Wednesday, March 23, 2011

South Texas Sunset

During the last dark phase of the moon, Dr. Mario Anzaldua and I planned to do some star gazing at an isolated spot in Starr County, Texas. I enjoy tagging along to learn a bit about galaxies and star clusters. I sometimes get an eerie feeling when looking through his telescope. Occasionally, I’ll even get a sense of vertigo pondering the unfathomable distances between earth and those far off objects oftentimes visible only in one’s peripheral vision. I’ll take a step back and get my bearings and spend a moment or two looking down at the ground not wanting to look up into the endless universe. The last three times, however, we’ve been buffaloed by clouds that appeared near sunset as if some unknown power decided that on that night we would not be given the privilege to gaze into the heavens. That’s when we spend the evening listening to the nocturnal calls of birds and relishing the distant yodels of coyotes. Perhaps we’ll be lucky and glimpse a rare snake. In the afternoon I always try to share my love of native plants with Mario. To his credit he listens courteously even though I have a tendency to get a bit technical at times.
Mario’s other love is photography. I think he has a great eye. Here are a couple of photos he took that afternoon as I tended the fire and the sun fell behind the mountains in Mexico.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Vascular Plant Images

Here’s an excellent site for those of you who want pictures of vascular plants of the American Southwest. I’ll post this on the links section as well. With this web address you can access plant pictures via your cell phone or iPad when out in the wilds. That’s a good thing to have handy when identifying plants.

Crooked Knife Series: No 3

A lot of people who think of themselves as outdoors folks, and rightly so, aren't interested in knives (crooked, straight or otherwise) nor are they enamored by making wooden spoons or building their own camps or constructing selfbows or atlatls or forming their own cordage or learning how to make bow-drills and bucksaws or acquiring all the other skills that some of us hold dear. And there’s nothing wrong with that. A majority of people would rather simply buy a tent and the rest of their equipment and then head off into the woods to enjoy nature oftentimes packing freeze-dried food and fancy portable stoves and a host of exotic devices and products. Then there are those who would rather make their own gear, cook fresh food (unprocessed), and build their own camp from shelter to cooking set-up. I've even run into people who craft their own packs from pieces of canvas or leather and fashion their cooking ware from tin cans. In truth marketers, manufacturers and promoters don’t particularly like people like that. Those sorts of people don’t buy ad infinitum and aren't part of the consumptive lifestyle that’s become the norm in our society.

I get interesting notes from people who want to make their own outdoor gear and learn everything they can about the wilds. The common thread I see in those folks is their undying respect for nature. It’s as if they have both a spark of minimalism as well as the desire to experience the circle of creation from gathering the raw materials through the building process onward to the final result. Like many great woodcrafters have said, “The more you know, the less you need.” Perhaps the greatest example of this in recent times is the story of Ishi who walked out of the northern California wilderness and introduced the world to the purity of absolute woods knowledge. So for that group who admires the things we make ourselves here is crooked knife number 3 in the series.


Monday, March 21, 2011

Native Plant Allergy Tea and Menthol Inhaler

March is a windy month. Tree pollen counts are high and most people are going about their lives sniffling and as one lady put it, “Feeling yucky.” The juniper season in South Texas has been worse than most years. In Deep South Texas the offending trees are the palo blanco (sugar hackberry), anacua, cedar elm and Rio Grande ash. Oak always presents a problem and we’ve got plenty of post oak in the area as well. I wonder how those who lived here before the Europeans arrived dealt with tree pollen season. 

There are a few native plants that people use to make teas for bronchitis and one plant can also be used as a menthol-type inhaler by crushing the leaves and then breathing the menthol smell. It works surprisingly well. I’m thinking of a plant called salvia. There are two examples of this plant and both are in the croton family. One is Croton incanus and the other is Croton dioicus. Both plants belong to the family Euphorbiaceae or Spurge family. Of the two the one more commonly used as a tea for bronchitis and a menthol-type applicant is Croton inanus.

Here’s a link to a picture of Croton incanus:

I have used this plant as a tea for years. It also makes a fair mosquito repellent by crushing the leaves and rubbing them on exposed skin. Be careful because some people will get a rash just like some people get a rash with store-bought repellents.

