane and abandoned the large boat with instructions for don Carlos to consider the craft his own.  The boat was replete with a small cabin and a ponderous outboard motor that leaked oil and looked like it’d logged many a watery mile over the years.
          “Does this motor work?” one of my companions asked.
          “Of course it works,” don Carlos said.  “Lupita and I take it up river all the time to visit her family fifteen kilometers from here.”
          So the next day we decided to go for a boat ride and do some fishing and exploring.  But before we boarded I asked don Carlos, “Where’re the paddles in case we have any problems?”
          Don Carlos laughed and scoffed, “That’s silly.  Nothing is going to happen.  We’ll be fine.  Come on let’s go.”
          Well, I was young and had been raised to respect my elders so I didn’t say anything more and off we went the three of us with don Carlos at the helm and our four workers standing on the pier waving and saying they’d have a new camp set up by the time we returned.
          It was a big boat and the ride was comfortable as we plowed up river observing the steep hills on both sides.  At one point we neared an island and as we slowed hundreds of parrots flew skyward in a cacophony of squawks and cries that resounded back and forth against the hills.  All was beautiful, the day sunny and calm, and we were four happy men exploring a secret world.  And then the motor stopped.  Like a water skier slipping across a muddy bank the boat stalled and jerked and stood cold in the river.  I looked at don Carlos who was busy trying to restart the engine but after about fifteen minutes it became clear the motor had given up the ghost.  We were far from the man’s house and pier and had not one paddle on board to take us home.  The words “nothing is going to happen” kept bouncing around in my head.
          We drifted in the river for a few minutes and then I turned to don Carlos and said, “I need to make a paddle from one of your benches.”  He nodded reluctantly and using my KaBar I ripped one of the boat’s two benches apart and then used the knife to fashion three crude paddles.  Five hours later with a young Woods Roamer paddling from the bow and my two companions rowing along port and starboard we moaned and groaned up alongside the pier.  Don Carlos apologized and, of course, we said, “Think nothing of it.”  But I learned a valuable lesson on that trip: Don’t listen to people who say, “Ah, don’t worry nothing is going to happen.”  Things can happen and sometimes they do and it’s best to be prepared and that’s one reason I always take along a trail knife when out in the wilds.
          The question, you might ask, is what constitutes a trail knife.  One fellow might say he needs nothing more than the folder in his pocket and another guy will never leave camp without his super custom $300 Mucho Macho—the same knife carried by Tactical Survival Expert Decker Larson on the hit survival show, Skins and Steel.
The four Indian workers who accompanied us on that long ago trek owned no knives but gladly accepted the four Columbian made 24 inch machetes we gave them along with the brand new lima.  With the mill file they put fierce edges on those long blades and went about clearing a spot for us to camp then constructed a techito made from saplings, branches and banana leaves under which we sat, ate, told lies and drank coffee.  As we walked through the jungle the four young workers were constantly whacking vines to replenish their water and on several occasions we stopped to feast on cactus fruit.  The machetes clipped the fruit off the tops of the cactus, scraped off the spines, sliced open the fruit and then one of the blades became an impromptu plate on which the pieces of fruit were laid.
Some people call a trail knife a bushcraft knife and others refer to them as survival knives.  Go to forums where people sit in their houses chatting across the globe about what’s good for this or that and you’ll meet folks who’ll lay down criteria of exactly what a Trail/Bushcraft/Survival knife out to be.  One man even went as far as to proclaim that the proper TBS knife must have a Scandinavian grind with a spine that extends straight back along the grip and a blade of four inches with a handle that is as long as the width of one’s palm.  He claimed those measurements were as immutable as the laws of physics.  But my experience says otherwise.  I sometimes think about those four young men from that village and the Colombian machetes we gave them and how they made everything one might need to survive in an area so remote that had we been bit by a snake or had any sort of serious accident then we’d have just sought our tent and waited for the big midnight to arrive.  Go to Africa or Australia or all across Latin America and down to places like Borneo and Malaysia and the Philippines and you’ll run into the same sorts of experiences.  Here in South Texas there aren’t many folks who have heard of a Scandinavian grind or a “bushcraft knife” and really don’t even care.  That’s not to say there aren’t knife nuts in these parts and most certainly everyone who takes to the trail around here carries some sort of blade.  As I’ve mentioned in other posts the pocket folder rules in these parts.  Still, I often see people, especially hired hands, carrying some sort of fixed blade knife on their belt.  It’s the knife that will do the work a folder can’t accomplish and will take the abuse that would destroy a jackknife.  A trail knife is a knife for cutting heavy rope or used as an impromptu garden tool—not for digging but for severing stalks and sharpening stakes.  A trial knife is the knife that isn’t too big as to be clumsy or awkward but nonetheless is large enough to become a crowbar of sorts if need be.  On that trip into the jungle I found the USMC KaBar had its advantages as well as disadvantages.  Most unplanned trail work consists of light chopping.  The paddles I constructed were crude but they worked.  Most of the job was accomplished by whacking out pieces of the boards until something resembling a paddle was created.  Tent stakes, pot holders, rudimentary fishing gear, simple spears, traps, bed frames etc. require basic whittling but not serious woodcarving.  Even so, I prefer my trail knives not have a straight grip but instead a gentle ergonomic curve that lessens fatigue on the hand as well as the wrist.  Most “survival knives” have straight grips and while that might suit most people I find the curves I put into the handles on my personal knives much more comfortable.  The USMC KaBar has a straight grip and like many “survival knives” is not all that comfortable when attempting to chop a branch.  It does come with a tough convex bevel at the edge that makes it less prone towards crumpling or folding over when batoning extra hard woods like mesquite, ebony and chaparro prieto.  It’s for that reason that though I am an admirer of Mora knives and other Scandi-grind blades I find them unsuited for woods with specific gravities over 0.84 and that includes many Southwestern hardwoods.

