Saturday, December 29, 2012

Traveling Bushcrafters

Traveling Bushcrafter's Hidden Campsite

I assume most of us have seen those television survival shows where one or two people amble off into some sort of “survival situation” replete with film crew, medical staff, local guides, cell phones, GPS equipment, and in some cases local caterer.  Millions of bored folks eagerly sit in front of the tube watching these shows and then get on their favorite “bushcraft forums” and discuss who did what and how they supposedly did it.  But out here in the wilds we’ve got our own shows to watch and we watch them on a weekly basis.  Now these bushcrafters move through sans film crew or back-up squad and if they have to walk barefoot it’s not because they want to or because they subscribe to something lame like, “This is who I am.”  These traveling experts don’t say things like, “I’ve been a bushcrafter for twenty years.”  They don’t even know what bushcraft means and they probably don’t care.  They try their best to move through unseen, like ghosts or shadows keeping to the trees and as far as they can from habitations.  Mind you, the majority of people wandering through these parts are decidedly not bushcrafters of any sort.  They come from big cities to the south and from Europe and Asia or even Africa.  I’ve met many of them.  A few years ago a group drifted through from Bosnia.  They were scared, lost, hungry and panicked.  That’s a frequent scenario and if you’ve kept up with this blog you know that bodies are frequently found east and west of here—the remains of people who trekked through with no idea of what they were getting into.

But now and then some real bushcraft types move through and though we seldom see them we do find evidence of their presence in the area.  A wickiup hidden in a thicket, a small campfire dug into a hole, a snare trap made from hastily spun agave fibers, a tiny drying rack made to jerk javelina or hog meat.  A neighbor told me of finding a clandestine campsite a couple of weeks ago and a few years back I found where somebody had taken up residence in a deer blind (a small tower people climb into to shoot deer), and last summer I found the remains of an impromptu shelter somebody had fashioned using some discarded sheet metal.  These people come from the jungles or deserts to the south.  They have lived their lives without electricity or motored vehicles.  I’ve encountered dozens who, though from Mexico or Central America, speak little Spanish.  About ten years ago I ran into a man who had made camp in an extremely thick area.  He had a machete either pilfered from somebody’s barn or hunting cabin or perhaps he’d traveled with the long blade from his homeland.  His Spanish was so mixed with Indian words that we communicated poorly.  He was from Central America and in the last few years we’ve seen the majority of people coming through are either from El Salvador or Guatemala.  When I asked him about his sojourn he simply shrugged and smiled and I got the impression his concept of going somewhere was different from mine.  He was camped and that was all there was to it.  He smiled a lot but I didn’t smile back and kept beyond reach of his machete.  He must have decided that if one fellow could find him then others might too because when I went looking for him the next day he was gone.  From the remains of his campsite he’d been parked in those woods for about a week.  He was using a couple of discarded beer bottles as water containers.  When I cut his sign to get an idea of how he was living I found he was sneaking to a windmill about a half-mile distant at night to fill up.  I found where he’d been making tea from colima leaves, Zanthoxylum fagara.  Colima has been used as a sedative.  There was a small pile of pecan shells so somewhere along the line he’d picked some pecans.  I put the man in his mid to late thirties and he was puro Indio from the jungles.

A lot of people seem to think that bushcraft is basically about knowing how to make feather sticks and bow drills.  They talk about “practicing their skills” and on weekends venture into the woods and make fire with sticks and whittle out wooden spoons.  That is most certainly a part of bushcraft though only a small part.  The biggest part is knowing plants both edible and medicinal.  Some people claim that knowing plants is of little use because you’ve got to eat meat.  But that’s not true.  Dietary diversity is essential because you need a well-rounded diet with both protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and fiber.  These traveling bushcrafters know their plants.

A fellow who lives in the area who goes by the name, Tres Manos, (Three Hands because he can do the work of more than one man) came from an Indian village in central Mexico.  When he was eleven years old he and his two older brothers walked across the desert all the way to the Nueces River about 125 miles north of here.  They lived mostly on plants but were able to trap a few nopal rats here and there.  His stamina, even today at 36 years old, is phenomenal.

Last night temperatures dipped here into the mid-30s.  Not too cold when compared to other areas to the north but I imagine some of these traveling bushcrafters were probably in the area.  Huddled in a granjeno mott perhaps drinking tea brewed from salvia (Croton sp.) or from colima.  It was cold enough to keep the rattlesnakes away and the scorpions and centipedes too.  They probably slept on the cold ground and may not have even made a fire so the Border Patrol wouldn’t smell any camp smoke or spot a fire from a helicopter.  The majority move through and never get caught.  Traveling bushcrafters.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

“The Beast” A Heavyweight Parang

The Beast is no lightweight coming in at close to three pounds.  It’s not a long bladed chopper; in fact, the blade length is only 9.5 inches and an overall length of 16.5 inches.  But the blade is 7mm thick (.284 inch) from tang to tip and that’s what makes this parang so heavy.  I built it with one purpose in mind: Whacking the dead leaves off of yucca plants, Yucca treculeana.
The South Texas form of this yucca was once called “the giant yucca” and nurseries referred to it as, Yucca treculeana var.canaliculata.  That variety is no longer recognized.  Regardless, South Texas yucca (also called pita) is much bigger and tougher than your run of the mill yuccas and the dead leaves hanging from the stalk reject the flimsy-bladed machetes most people use.  It’s a lot of work and I figured a heavy blade would perform better.