Crooked Knife Series: No 2

Here’s the second in my series on crooked knives. Like all my crooked knives this one is chiseled beveled. That means the bevel is only on one side and the opposite side is flat. My bevels range in slope from about 30° to about 15° which gives me a range of carving angles that I can use in order to either gently shave or more deeply cut the wood. Most of my bevels are set at about 20° because I like to remove thin slices as opposed to larger chunks. I have got several blade blanks ready to be mated to handles and most of those blanks have bevels in the 18° to 20° range.

The Crooked Knife Series: Number 1

Those of you who have followed my postings on various forums know I am a lover of the crooked knife and the hook knife as well. In my YouTube video I go into detail as to why I like crooked knives (check my link section if you haven’t seen the video), and so I won’t go into all that here. Let it suffice to say that I seldom use any other type of knife for my woodcarving and I agree with the man who said long ago that anything you can do with a regular knife can also be done with a crooked knife. I’ll add a proviso: The crooked knife can perform even more woodcarving tasks than a regular knife. I understand that some will disagree and I am quite accepting of their opinions. In fact, I usually expect people to disagree simply because most people have little or limited experience with crooked knives. But over the years I have made dozens upon dozens of crooked and hook knives using every dimensional variation imaginable. Constant experimentation has taught me a lot about crooked knife usage.

I make three types of crooked knives. The first are my everyday knives that aren’t particularly fancy but get carried around in my cutting and carving tools bags or in my woods roaming bag or in my glove compartment. The second are my ultra-fancy crooked knives. And the third are my “hybrids” that are essentially experiments in crooked knife design. Truth is I’ve got crooked knives in drawers and bags and boxes. I’ve got crooked knives at the cabin. I’ve given all my boys crooked and hook knives. Last May I gave a young lady who loves pretty wood and unique woodcarving tools one of my crooked knives as a graduation present. Not long ago I let some of my crooked knives go to a talented woodcarver but aside from those I tend not to get rid of my knives. People write me all the time asking if I’ll sell them one of my knives but I invariably suggest they contact a friend of mine who makes beautiful crooked knives and lives in New Mexico. 

Anyway, over the next several days or maybe even the next several weeks I’m planning to post pictures of crooked knives. If you are a crooked knife aficionado then I guarantee you are about to get your belly full. Nearly every post will have a picture of a “crook.” I’ll post pictures of hook knives afterward. Here’s Number 1 in the series:

Character Spoons

Sometimes it’s nice to examine symmetry not in the traditional sense of form and proportion but instead to relish the patterns created by nature. I frequently do that when making a spoon. First, however, one needs to take the time to do some anatomical exploration.

While naturalists are adept at identification and classification, the exercise usually stops short of any sort of dissection. That’s where the biologist enters and perhaps that part of me remains imprinted on my woods roaming lifestyle. I draw the line, however, when it comes to animals because I’d rather listen, for example, to a mourning dove cooing than shoot it for food or cut it open to inspect its innards.

But plants are a different matter. I’m not content to walk by a plant—especially one I’m unfamiliar with—and simply look at the leaves or flowers or touch its thorns or maybe examine its bark. No, I’ve got to look inside. I’ll saw off a small branch and scrutinize its insides from sapwood to heartwood. Then I’ll pluck a few leaves and take them home to view under the stereoscope. That, by the way, opens a whole new world to those who choose to look. I want to smell every plant I encounter as well. Then I’ll dry the branch and determine its specific gravity. Finally, I’ll carve the wood with my crooked knife and perhaps in the most revealing way that tells me things about the wood that are beyond simple explanation.

And that brings me back to spoons. Here are some spoons I completed recently that were never intended to be spoons, at least not in the traditional sense. Over the years, I have discovered plant species that, once opened up, revealed a wonderland of form and figure. And color as well.

“What does it look like inside?” “What does it feel like?” “How will it react to my crooked knife and my hook knife?” Those are the questions I’m asking myself when I see a plant species I’ve never encountered before.