KaBar compared to my new favorite knife

A trail knife must, aside from keeping its edge, hold together.  The blade can’t break off or chip and the handle must be comfortable enough to protect the hand.  While four inch blades make good woodcarving knives they are on the short side for trail knives especially in the American Southwest and primarily the brushlands where short blades can be dangerous around thorny plants.  I’ve said this many times but it’s always worth repeating.  If “don’t worry nothing will happen” becomes “damnit, something happened” then you’ll want a longer blade in desert, brushland and jungle environments.  It’s for that reason that I’ve learned the best trail knives have blades at least six inches long but I prefer seven or eight inch blade lengths.  In forested lands the short Scandi-bladed knife works but in the grueling deserts, brushlands and jungles you need more than that I assure you.  I have no favorite blade steel but I wouldn’t go lower than 1074 for carbon steel and I have had great success with 5160 spring steel.  The blades should be tempered in the mid to high 50s Rockwell but that is primarily along the blade edge.  The spine should be tempered down a bit and the tang area where the blade meets the handle should be tempered lower in order to make the knife robust.  Military blades are good knives but not necessarily the best.  The military buys millions of knives and concessions are made to economics and that doesn’t always translate to a great blade.  I had an uncle who spent WWII hopscotching across the Southern Pacific courtesy of his Uncle Sam.  He was a quiet man but he kept a journal and I remember reading about places called Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Guam.  He mentioned once that they broke a lot of knives and sometimes they’d gather up razor blades and broken knife blades and wedge them into palm tree trunks as “deterrents.”  Still, the KaBar USMC and USN and the Ontario USAF all have stick tangs and those will break if given some persuasion.
These days I carry one of my own blades made from either 5160 steel or 1095 steel.  A ranch hand showed me the knife he’d purchased at the local pulga or flea market.  It was a Chinese job made from 440A stainless steel.  He kept a six inch mill file in his back pocket in order to keep the blade sharp.  I am no fan of stainless steel but others will disagree.  Maybe that’s the thing to keep in mind when selecting a trail knife.  The decision is yours.  But ask yourself: What might go wrong and if it does do I have the knife I would need just in case.  And then try to imagine a young Woods Roamer stranded in a drifting motor boat in the middle of a jungle river dismantling a wooden bench then fashioning three paddles and all the while thinking…Damn, we should’ve been prepared.  Fortunately the KaBar worked that day as it has done millions of times in other places.  But it was a valuable learning experience.



Wednesday, April 15, 2015

BLESSED ARE THE QUIET

It seems we’ve become a species either immune to noise or addicted to it.  But I can never get used to the noise beyond these woods.  I was away for a week and in the city the rumble is constant with honking horns and sirens, leaf blowers and diesel trucks.  I had a hard time sleeping.  Everyone is in a rush.  I’m sure they all have places to go but people seem angry, impatient and rude.  I just wanted to get home; and every time I venture out into the world I tell myself I’ll do it no more.