I don’t consider this parang suitable for everyday use since its weight makes the blade want to keep going, and unless you’re striking something substantial then the blade is difficult to stop.  In other words, the blade’s mass coupled with your swing and gravity creates momentum not easily thwarted.

Note that I rounded the first two inches of the top part of the blade’s spine to facilitate choking the blade for detailed work.  The underside at that point is rounded as well.  I do this to all my large knives including my Woods Roamer Knife.  But on The Beast detail work is confined to lighter chopping where you allow the blade’s weight to do most of the work.

 The tang extends about halfway through the handle section.  Full tangs on these large knives interfere with the overall balance of the knives; and the little stick tangs seen on nearly all Malaysian parangs are prone towards having problems.  I’ve read reports of those little stick tangs working loose even when pinned and also snapping during chopping.  So I compromise in my parang-type knives with a tang that is substantial but not full length.  The handle is made from mesquite and its pinned with a couple of heavy-duty nails.  The steel came from a set of pickup leaf springs and is probably 5160.  This is good steel for choppers and pounders since it’s forgiving and less prone towards snapping—assuming you tempered the blade correctly after heat treatment.  I forged the blade then annealed it and afterwards shaped the bevel.  I used a cutting torch to make the two 3/16 inch pin holes then cleaned the holes with a drill.  The handle is covered with an amalgam of 30-minute epoxy and fine mesquite wood dust.  This makes for a nice color and very durable seal as well as adding strength to the handle.

 This is not intended to be a cutie chopper all shining and fancy.  This is a working tool for use around the cabin and on el ranchito.  But after using The Beast to trim yucca I couldn’t help think this would make a heck of a weapon in the hands of a Navy Seal or US Marine or by the Army Delta Force.  The handle is robust enough that it won’t allow the knife to get away from you.  The knife’s overall ergonomics keep the hand at a distance from the cutting surface.  And the thick blade will go through a door or into a vehicle with ease.  

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Cutting Tools for the Trail and Survival: The Overshoot Phenomena

Part Two
In 1980 a book entitled Overshoot:  The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change by William Catton, Jr. was published.  Professor Catton’s book has become one of the great works detailing the concept of biotic populations (in this case, humans) exceeding their resource base.  Thus the title Overshoot in which a population outgrows both the food available as well as other life-based requirements needed for survival.  Books like Overshoot explain not only what circumstances can lead to a population breakdown but can also provide insights, if we are perspicacious, on how to avoid those predicaments.

But this should not be confused with end-of-the-world discourse.  Humans have been preoccupied with those sorts of scenarios for a very long time.  In fact, centuries before the birth of Jesus of Galilee others, whether as an anointed one (moshiach) or prophet, predicted the end of humanity.  It seems we have a longstanding fascination for what is, if we are to be honest, a yearning to get out of the current situation and find something better or at least different.  There is always a faction obsessed with cataclysmic or eschatological finality.  The latest wave began in the mid-1970s when publications began appearing about surviving a coming collapse.  The current “assault rifle” preoccupation has its roots in a book called Survival Guns that appeared in that first wave of “head for the hills” hysteria.  But that was over 30 years ago and despite ever increasing problems—environmental, political and economic—we have yet to experience the need to “bug out” to anywhere except perhaps the mall come Black Friday.

Even so, there are those amongst us who live on a constant “alert status” preparing for the big drawdown.  I’ve often wondered if we could go back a few hundred years (this would be dependent on where in the world you live) and spend some time there and then be suddenly transported back to the present if most of us might conclude that much of the world has deteriorated already.  From water we can no longer drink, to skies severely polluted, to forests annihilated, to landscapes so mutilated they are nothing short of trash-pits, we have gone a long ways in ruining the earth.  And yet, at the same time our population has grown at a meteoric rate.  While economists with their seemingly ever-present myopia remain oblivious to the nightmare of exponential human population growth there are many in the world of science that are now deeply troubled about where things are going.  In the book, Overshoot, William Catton suggests that in our contrived ecosystem the earth reached its maximum “carrying capacity” at about 4.2 billion population and that was back in the early 1980s.  A “contrived ecosystem” is an artificial system held together by synthetic means.  In other words, remove the artificiality of a system and the carrying capacity is instantly reduced dramatically.  Take away electricity and gasoline, for example, and the ability to produce food on bare land via “modern” agriculture is immediately halted.  In a world that already has countries unable to sustain their own populations without outside help it becomes clear that any sort of extrinsic “limiting factor,” from sudden loss of the ability to distribute energy to profound drought to economic shutdown to world war to pandemic, and we are abruptly in an acute state of population reduction.

In a twisted irony our population increase began as our technologies, particularly our cutting tools, improved.  From bone and stone knives, axes and spear points to copper and bronze and then iron and steel we refined our ability to cut into both the biotic and abiotic world.  What, pray tell, is a plow other than a type of cutting tool?  And as plowing became more efficient we were able to produce more food while at the same time destroying our forests (and thus the ability to hunt and gather) and all the while our human populations flourished.  What is an oil drill other than a type of cutting tool?  What is a bulldozer other than a massive form of whacking trees and erasing the landscape?