The Naturalist's Life

Blogs are an interesting pastime but sometimes work takes precedence. Of course, it helps if you’re doing what you want to do—which for me means spending a lot of time in nature. I’m told that when I was about six months old my folks heard the distinct calls of a great-tailed grackle coming from upstairs where I was in my crib. Mom went upstairs to see what was going on and found me peering out the window at the grackles in the trees nearby. I was, as she explains, calling out to the birds and they were calling back to me. She says it occurred to her at that moment that I was destined to be a nature person.

I would imagine that many of you are the same. We spend time in nature because there we feel a sense of oneness and congruency with all that exists both in the world we see, hear and touch as well as the world beyond our senses.

In my book Adios to the Brushlands (Texas A&M Press, 1997) I write about a conversation I heard between two rangers at Big Bend National Park. One ranger told another that she had just talked to a man who bragged about walking a certain trail in about half the time suggested it would take. The second ranger said, “You should’ve asked him, what was the point?”

It’s not the beginning or the end that matters but the journey in between. Every walk reveals something new and in that revelation we learn more about ourselves as well. Woods roaming becomes a form of meditation, indeed an interlude of profound transcendence. But while other forms of contemplation call for a closing off of the world around us, immersion in nature demands the opposite. We allow colors and sounds and all that surrounds us to flood inward. The more we see, hear and smell the more alive we become; indeed, the more that life itself becomes real and relevant.

A long time ago I concluded that the one thing we know for sure; the thing that is beyond speculation or myth and that surmounts faith and hope or creed is the absolute knowledge that life exists. And the very center of life is that world of nature surrounding us. Perhaps that is why those of us who cherish nature hold it sacrosanct. When we protect it we are not simply saving the living things around us but saving ourselves as well.   

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Springtime Foraging

Years ago I enrolled at a college in Michigan for the spring quarter. The month was March and in South Texas springtime, though weeks away for most other places, was already unfolding. New leaflets had emerged from the trees turning an otherwise drab landscape into a pageant of nearly endless shades of green. On the rocky hillsides, atop the limestone sediments and into the sandy flats millions of cacti were in the midst of their yearly floral kaleidoscope. It is the time of year no true woods roamer wants to miss and for a moment I thought of not going north but staying where I knew my heart lay—wandering The Brushlands as I had done since childhood.

I’ve witnessed quite a few springtimes in my life and hope to glimpse a few more. Nowadays it seems most people find any sort of “outdoor experience” void of pleasure unless filled with the interminable noises from dirt bikes and ATVs. They “hunt” within the claustrophobic confines of a “deer blind” and seldom, if ever, walk from one place to another. Spring time is something that occurs out there.

But for untold generations spring meant rebirth and new life, and most of all it meant food. As a boy I roamed the brush with my grandfather who was perhaps the most knowledgeable woodsman I have ever known. In some ways, my skills have surpassed his but overall he was the master. My greatest schooling came not from the halls of academia but from all those meandering trails when we walked the woods pausing at every turn to look and examine and learn. His lectures were short and to the point, and the emphasis was always on how to live with what grew before me.

We are enthralled with knives and hatchets (I am as guilty of that as the next person) but the real secret to outdoors knowledge and survival comes from knowing the plants. If you do not have an in depth understanding of the plants growing around you then you will forever be a novice. Knowing how to build a shelter, make fire and trap an animal is important. But for long term life in the woods you must know the plants.

Over the next few weeks I’ll show you not only what the most common edible plants are in the Southwestern parts of the United States but I will also teach you how to prepare them. And why now you might ask? Because now is the time to learn to gather and make food. Springtime brings new growth and for thousands of years people waited patiently, if not a bit anxiously, for the time when new leaves and flowers arrived. This last week was spent in the woods far from computers and televisions where preparations were made for the food about to arrive: Cataloging plots of cacti about to flower or sprout new pads, and groves of trees where delicious legumes will grow, and at plants hiding tubers or ready to offer flowered stalks—even to the herbs used for salads, spices and condiments.