The moment I drove back through the first gate I began to relax.  Home.  The Woods.  I stopped to watch a kestrel I’ve come to know sitting atop an old telephone line.  Past the second gate and the tranquility settled more firmly like finding the right spot in your favorite pillow.  At the third gate I looked north and thought of what I’d just endured.  I feel bad for family members who have allowed themselves to be part of that madness.  All for what, I ask?


At the cabin I unloaded the truck and then decided to go woods roaming.  As usual spring arrived a couple of weeks before its due date.  But winter never goes full term in these parts.  The bluebonnets have come and gone but the fire-wheels, wine cups, daisies, bull nettles, sunflowers and many other flowers are still with us.  We’ve had ample rain and everything is green.  It seems unnatural in a world that usually lives within a drought.  Ah, but back in the city people use water frivolously.  Homeowners insist on green lawns.  Farmers act as if they have some sort of entitlement.  Use it up.  Dump it out.  Use some more.  Flush it.  Frack it.  Inject it with solvents and carcinogens and oily residues.  What the heck, it’s only water.


As always my two companions went with me.  Oy and Maggie never miss a chance to wander the woods.  We communicate with short chirps and nearly silent whistles.  Does that make me a dog whisperer?  They keep close and we are a team.  If one stops then we all stop.  If one notices something odd then we all go on the alert.  Silence.  A complete lack of manmade noises.



I carry only a few things.  Hat, bandana, homemade pruning saw, walking stick, a couple of water bottles, butane lighter and a woods knife.  Made from 5160 spring steel, as sharp as a razor, one-quarter inch thick, full tang.  Not too big as to be clumsy.  A seven inch blade or thereabouts.  Don’t fret the details.  Larger knives have their place for special tasks but more often than not they get left back at camp or not taken at all because they’re awkward.  A nice little Mora is light and dandy but too frail for the thorn forest.  Of course, I’m always playing with designs.  A pointed tip has its place but really isn’t as necessary as some claim.  I’ve got a bunch of new blades ready for the fire.  Like I’ve said before, it’s fun and games.



When you walk take note of the plants.  Carry a field manual until you get good at identification.  Don’t be thinking that bushcraft is nothing but batoning wood and learning to make fire with sticks.  That’s the easy part.  Becoming an expert at the plants is what separates the wannabes from the experts.  So learn the plants.


Use your walking stick to push brush aside.  Don’t go around whacking everything.  That’s what city slickers do.  I guess they like the noise.  But you should learn to walk silently.  The knife is important but not that important.  If you know how to use a walking stick you can move like a ghost.

 


Most of all say a few prayers when you’re in the woods.  Who you decide to pray to is up to you.  The Great Spirit, the Breeze, the Setting Sun, the Trees that give you oxygen to breath.  It’s the moment of spiritual awakening that counts.  But in order to experience it you’ve got to keep quiet.

Monday, March 30, 2015

THE LAND OF THE MACHETE

This is a busy time of year around the house.  The winter was quite pleasant with a few days dipping into the mid-30s.  I realize that for a lot of folks a winter without freezing temperatures sounds too good to be true but that’s the norm in these parts.  Just remember, however, that come summertime we’ll have heatwaves with an unrelenting sun bringing temperatures into the triple digits.  It’s not uncommon for the heat index to reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit.  Heat exhaustion is a frequent occurrence and every year a few poor souls succumb to heat stroke.  Last summer a fellow wandered into a backyard about seventy miles south of us and collapsed.  The residence is just north of the Rio Grande and this fellow had swum the river the day before.  Like most people who enter this country clandestinely he was from a large city in Central America and had no bushcraft experience.  Of course, he was unaccustomed to the temps we see in Deep South Texas.  By the time paramedics arrived the man had slipped into the long goodbye.  The news reported his body temperature was 109 degrees at the time of death.  With that said, you’ll understand why we approach any sort of outdoor work with a degree of caution.  Some of the most intense exertion is with the machete; and yet, the machete is the most commonly used tool in the ranchlands.  I’ll drive down a dirt road and spot someone cleaning the brush along a fenceline.  In his hand will be a machete.  I stopped to visit a relative and when he reached into his pickup toolbox I spotted a couple of well-used machetes.  The dogs started barking furiously a few days ago and my son looked out his bedroom window and spotted a large rattlesnake slithering onto the front porch.  He grabbed a Taurus Judge stoked with #6s and a machete.  The Judge stopped the rattler before he knocked on the front door and the machete removed sixteen rattlers for the coffee can.  (We have a coffee can filled with rattlers.)  Every March I have to whack the large sunflowers around the graywater pond.  I use a machete.  I’ll walk into the farm & ranch store or perhaps one of the hardware stores in the towns sixty miles south of us and the first thing I’ll check are the machetes.  You can never own too many machetes.  When they get worn out you just bring them back to life with various modifications and start things anew.  I’ve posted a number of articles on machete modifications and over the next week or two I’m going to post another couple of articles on more mods.