Years ago I asked a class what they would do if there was a sudden loss of power everywhere.  To make the point more dramatic I turned off the lights in a windowless classroom.  The female students gasped and the men became anxious as well.  And then, as always, some fellow proclaimed: “Well, I’ll just head out into the woods and live off the land.”  So I asked him: “Where will you live off the land?  There is so little woods left that the ability to hunt and forage is practically gone.  There is little potable water.  You can’t drink the water from the Rio Grande because it is severely polluted.  The upland areas have mostly shallow-wells with brackish water and what good water you might find will already have people with guns sitting on it.  It’s that way nearly everywhere.  You will find millions of desperate folks alongside you who will be more than willing to lighten your pack whether you like it or not.  The pestilence that will sweep overland within weeks will be horrific.  In less than six months every deer, cow, goat and chicken will be consumed—often at a substantial waste of meat.  People will kill a cow and eat only a tiny bit before the rest rots.”  Of course, after class the students would scurry out the door with nary a thought about what we’d just discussed.

And so here we are: Watching YouTube videos on survival gear and sustainability over the long haul, and reading articles on “bug out bags” and contemplating living “off the land” and all of those things reside in the world of either extreme naiveté or in the realm of delusion.  Don’t be angry just be real.  With a current human population of over seven billion and with resources constantly depleted worldwide we have no factual place to “bug out.”  In isolated situations like after a hurricane (Hurricane Katrina comes to mind) people had to survive in a micro cosmos of filth, crime, and greatly reduced resources.  But the world all around the victims lay intact and people could pack their bags and head to a Holiday Inn somewhere or they could wait while supplies were brought to them.  In that sense the best bug-out bag is a suitcase or pack with enough clothes, meds and toiletries to spend a few days in a nearby city or shelter.  But what if a pandemic strikes worldwide and suddenly there is no help to ship supplies to you; and to make things worse you can’t drive to the next town and check into a motel because they are all very sick and experiencing their own troubles?

Yes, we have created a real predicament for ourselves.  Even now more forests are being cleared lessening places where people might hunt or forage.  More water is being polluted as “fracking” operations for gas wells contaminate millions of gallons of water every year.  Heck, we just had an election where the frackers, polluters and desecraters pumped mega millions into the fray to insure they would be able to continue their mutilations.  They lost.  But regardless, populations continue growing exponentially.  Add to that the phenomena of “human population pressure” where people start to interfere with each other as population densities become critical.  What do you think “road rage” is all about?  What do you think is causing the intense anger we see all around us?  The explanations we’ve been given by scores of pundits, politicians and plutocrats range from the ridiculous to the absurd.  But the facts are simple: We are in overshoot and are now experiencing the problems associated with populations when they have gone far beyond their maximum carrying capacities.  William Catton, Jr. predicted all of this years ago.  Others concur.  And yet, we journey on wearing blinders.  The data tells us that most populations fall dramatically when limiting factors come into play but they do not disappear altogether.  When I wrote the novel, The Trail, I brought the concept of population and societal collapse into play in a real sense.  Nonetheless, the possible proximity of such an unfolding is indeed disconcerting.  Everyone wants to believe that they will survive and some even think a sort of “sustainability” can be achieved even as they currently live surrounded by millions of people.  There is no foolproof answer other than to live a life of frugality sans the hedonism preached daily on the radio and other places.  Perhaps it’s time we rethink our mode of living.  Not that we will survive but that we will live.  And living will not be the constant acquisition of “things” as we slide headlong through hyper-consumption and gluttony.  Instead it will be a lifestyle of simplicity and frugality where the measure of the quality of one’s life will not be scored on how many vehicles we own or houses we possess or how we have accrued objects to play with but instead how we appreciate those things that we seem to push away or overlook.  Did I mention that early this morning I watched four green jays drinking water at the birdbath?

Monday, December 3, 2012

Part One: Cutting Tools for the Trail…and Survival

Of course, when one says, “the trail” the question that should immediately come to mind is: “What trail?”  For example, I’ve talked to people who’ve walked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail and said the only real cutting tool you might need is a pocketknife.  It seems that all along the Appalachian there are places where people mail home items they brought and found they didn’t need.  Things like hatchets and machetes and Bowie knives seem of little use along the Appalachian or at least that’s what I’ve been told.  I’ve never walked that trail but it sounds like a very long hike through a very long park.  I have hiked in places in the Western Rocky Mountains, and unless you plan to build a wickiup or something along those lines the need for mega-steel like an axe or quarter-inch thick parang is not all that important.  It seems most people do just fine with folders or perhaps a small hunting-type fixed blade.  These days people carry ultra-light gear in big backpacks and the need to hunt for food along the way or build their own camps is less a necessity than an option…something folks do if they want to pretend or just goof off.