The above photo and the picture at the top of this posting are from the same tree. The fruit is eaten by humans, birds and small mammals and will begin appearing in about two weeks. When we were kids we’d gather around these trees like grackles or chachalacas, maybe cedar waxwings, making all kinds of noises, talking loudly and munching on the berries until we felt sick. Can anyone guess what the plant is called?

This tree provided a staple food for the Indians of the region for thousands of years. Here’s a clue: It’s a legume. In a few weeks we’ll look at the way the beans are prepared for everything from bean soup to a sort of Brushlands coffee.               

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Clean Water Crisis

We cannot survive without water and yet we treat it as if endowed with endless supplies. We dump chemicals and waste into rivers and lakes that foul the seas and oceans.

Not long ago an acquaintance told me that when he visited relatives in Arkansas he was warned about fishing in a local lake because of all the mercury pollution. “I just couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I remember fishing there when I was a boy and now it’s ruined.” But his story is not isolated and neither is the fact that the availability of clean water is becoming increasingly threatened. United States federal intelligence websites warn of future wars waged over water, and that the outcome of increasing water pollution threatens the existence of both nations and cultures.

I live in a region that has long known the realities of limited water supplies. Even so it seems the land has been settled by two very different sorts of people: Those who understand the need to conserve water and those who see nothing beyond their immediate desires to grow economically. Already, the nearby Rio Grande separating the United States and Mexico is a polluted dump. State officials have warned about the ill effects of any direct contact with the water—the same water from which several million residents on both sides of the river sate their thirst and use in their daily lives. In fact, every year the river becomes filthier and more chemicals are needed to “purify” the water it provides.

It would seem the juxtaposition of two divergent ideologies has caused a schism both in the quality of our lives and for the future of those who will inherit the effects of our greed.  

Last week I read about radon pollution in Houston, Texas groundwater supplies. One scientist was quoted as saying that showering in radon contaminated water causes the inhalation of dangerous particles into the lungs.

Here’s a web address to a journal article written by that same scientist about radon contamination in Texas groundwater. Those of you who live outside the state of Texas have other water problems to deal with. But with concerted and like-minded goals we can work together to thwart the greed of others and begin to regain our clean water supplies.

Here’s another web address for those interested in creating water collection systems at their homestead. This might come in handy if you intend to live in a remote area.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Woodcraft Knives, The Old, The Bad, and the Best

Before capitalism, marketing, advertising, and yes, even blogs, people seemed to manage their lives in the woods without the latest in commercial gear and minus what some have referred to as the desire to define quality in quantitative terms.

Frontiersmen, trappers, woodsmen, woods rats and a hodgepodge of hermits and nature lovers tended not to be people of endless means or limitless desires. They lived frugal lives either because it was their way or they had no other choice. Examine old woodsmen’s knives and you’ll likely be either amazed at their simplicity or dumbfounded by their fragility. “Kitchen knives” oftentimes became woodworking knives, and the idea of some dedicated “bushcraft” knife costing a month’s wages would have been as foreign to them as the idea of living with one knife, a single pair of pants or just one car is for many of us today.

The knives I’ve seen pressed into service in remote places—and somehow made to work just fine—always amazed me and would have amazed some of you as well. Tips of broken machetes were either re-hafted or simply wrapped in cloth to use for everything from preparing meat to making traps to castrating young bulls.

All knives were precious commodities and concepts like steel type, bevel grind, blade length or shape were considerations the majority of backwoods types, no matter where they lived, found too luxurious to consider seriously.

Before the steel knife came along living off the land meant using rocks, bone, teeth or sometimes glass. As kids we’d always knap a flake off a suitable rock or snap off a piece of glass from a discarded bottle to gut out everything from rabbits to deer. We carried pocket knives and invariably had a machete or axe nearby but never saw the need to smear up those items when handling game. Besides, who wanted to stain their favorite carbon steel folder?

Even so, ninety percent or more of the things we made—or saw others make—at any makeshift camp was accomplished with a machete or small axe. The small knife, whether fixed blade or folder, was a tool for dainty tasks: food preparation, fine woodcarving, or just sitting around the campfire whittling on a stick and listening to the old folks tell stories about ghosts and goblins.