 What makes a knife-man a knife-man is hard to say but I attribute it to untold generations of males living or dying by the quality of their cutting tools be they rock, bone, tooth, copper, bronze, iron or steel.  So I imagine that somewhere within a multitude of sinuous cerebral sulci lays buried that collective knowledge shared from one generation to another that the knife is a key to survival.

There are scores of machete styles and it seems that geographical regions around the globe have spawned their own preferred designs be they the Malaysian parang, the Philippine bolo, the African panga, or the quintessential Latin hoja.  But even within the geographical areas variations occur.  In Latin America, for example, the machete has as many morphs and mutations as does the tulip.  And yet, when one thinks of a Latin American machete what comes to mind is a carbon steel tool with a thin blade between 22 inches and 24 inches long with a wooden handle measuring about five inches.  There is a gentle upsweep of the blade near the point and the numbers 1070, 1074, 1075 come to mind when calculating the percentage of carbon mixed with iron to form the steel.  And this, my friends, is the preferred machete style in South Texas.  You see, South Texas is a land made for the machete.  Long ago the Great Spirit looked down on the earth and said I will make a place for the beloved machete and so South Texas was created.  Nearly every plant is blessed with thorns and in between is cacti of a few dozen motifs and patterns.  Outsiders call the region The Thorn Forest stricken as they are—both literally and figuratively—by what seems to them a nightmare of hypodermic interruptions.  But to the people who grew up in this land of varied plant diversity and a stark and yet unruly magnificence it is called The Brushlands or when a great deal of love is attached, El Monte.

Top to Bottom: Tramontina 24" Imacasa 24" and Incolma Gavilan 22"

So it is then that the machete plays a starring role in that saga called Living in the Brushlands.  No one ever asks, “Do you have a machete?”  Instead they say, “Where’s your machete?”  You’ll find them hanging from nails in barns or lying on a bench in the workshop.  You’ll find them tucked behind the seat of a pickup or in the truck’s toolbox.  You’ll walk into hardware stores and find piles of machetes waiting to be adopted.  Or you can just saunter into Mexico a few miles on down the road and buy El Salvadorian, Columbian, Ecuadorian, Venezuelan and Brazilian machetes for pennies on the dollar.  It’s not unusual to buy ten or more at a time then go home only to return a year later and buy ten more.  Machetes see a lot of work in this land and unfortunately they receive a lot of abuse from ranch hands and farmworkers.  A couple of years ago I was walking in the woods about a quarter mile from the house and I saw something leaning against a mesquite tree.  I ambled over to the object and was presented with a gift: An Imacasa 24 inch machete in very good condition.  I figure some long-distance-traveler had lifted it from a barn somewhere along the line and then either abandoned it next to the mesquite tree or forgotten it when he had to skedaddle in the middle of the night.