The need for a larger cutting tool becomes more of a necessity the farther one gets into true wilderness or as a working tool around the ranch or farm.  The Lower Forty-Eight has few true wilderness locales and if we’re to be honest it seems that a small machete or hand axe is about the only large cutting implement one needs in most places more than twenty-miles from a paved highway.  Honestly, there aren’t many places in the Lower Forty-Eight that are more than even ten miles from pavement of some sort.  Still, it’s important to carry something that can cut a two-inch branch for an emergency shelter and the most energy efficient tool for that purpose is a small saw.  The SAK saw works fine most of the time.

While butcher knives of various designs might have been the ticket a couple of hundred years ago they are not essential today.  There are those who like to pretend at being mountain men or backwoodsmen and YouTube has some of those videos where people are dressed in period garb while all the while cars and trucks scream by at 70 mph a few hundred yards away.  What the heck: It’s all fun and games and enjoying one’s leisure time is important as long as no one else is hurt in the process.  But back to reality: The most important cutting tool you’ll carry will be in your pocket in the form of either a Leatherman multi-tool (or similar design) or my preferred implement a Swiss Army Knife with good pruning saw.  Granted the steel on the SAK is somewhat soft but that is of no great problem since it’s easy to sharpen.  The Leatherman’s knife is smallish and so is the saw and I find that tool less appealing than the SAK.  I see the Leatherman as more appropriate for mountain bikers and that sort of thing who might need the pincers or pliers to replace a tube or fix the gears.

We all know, or at least should know, that the best tool is one’s brain filled with an array of survival skills.  But then most of us are pretty proficient at surviving in the world we grew up in.  The city fellow who lives surrounded by tens of thousands of people is just as much a survival expert as the guy who walks in the jungles and lives in a thatched hut.  But the idea of survival and thus the appropriate cutting tools is always focused on those aspects of life that we know less about.  Thus the multiplicity of survival shows and videos and blog posts on “cutting tools” for survival.  Still, I’ve never seen a post or video that accurately portrays what “survivability,” or for that matter “sustainability,” is really all about and all of that despite hundreds of articles on the topic.  So please allow me to bring a scientific perspective on the subject and to find a way to include cutting tools into the mix since there is a connection as you will see as this series of posts progresses.

In Part Two of this multiple post we’ll look at things like population density and population pressure at it relates to survivability and sustainability.  Oh yes, and we’ll manage to bring cutting tools into the mix.

Monday, November 26, 2012

César’s Birch Bark Canoe

In the early 1970s I was living in Southern Michigan spending most of my free time wandering the deciduous forests and visiting the few people I could find knowledgeable in primitive technologies.  I was supposed to be in college but found traditional education boring and, besides, I was of the type who preferred being left alone to read in a library than to sit and endure a professor’s lecture.  Having grown up in the Dark Ages when kids had to make their own fun instead of buying it at the store or fixated to some computer game I built my own push carts and model rockets and made knives and tomahawks (I grew up next to a blacksmith shop) and as a teenager I roamed the woods learning to identify native plants, hunt and track animals, and everything I could on woodcraft and primitive skills.

But oh how I wish I could have met César Newashish.  César was a Cree Indian who made birch bark canoes. And just to think that when the following film of him making one of his canoes was made I was living only a few hundred miles to the south.  I could have driven to his home in a day.  Maybe he would have allowed me to watch him make a canoe.  Perhaps I might have even been given a chance to help.  If you watch the film, then please note his expertise at using a crooked knife.  Also note that he uses no sophisticated electronic machinery but only hand tools.  His equipment consists of a pocketknife, a butcher’s knife, a handsaw, hand drill, hammer, awl, axe, and his crooked knife.  His crooked knife looks traditional in that the blade appears attached to the handle with cordage and the blade itself was probably a mill file annealed, shaped, heat treated and then tempered into a knife.  The “crook” looks well used.  The handle is crude and seems to have been made from a piece of board.  The blade length looks around 4.5 inches or thereabouts.  Actually, I think he was using two crooked knives in the film.  One of the knives seems to have been made from a six-inch mill file and the other from an eight-inch mill file.  See if you can tell the difference.  Some have suggested he might have used two pocketknives but I have not seen that when I’ve watched the film.  Some years back I ordered the DVD and I have watched the documentary dozens of times.  I learn something new each time I watch.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

You can watch the film here:

Or here:

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

On Writing and Making Knives

Standing within a granjeno-mesquite mott

Admittedly there are those who love crowds but every time I go into the city I get tense.  Congestion and crazy drivers: I saw a girl driving and texting and at first I thought she was drunk because she was weaving all over the road.  I’ve seen women applying their makeup while driving and some years back two of my sons saw a fellow playing an accordion and driving at the same time!  Running red lights has become the norm in some places.  So smart drivers wait at least a second or two before venturing out when the light turns green.

After a day in town I yearn to get back to my place in the woods.  I go to the city about once every ten days for supplies.  I could pare that down to once a month and save even more on gasoline.  But then gas really isn’t the issue.  I’d be sparing myself the aggravation of enduring the crowds.  I should work on that.  It would just mean a bit more planning.

