Thursday, July 30, 2015

GROW YOUR OWN BOWLS AND CUPS AND COFFEE MAKERS

We have entered those dog-days of summer.  In South Texas the people of the land call it La Canicula.  Old timers used to say it was the time when the land was poisoned.  Nothing would grow.  The grass withers and turns brown.  During the day the heat reaches temperatures that are almost impossible to endure.  Like the deer and javelina, the coyotes and jaguarundi, the people stay in the shade during the day and venture out only near sunset often working into the night—always careful, of course, to watch for rattlesnakes.  We’ve not had too many encounters with rattlers this summer.  I walked up on a four foot rattlesnake the other evening as I was entering my work shed.  We get careless sometimes.  I had my mind on other things and had the snake not buzzed and raised its head to strike I would’ve probably stepped on it.  We were feeding the dogs the other day and they were acting skittish and then we heard the distinctive buzzing a few feet away.  This time it was a big six-footer coiled under a bush at the edge of the back porch.  But having lived my life in the Brushlands I am as used to rattlesnakes as any city dweller is to fire hydrants and honking horns.


Our watermelons are looking good as are the cantaloupe.  We keep them watered and growing in partial shade otherwise they’ll die on the vine in short order.  But the real joy for me is watching my bottle gourds grow because this year I plan to make not only bird houses but cups and bowls and a coffee maker too.  I’ve written about my gourds before.  Growing conditions in Deep South Texas are not like what you’ll read about on other Internet sources.  Most people advise you to grow gourds in full sun and for the most part to just leave them alone.  I tried that years ago and found that what may serve folks well in other areas spells disaster where mid-day summer heat can reach as high as 110 degrees Fahrenheit.  In fact last week we were under a heat advisory and when I checked the thermometer on the front porch it read 108°.


So I grow my gourds in the shade and make sure they’re watered at least three times a week.  I placed an old step ladder in one area to allow the vines to climb and a discarded bed spring in another area for the same purpose.  The vines climbed the ladder and old springs and then crawled into the mesquite trees where in a few weeks they enveloped the trees adding even more shade to the ground.  The large, ultra-green leaves provide a deep shade to our “front yard” and that brings in scores of birds where we have watering stations and grain feeders.  Surrounding the trees is a dense belt of granjeno/brasil woods called “motts” in these parts.  So the birds have a protective zone that predators do not enter.  Our bobwhite quail have been abundant this year, at least around the house.  We don’t shoot anything because the birds are part of our family.  City folks drop by now and then and the first thing they want to do is kill something.  “Can I come over here next quail season and shoot?” they’ll ask.  I’m tempted to reach into my wallet and give them twenty bucks and then say, “Go buy a few chickens at the grocery store.  These quail aren’t for sale.”  A fellow was telling me that on a nearby ranch the owners raise quail in long pens where they are fed and cared for.  The pens are only a few feet high so when the quail flush they can’t go very high but instead must fly away at a height of about ten feet and straight away.  So then when quail season arrives they release these pen-raised quail and the dudes from town show up with their scatterguns and then go “quail hunting.”  When they flush a covey the quail (trained to fly no more than ten feet high and always in a straight line) do as they have been taught and the “hunters” shoot (hopefully it won’t be some moron who shoots his hunting partner in the face; but we won’t go into that here)…and then the quail fall and a dog retrieves them and everybody is happy.  But enough of that lest I get too carried away with how hunting has lost its honor in too many places and has become nothing more than business.


When my gourds are ready and the stems start to turn brown I’ll pick them and wash them in a mild bleach solution and then allow them to dry in a cool and well ventilated area.  Then in a few months I’m going to make bowls and cups and a coffee maker and some bird houses.  I’ll show those of you who are into woods craft (bushcraft) how to make a coffee maker from a bottle gourd.  We’ll share a cup of java.



Saturday, July 18, 2015

TIPS ON MAKING MICARTA


Knife scales made from Micarta have become popular over the last couple of decades.  Other synthetics are also making inroads and replacing traditional wood or antler knife handles.  Micarta is a process by which layers of organic fabrics (paper, linen, canvas etc.) are impregnated with epoxy resin and then sandwiched together under great pressure to form a stable and rock-hard slab.  Micarta slabs can be one color or a collage of colors giving them an array of appearances and textures.  It’s not all that difficult to make your own Micarta but having made dozens of Micarta slabs allow me to offer some tips that will make the process easier and less wasteful.


1) Making Micarta is a smelly and gooey process and the epoxy fumes are toxic.  Always make Micarta in an open, well-ventilated space.  I wear a respirator and make my Micarta outside under the open shed where I make my knives and bows.  Even though I’m wearing a respirator I still have a large fan blowing behind me to push the fumes away.  I have known people who became quite ill when they attempted to make Micarta in an enclosed space and did not use a respirator.
2) Before you start making your Micarta slab get everything you’ll need and place it near or on your work table.  Since you are working with epoxy you’ll need to work quickly.  However, I’m going to explain a method that I use that will greatly extend the time needed to make your Micarta and at the same time will not sacrifice the hardening qualities of the epoxy resin.