 So how do the various popular brands of machete compare?  Looking at forums and other websites I take it that in the heartland the three most widely available machete brands are Tramontina, Imacasa and Gavilan.  Other brands are available but I don’t see a lot of reference to them on forums so for this post I’ll stick to the three brands mentioned above.  Besides, brands like Condor have, in my opinion, gotten too expensive and thus are at the upper edges of what your typical machete ought to be.  Nonetheless, in later posts I’ll examine additional brands including the Condor.  Let’s make it clear at the outset that I do not favor machetes made of stainless steel since invariably the steel is of poor quality.  Cheap stainless steel like 420 or 440A will take an edge but will lose that edge even faster.  I am so prejudiced against stainless that I will not even consider 420 HC or 440C.  Others may argue that those incarnations are alright but I have chosen to have nothing to do with them.  And one more thing: Whenever somebody tells you that stainless steel machetes are better than carbon steel machetes then just turn the page confident in the knowledge that the writer is a neophyte without much experience using machetes.  By far the best machete blades are carbon steel ranging from 1070 to 1075.  Tramontina is 1070, for example, and Imacasa is 1074 so it is slightly stronger steel.  The Incolma Gavilan produced in Colombia is also carbon steel but I do not know the grade.  I imagine its numbers fall in the same range as the other two machete makes mentioned above.  All three machetes pictured have the traditional thin blades measuring about 1.5 mm near the handle tapering to about one millimeter at the tip.  The blades are springy and that means they’re designed for whacking light material like herbaceous and woody shrubs as well as small branches or slicing cactus pads.  WARNING: I understand that bushcrafters living north of the 36th Parallel want to mess around with machetes and that’s a good thing…but I’ve seen too many YouTube videos where some reviewer living to the north will buy a machete and then look around for something to whack.  “Whoa!” he says.  “There’s a fallen birch tree yonder.”  So he adjusts his camera and starts whacking.  “Wow!” he gasps breathing hard and sweating.  “This machete can even chop through this birch tree (or elm, pine, maple etc.) and it only took me six-hundred whacks to penetrate….”  But folks, don’t try it.  Get an axe for crying out loud.  Don’t indulge in such frivolous behavior.  God gave us brains to know what tool to use and for tree trunks and mega-branches He gave us an axe.  The machete is for thorn scrub and vines and bamboo and cacti and finger-sized limbs and rattlesnake rattlers.  An axe is for tree trunks and mega-branches.  Besides, you don’t want to destroy the tendons and ligaments in your wrist and elbow and even in your shoulder and that can happen (and probably will happen) if you try the YouTube silliness and whack a tree trunk to death with a 1.5 mm thick blade.  By the way, shoulder bursitis is common when using a machete of improper length.  Machetes blades measure from about 12 inches to 30 inches.  As noted above, the most common machete blade length in South Texas is 24 inches though occasionally you’ll find someone using a 22 inch blade.  The length is especially important for reaching in to thorny shrubs and branches without getting the pin-cushion treatment.  But the 24 inch blade also aids in whacking weedy shrubs where the stem must be severed clean.  If the user has to constantly bend down to whack stems then he’ll become fatigued and that will lead to improper cutting technique.  As a result the user will most likely develop bursitis.  Shorter blades are popular for less strenuous tasks and for use in places where the plants don’t bite back.  They also make good survival tools but that’s another subject we’ll tackle in a few weeks.  ONE MORE NOTE: Wear eye protection!  Don’t think you can whack away and never suffer any sort of eye injury.  One day you’ll be listlessly swinging the blade and WHAM you’ll get a searing pain in your eye or on your eyelid and it will occur to you that you’ve been wounded.  An hour later at the doctor’s office the thought will creep into your mind that had you just been wearing eye protectors this wouldn’t have happened.  So don’t be foolish thinking you are immune to such events.  It can and will happen if you use a machete long enough.  So wear eye protection!


Do I have a favorite machete brand?  Allow me to say it this way: For general work around the ranch I want a carbon steel blade either 22 or 24 inches long with either a wooden or plastic handle that is not too thick or cumbersome.  I want springy steel that’s about 1.5 mm near the handle and about 1 mm thick at the blade tip.  I don’t want the blade too heavily weighted at the tip as seen on some makes.  A rather straight blade is preferred in my opinion.  I want steel that has been properly tempered so that it will hold its edge and yet reasonably easy to sharpen with a file or diamond stone.  I prefer darkened blades to shiny blades but that is not of major importance.  A blade that has a nice ring to it when struck hard with your fingernail usually indicates well-tempered steel of adequate carbon content.  I do not like 1045 carbon steel nor am I that enamored with 1060 steel though I like 5160 steel and if the new Ontario Knife & Tool Bushcraft machete made from 5160 steel did not require a customer take out a new mortgage on his house and raffle off his wife I’d consider buying one.  Only in America do people go bonkers over buying things and they spend and spend and spend and truth be known they don’t need most of the things they buy.  The Gavilan 22 inch machete I bought brand new a few weeks ago cost me $10.00 total.  I dare say it will do just about anything the new Ontario Bushcraft machete will do and I saved over a hundred bucks.  I think it pays to be frugal.