My mornings are reserved for writing and the afternoons are spent goofing around in the shop or wandering in the woods.  I’m working on a book right now about life on the South Texas Sand Sheet.  It encompasses both the natural history and human history of the region—a land without surface water stretching from the southern Gulf Coast inland for over a hundred miles.  To the south and north of The Sand Sheet lie urban centers but this place is still remote.  When the Spanish first traveled through the region they saw little evidence of human habitation.  A scattering of archeological digs, however, have shown that at the end of the Pleistocene and beginning of the Holocene there were human settlements abutting the few arroyos that once traversed the land.  As the sands swept inland from the sea shelf that eleven thousand years ago extended about 100 miles farther east than it does today the arroyos were covered and the flora changed dramatically.  Without water prehistoric people found it impossible to traverse the Sand Sheet.  As such it was both a barrier restricting trade and idea diffusion from both the north and south.  Trade routes had to wind around the Sand Sheet’s western edges.  But the horse changed all of that.  My paternal grandfather drove horses across the Sand Sheet north to East Texas to sell them to the US Army in the late 1800s.  People eked out their lives on the Sand Sheet drilling wells that were frequently brackish.  Sometimes settlers relied on rainwater collection.  It was a place of both peace and violence to both people and the land.

The South Texas Sand Sheet

When I’m in my shop I work on making knives or bows or carving bowls, spoons or sometimes experimenting on various projects.  I’ve got four Woods Roamer knives ready for hafting.  I’ve got a mega chopper made from a leaf spring that’s ready as well.  That makes five cutting tools waiting their handles.  During the summer it was too hot to work in the shop except at night and even then it was often too warm.  But now things are cooling down somewhat and I’m spending more time at my little shed.  A couple of nights ago I fired up the charcoal burning forge and pounded out six Woods Roamer knives.  I annealed then afterwards and will look at them this afternoon to see if the annealing was adequate.  I’ll shape them in the next week or so and so I should have five additional knives ready for sale.

I think I’ll make the handles on this new batch of Woods Roamer knives a tad larger because that aids in chopping.  If the handles are too narrow then it’s harder to get good control when whacking away at a branch.  I want to do more videos and hopefully I’ll get the chance soon.  In the Brushlands and Southwestern deserts the two main cutting tools are a machete of some sort and a pocket knife.  The traditional bushcraft knife is not as important in this region as it seems to be in others.  I’ll go into that in detail in a future post and video.

Sunset Photo of Sand Sheet Mott

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Indispensable Flashlight

Never go walking in the South Texas Brushlands without carrying a flashlight.  Never!  This advice comes to you via a fellow who a long time ago was a reckless kid who was fortunate in being a good runner but had a nasty habit of never returning to camp before sunset.  As such I ran back on many occasions figuring that if I was traveling fast enough a big rattler crossing the trail wouldn’t have time to implant its fangs into me.  At least that was the theory.  But besides needing a flashlight to illuminate the path you also need a light in case something happens and you are forced to make a quick camp.  A lot of people recommend a headlamp and that is good advice.  I usually use a small AA handheld light because it seems to work okay for me.  Maybe someday I’ll use a headlamp.  But that’s not the point.  The main thing is to carry some sort of light.  Besides rattlesnakes you’ve got to contend with prickly pear cactus and dozens of thorn-bearing woody shrubs and trees.  When I’m tracking someone I always know if they were walking in the day or night by whether or not they avoid cactus and thorny shrubs or amble into them.  Once I found a fellow who was so covered with cactus spines he looked like a human pin cushion.

At night you also must deal with scorpions, pamorana ants and centipedes and you don’t want to sit anywhere or pick up anything without inspecting it first.  You’ll need a light.  There are also vicious shrubs like mala mujer and stinging cevalia that will leave burning welts on your skin that will last for days sometimes weeks.  The bottom line is that carrying a flashlight is prudent and has the potential to save your life.  Make sure your flashlight is dependable and always carry an extra set of batteries on you or in your pack.  You don’t want to be out in the deep woods and find out your batteries are caput.  I prefer LED type flashlights because they are brighter.  So carry a light and save yourself the agony of having to run back to camp.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Goodbye my friend...

Those of you who keep track of this blog know that I am a man of traditional values deeply committed to my family and to the preservation of nature.  I live in a cabin in the South Texas Brushlands and the nearest settlement is about four miles away.  I go for weeks here in the woods and seldom journey into town.  I don’t get lonely for town life or for anything relating to the city; and the only loneliness is for my boys who are now grown and living far away.  There is not an hour in any day that I do not think of them.  Of course, I consider my dogs part of my family too and if you keep abreast of this rag you know how much I care for my Blue Heelers.  But this year has been particularly hard for me.  Last April I lost Chucha who was bitten by a rattlesnake and did not survive.  About a month afterwards Chula, who was 15 years old at the time, died of natural causes.  She had been deaf since birth (a common genetic quirk with Blue Heelers) and veterinarians were always amazed she’d lived so long.  But she was loved and looked after and though she never heard our voices she was always attuned to our every need.  Chula watched after my youngest son when he was little.  She would herd (heel) him and keep him from venturing out too far.

Chula’s brother, Dingo, was the king.  He was the greatest Blue Heeler I have ever known.  He turned 16 years old this past summer.  He was blind and deaf now from old age.  His teeth were nearly all gone.  But in his youth he was fierce and no one messed with us under any circumstance.