3) These are the materials I use:
          a) 2 ½” X 12” strips of construction paper, 50-80 pound cardstock, linen or canvas sheets.  Burlap can be used as well.
          b) Nitrile gloves.  I use three pair for each Micarta making session.
          c) Mixing tool.  I use a disposable plastic knife.
          d) Wax paper
          e) Respirator
          f) Paper cup.  I use two or three cups per session.
          g) Two 1”x 4” x 15” pine boards
          h) Bench mounted vise
          i) Four C-clamps
          j) Electronic kitchen scale
          k) Epoxy resin and hardener. I purchase epoxy by the gallon at Home Depot.
I place a large piece of cardboard on my workbench to keep the epoxy from spilling onto the bench while I’m working.

The epoxy calls for ten drops of hardener for each ounce of resin.  A typical paper Micarta slab will use about four ounces of epoxy while linen or canvas Micarta will use as much as six or even seven ounces.


IMPORTANT: When mixed according to directions the epoxy begins to harden in eight to eleven minutes depending on the ambient temperature.  That does not give you much time to work.  Now most hobbyists put less than the directed amount of hardener because they want to extend the time limit.  But this is not good technique and the tactic is unnecessary since one can still follow the manufacturer’s directions and obtain top quality Micarta but at the same time not be so rushed.  So here is what I do:
          a) Always measure out the amount of resin you intend to use. DON’T GUESS.  That is bad technique.
          b) For paper Micarta I’ll use two paper cups each pre-filled with two fluid ounces of resin.  I will not add the hardener until I’m ready to start.  When I’m making linen or canvas Micarta I will pre-fill three paper cups with 2-ounces each of resin.
          c) I will put two pairs of Nitrile gloves on since one pair is going to get all slimed with epoxy and I need a clean pair underneath when I fold the wax paper over the slab in order to form a neat rectangular package.
          d) When I am ready and all the materials are in place I will put twenty drops of hardener in the first cup and then mix the solution with my plastic knife.  I have already placed a sheet of wax paper on the cardboard and I have the sheets of fabric ready for use.
          e) Since I am only working with two ounces from each cup I have more than enough time to use the allocated epoxy to start the job.  Let’s assume I’m making Micarta from construction paper—but the same process works for all fabrics.
          f) I place the first paper sheet on the wax paper and then saturate it with epoxy.  I’ll then flip the sheet over and saturate the other side with epoxy.  Then I place another sheet on the first sheet and saturate it with epoxy.  The process continues until I finish the first 2-ounces of epoxy in the paper cup.
          g) When the first 2-ounces are gone I’ll put a clean sheet of construction paper (or linen or canvas or cardstock) on the last saturated sheet and then quickly mix in twenty drops of hardener into the next cup that is already filled with resin.  Then I continue the process.  Mixing in twenty drops in the second cup takes about ten seconds.


As mentioned, 4-ounces of epoxy usually suffice for a ½-inch slab of construction paper or cardstock.  After you’ve completed saturating the sheets then remove the top pair of Nitrile gloves and then carefully wrap the wax paper around the entire package.  I always keep an extra pair of Nitrile gloves next to me in case I need to remove one pair and quickly place another clean pair over the pair that is next to my skin.  It’s a safeguard that I suggest you get in the habit of employing.  Now some people build forms in which to place the package.  I find that step unnecessary because I then place the completed package between my two pieces of wood and then, holding the wood/package firmly, I slip it into my bench vise.  This serves the same purpose of a form because I can then quickly tighten the vise to hold the wood/epoxy package in place.  It always works.  I then begin placing my C-clamps on the wood/package carefully tightening the clamps (and further tightening the vise) until everything is absolutely secure.  Some people claim that one should not tighten the wood/package too much but I find their reasons unconvincing.  If you have followed the product directions and added the proper amount of hardener drops AND you have followed my directions and worked with only 2-ounces of epoxy at a time then by the time you place the wood/package into the vise it will already be very hot!  In other words, it is already hardening.  There will be essentially no spilling or leaking of the epoxy out and you will have an extremely hard slab in about 24-hours time.


I leave the wood/package in the vise (with the C-clamps attached) for at least one full day.  After which I’ll remove the wood/package from the vise and then remove the C-clamps.  I’ll remove as much of the wax paper as possible and, using a coping saw I’ll trim the edge of the slab to get a peek of the finished product.  I always keep about ten or twelve Micarta slabs ready to use and when a blade is ready I’ll select a slab.  REMEMBER that working with a completed Micarta package is also dangerous if you don’t wear a respirator.  Like before I shape the Micarta scales outside with my large fan next to my small belt sander blowing all the epoxy particulate away.  NEVER take chances around Micarta either when making the package or when sanding the scales.  Micarta made properly will probably last longer than the knife blade itself.  It will not shrink or expand and is essentially waterproof.  I often “paint” the completed and attached scales with a layer of 5-minute epoxy.  This makes the handles quite smooth and some people like a rougher feel to their knife handles.  But I’ve never liked knife scales with knurls or grooves or deep checkering or finger channels because in a working situation you will require a handle that is designed to allow you to adjust your grip in order to lessen fatigue and injury to the skin.  So I’m just fine with smooth grips.  Years of experience has shown me what works and what amounts to fad.

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.