And while I’ve touched on that subject let me say that the most fascinating story for those living far from television and radio (because they have no electricity) is the ghost story. Whether in the jungles or far out in the desert the locals love to talk ghosts, spirits and the unknown.

Glowing eyes appearing at night or fire emerging suddenly from a tree top or strange lights levitating off the ground are the types of stories that make their way across the globe in revolutions rivaling the internet. It would seem that when humans are not engaged in dealing with reality they love to discuss the things they cannot explain or even remotely define.

Here then are some photos of ancient and new knives, at least in my life, that emerged from the vats of oil emersion and fire to become woods tools. Some were purchased while others were made. Some were failures but others served their purpose in places where the nearest village was six to ten hours away and a doctor was at least a day’s journey beyond the closest hamlet.

 Four small knives purchased from a blacksmith who worked his trade in nearly 100 percent humidity on days with no wind and temperatures in the 90s. At least the smoke kept the mosquitoes away. Blade steel is unknown but they will strike a spark on a ferrocerium rod and seem tempered to about 56-57 Rc. Bevel ground, these knives were either sold or traded to natives living in the jungles. The maker used any wood available for the handles and usually cut a branch on the spot, drilled a hole and inserted the stick tang then painted the wood with varnish or shellac.

This knife was purchased at a market and is made from a broken machete blade. The knives were made directly behind the store, actually more of a “shack,” where the maker had hundreds of broken machete blades stacked one atop the other awaiting their turn. Machete blades, while excellent for whacking away brush and limbs, make poor small knife blades because the steels used are soft and tempered for chopping impacts. Despite their shortcomings many indigenous people use machetes for almost everything and make adequate use of the tool. I was told the rivets were made from brass cartridge cases melted and recycled. I made an exact copy of this knife but gave it to a friend.

 This was one of my earliest attempts to make a woods knife using a worn-out file. The original blade was shaped differently but over the decades the blade has been sharpened thousands of times and thus worn down. The knife fell out of its sheath and into a canyon once and was not retrieved for several weeks. It was nary the worse for ware. This knife is officially “retired.”

 Two more old woods knives: Top knife was made from a scrap piece of 1095 steel and the bottom knife from an old file. Neither knife proved suitable for woodworking and both made marginal woods knives. The top knife ended up as a kitchen knife and the bottom knife was far too thick along its spine. It did make for good baton use but overall the design was flawed and I never cared for it. I guarantee someone living in the brush or jungles would have made these knives work far better than I could.

I made this knife about 10-12 years ago and used it for a short time. Another file knife, I realized the handle was too small after I’d completed the knife. It sits in a drawer and will probably never be used for anything other than slicing apples.

So what is today’s inexpensive, reliable, and as near perfect woods knife as a person can find? Here are my two contributions to this seemingly endless debate.

Mora model 510. Most readers of this site know the Mora 510 was discontinued not long ago. But it’s not the end of the world, folks. I consider this knife a representative of a line of Mora knives, some with wooden handles others with plastic handles that essentially serve the same purpose: They work! These are not knives to baton on extremely hard wood, and perhaps the notion of whacking a knife’s spine with a club in order to split a small log isn’t exactly prudent. A small axe (mini axe) works better, and for that matter so do other things like bone or antler or the little pocket adze I wrote about in another post.

The Marttiini 571, in my opinion, has a more comfortable grip than the Mora 510. The Martiini is only a couple of dollars more expensive than the Mora. By the way, I bought my Mora 510 knife from Ragweed Forge a few years back and I bought the Martiini pictured above from Bens Backwoods. I believe the Mora 510 cost me ten dollars and the Martiini cost fourteen bucks. Not bad for a couple of knives that when coupled with my pocket adze or a machete or mini axe will get me by.

Now I’ve got to be honest here. If given my druthers I’d use a crooked knife instead of either a Mora or Martiini knife. That’s just my preference and when woodcarving or making anything at camp I nearly always use one of my crooked knives for the detail work. I’ll post a flock of crooked knife photos soon.