Even in his old age he always went walking with me keeping close by following my scent; and even though he’d developed arthritis and sometimes had a limp he kept going.  Dingo never complained.  He was given medicine to help his joints and he was fed special food to ease his chewing and he was always eager to go out woods roaming.  If the wind changed or if I happened to amble off the path then Dingo would sometimes get lost and I had to walk back and find him and make sure he stayed close.  I had thought about getting him a leash and I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded but somehow I just couldn’t do that to him.  He was too regal and noble to be walked with any sort of cord around his neck.  Besides, we live in the woods and only city dogs get paraded around that way.  Dingo was free to take the path as he wanted.

Lately, Dingo’s eyesight was getting really bad.  I think he was nearly completely blind suffering from cataracts and perhaps he could only make out vague shapes or colors.  When I’d call him he wasn’t sure where I was and I’d have to walk around to let him know where I was standing.  Besides his poor eye sight, his hearing was nearly nonexistent and yet amazingly he could hear certain types of sounds.  The United States Navy has an airbase about 190 miles northeast of here and they sometimes train in dogfighting overhead.  They figure that since no one lives out here but an old grizzled hermit named Longoria then it doesn’t matter if they chase each other at 20,000 feet.  I don’t even pay them much attention since it kind of sounds like thunder high overhead.  And besides, they only dogfight about twice a week and I figure I can put up with those rumbling jet engines for a few minutes as part of my contribution towards national defense.  But the dogfights drove Dingo crazy.  He’d start yelping and crying and moaning as if he were about to get attacked.  Maybe he thought it was some sort of wolf howling in the distance.  I don’t know but when the jet fighters chased each other overhead then Dingo would start pleading for mercy.  It never failed.  Bring the jets and Dingo starts to wail.

There’s a tiny little road about fifty yards beyond a thicket in front of my cabin.  It’s the two ruts that I take to get to the first locked gate on the way out to the world beyond.  Dingo liked to sit at the end of my driveway at the edge of the little road keeping guard.  Granted he couldn’t see or hear anymore but nonetheless he would station himself out there just in case….well, just in case of what I’m not sure but anyway, just in case.  I think in every dog is a yearning to chase cars and Dingo spent his time out there waiting for the car that never drove past since nothing comes by except an occasional wandering coyote, a trail of leafcutter ants, free-ranging dung beetles or manic roadrunners.  But Dingo was a positive thinker and he was out there just in case.

I didn’t take Dingo walking yesterday because I was too tired.  I was up before daybreak and at sundown I was still working and after a shower and supper I drifted off.  At sunrise I got up and made coffee and my usual oatmeal and blueberries with my homemade date/cranberry bread with peanut butter.  Gave the doggies their treats and noticed Dingo out at the edge of the driveway asleep.  Sent Maggie out there to wake him up.  It was a nippy morning and Dingo was awake in an instant and trotted back for his cookie.  That’s my last impression of my beloved Dingo.  You see he did finally get his chance to chase a vehicle.  But he was blind and it ended badly.

I buried Dingo at the edge of the driveway looking out on the two rut road that leads to the first gate.  I think Dingo will like that.  Just as I was packing down the dirt around the grave a couple of US Navy fighter jets flew overhead at about 10,000 feet.  I could’ve sworn one of the jets dipped its wing and damnit but I think I actually saw the pilot bring his hand up and offer a salute.  Yep, I’m pretty sure of it.  Dingo couldn’t cry back like before but I’m doing a little bit of that now for him…if you don’t mind.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Our Pledge To Save the Land

Here in the United States we have been given a chance to reclaim the land from those who seek to profit and benefit from its destruction.  The “drill baby drill” and “anti-nature” crowd that arrogantly espouses raping the land in order to satisfy their greed has been denied, at least for now, the opportunity to further their agenda.  Despite spending mega-millions to ensure that their plans to pollute at will and destroy with impunity be secured, the citizenry has spoken and we all hope the leadership echoes the people’s will and not the yearnings of a few.  Words like “conservative” and “conservatism” have been so obfuscated and muddled that they now stand for avarice, hedonism and vanity instead of preservation, frugality and a moral conscience.  It would seem that to be a conservative these days is to be one who believes in polluted waters, toxic air and a ravaged landscape.  Even as we see clear evidence of our own folly when it comes to how we have treated nature there are those who persist in their denials so steeped are they in narcissistic behavior and materialism.  For those of us who dearly love the land and nature and who have spent our lives trying to protect it let us take solace in this victory and reaffirm our declaration to work always towards saving the land.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Bushcraft and Woodcraft and My Approach to Living in Nature

Here’s a question I’m asked often in my emails:  In your opinion is bushcraft and woodcraft the same thing and how do you define your personal approach to living in nature?

In a general sense I think people conceive of woodcraft and bushcraft as one in the same but neither term explicitly defines my interests.  Both bushcraft and woodcraft have traditionally referred to developing essential survival skills in nature.  But I am probably more interested in what’s known as ethnobotany or the way people employ native flora in their lives both past and present.  This can relate to using plants for food or medicine but it also suggests how plants are used for making shelters, weapons, musical instruments, cooking utensils, cosmetics etc...  The list is extensive and includes things as mundane as what are the favored woods used in cooking or what plants were used for toilet paper.  Of course, I have other hobbies like making knives used for woodworking or in my daily activities here in the brush.

My quest to discover what woods make the best selfbows in the Coahuiltecan Geographical Region would probably be considered a classic ethnobotanical pursuit.  It becomes a matter of performing experiments like replicating models and styles in order to perform experiments that provide data on compression/tension, specific gravity, workability with stone tools as well as drying techniques and what lengths of bows might have been favored.  The same applies to arrow making.  I find the general skills associated with bushcraft or woodcraft interesting but to be honest they don’t go quite far enough to sate my scientific interests.  One of my favorite pastimes is roaming the woods looking for new species of plants.  In fact, I find it hard to simply walk from point A to point B because I am invariably meandering from place to place examining plants.

My personal interests towards living in the woods stem from a combination of innate qualities and an education in science; but to be honest it is probably much more related to my personality type than anything else.  I have been a nature nut since childhood.  I was also lucky in that I had a grandfather who introduced me early on to how plants are used by people for both food and tools.  While I’m on the subject you might want to take a test to see where you fall in the personality department.  The Briggs Myers’ test, based on the theories of Carl Jung, is one of the best personality inventories available online.  You can take the test here if you are curious:

It would be interesting to learn what personality types gravitate towards things like bushcraft/woodcraft or environmental awareness etc.  In case you’re curious I’ve taken this test, and similar tests, dozens of times and I always score the exact same thing.  I am an INTJ.

For me bushcraft or woodcraft are ancillary components of living in the woods.  The terms were not even that well known to me until adulthood.  When one lives in the woods and grows up in the woods and has lived amongst people who did the same then bushcraft and woodcraft are tantamount to what a town’s dweller would think of when driving a car or mowing a lawn or tightening the hinges on a door.  In other words, it’s just what one does.  Live amongst native people in remote villages whose dwellings are prehistoric in design and who are experts in both edible and medicinal plants, and who track, hunt and forage as part of their daily lives and you quickly realize how terms like bushcraft and woodcraft are more the property of those who find such activities novelties—a set of skills to be learned while living in a world in which those same skills are unneeded.  A raft of television shows about people struggling to survive in the woods should be proof enough that a fascination exists about primitive living skills even if the players themselves are essentially neophytes.  In truth, expertise comes in only one form when related to wilderness knowledge: It is always regional and always the outcome of lifelong experience.  If you haven’t read this post then please read it.  

I know intimately, for example, the desert and brushlands but I am a greenhorn when in any other territory.  The scenario of dropping so-called experts into distant lands to find their way home is nothing more than drama.  Without a film crew and local experts they would all be dead pilgrims in a week or two…so much for universal expertise and welcome to the world of Hollywood.  In effect, it can be an extensive learning curve if you are so inclined and encoded.  Start at about the age of six months and never look back until they plant you or the wolves get to take their share.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Bird Habitat: How to enhance it and How to ruin it

Big birds, little birds and in between; some of my fondest memories are centered on experiences involving birds.  Like when I was a kid roaming the woods along the San Fernando River in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico and listening to ghost doves (white-tipped doves) cooing hauntingly from the trees around me and then running down to the river to catch glimpses of chachalacas along the water’s edge.  The ranch was called El Cuervo, The Crow, and there were tens of thousands of both crows and ravens.  During parts of the year white-winged doves clouded the sky and I was forever searching for glimpses of the seven different owl species that frequented the area as well as keeping records of the varieties of hawks I saw.  In other places my memories are back-dropped by the echoing calls of rufescent-tinamous and watching yellow headed parrots squawking loudly as they flew from one spot to another.  I recall a hike through a canyon where mot-mots and brown jays shadowed me for hours.

I have four watering stations in my front yard and at first light I look out my cabin windows to see if the birds have arrived.  This year migrating hummingbirds were stressed by the severe drought that nowadays seems a part of everyday life.  A preview of a world we live in beset by rising temperatures and tortured by a lack of rain.  Who do you trust to take care of the land and safeguard the air and water?  So I set out a hummingbird feeder as have hundreds of others in the region to help hummingbirds on their journey south for the winter.

Providing good bird habitat is not a hard thing to accomplish.  It doesn’t require a lot of money or exorbitant effort.  Nor does it demand a mountain of bureaucratic research.  It does, however, involve having a conscience and a bit of empathy.  One has to think beyond self.  I read an article in a pamphlet recently about quail habitat.  Bobwhite quail populations have experienced a rough time as of late due mainly to the effects of human behavior.  Whether the result of imported fire ants swarming chicks or feral hogs released into the wild where they search out quail eggs or debilitating droughts or urban sprawl or pesticides or fragmentation, the results are that bobwhite quail numbers have plummeted in many places.  In the article mentioned above a biologist was quoted as saying, “The efforts [to study quail] will allow us to test the hypothesis that, given enough usable habitat [sic], we can sustain viable populations of quail over boom and bust cycles.”  While it’s true that bobwhite populations wax and wane naturally perhaps the problem stems not from these natural phases but from attempts to commercialize the entire process for hunting.  In other words, it’s not about providing habitat, at least not in this case, but instead about producing birds to make money off of through shooting.  Regardless, it is relatively easy to gauge the value of one’s hypothesis by simply reversing the question and running it backwards.  Allow me to explain.  What if we were to say: The efforts [to study quail] will allow us to test the hypothesis that, given the eradication of all habitats, we can annihilate viable populations of quail regardless of boom and bust cycles.  In other words, this is not a hypothesis; it is simply a matter of what some might call common sense.  While it’s true that specific animals have specific needs it is also true that species and habitats tend to coalesce over time.  Where massive mono-dimensional agricultural practices have replaced multi-dimensional diverse habitats we see a corresponding decrease in animal numbers and diversity.  The Lower Rio Grande Valley of deep South Texas was at one time a birding wonderland.  Extensive agriculture coupled with nauseous urban sprawl has reduced the value of South Texas birding considerably.  It just ain’t what it used to be.  In many places all you see are millions of great-tailed grackles, Brewer’s blackbirds and brown-headed cowbirds.  There are still interesting birds to see but their numbers have decreased dramatically over the years.

So then what is the key to providing good bird habitat?  It boils down to three things.  1) Nature 2) Water 3) Minimized Predation.  What good will it do if you build a sanctuary with lots of trees, shrubs and vines and plenty of watering sources if next door there are ten thousand stray cats that will come in and wipe out your birds in a matter of days?  I’ve seen that exact phenomena in many places.

On any given day I’ll have from four to six large coveys of bobwhite quail in my front yard.  I do not shoot them and I will not allow anyone else to shoot them.  They are part of my extended family.  Just like the cardinals, green jays, scores of doves, pauraques, painted buntings, vermillion fly catchers, pyrrhuloxias…the list goes on and on.  I keep nature close to the house.  I provide water.  Now and then a Harris hawk or Coopers hawk or Swainson’s hawk will lite on a branch and survey its next meal and then gorge on a tasty morsel.  Every once in a while an Indigo or Corn snake will find a clutch of eggs and do the same.  It’s understandable.

Not long ago I owned a lot and house in a nearby city.  I’d spent years providing bird habitat.  It was a small city lot but nonetheless I tried my best to blanket the free space with foliage.  Besides keeping the house nicely shaded and thus reducing utility bills I had birds like no one around me.  I found great pleasure in working to assure that the yard was truly a piece of nature amidst miles of concrete, asphalt and urban noise.  When I sold the property I hoped the new owner would likewise be a nature person.  To my shock I drove by the property a few months afterward and the new owner had removed every tree, shrub and cactus from the lot.  It was horrific.  Why would anyone be so inconsiderate, I wondered?  The giant trees were no more.  All I saw was brick and lumber.  I never went back.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Fracking into Oblivion

We’ve got an ongoing drought in the Midwest that’s crippling farming and escalating our food prices.  In addition there are an increased number of wildfires throughout the country particularly in the West due to a combination of drought and “unseasonably” hot temperatures.  Add to that many of our cities are nothing more than toxic cesspools chocked with air pollution and surrounded by dirty water that is so vigorously “treated” it too may be dangerous to drink over the long haul.  Furthermore, thousands of lakes, ponds, rivers and streams are so polluted with heavy metals, industrial solvents, agriculture pesticides and the like that you can no longer fish in them.  In fact, a lake located about seventy miles from here has been declared a “super-fund cleanup site” because it’s essentially nothing but PCB soup.  In case you’re wondering PCB stands for polychlorinated biphenyl and that is essentially a mixture of benzene and chlorine in varying amounts (209 different types of PCBs) and they are all extremely toxic.  By the way, PCBs were banned in the US but persist in the environment.  And now, as if things couldn’t get worse, we’ve got something else to contend with called fracking.  Fracking stands for, “hydraulic fracturing” and that is basically the process of pulverizing deep underground rock using liquid under great pressure in order to extract natural gas locked within the rock sediments.  But here’s the catch: In addition to water there are about 800 chemicals added that are said to “ease the flow” of gas to the surface.  The exact mixtures of these chemicals are secret because the Bush-Cheney administration was in bed with the oil and gas industry and they allowed them to essentially write all the rules regarding how information concerning fracking is disseminated to the public.  So, of course, we’re in the dark and all we know is based on analysis performed by independent scientists examining residues of fracking liquids.  The analyses are indeed frightening with so many chemicals like toluene, benzene and xylem, all of them carcinogens.

The Oil and Gas Mafia is waging war on the truth by engaging in what might be one of the most extensive misinformation campaigns ever attempted.  First, they have opened scores of websites promoting fracking and downplaying its horrific effects on the country.  One of the websites I visited was actually called, “The Truth about Fracking.”  The mention of the 800 additional toxic and lethal chemicals added to fracking fluid was only in a final sentence, as if in an afterthought, about “chemicals” being added.

When a country is being taken over by a few and those few could not care less about the land, the water and air or about the people but instead care only for themselves then you might begin to wonder if the country is doomed.  Strong words, but ask yourself: How much more can the land, water and air be degraded and you and your family be poisoned before it all begins to implode?  There comes a tipping point when things will never return to how they were before.  Amazingly, there is a bloc of people who seem to live with their heads in the sand.  They have been so manipulated by those who don’t want you to know the facts that they—this bloc of people—have become anti-science and adamantly defiant when faced with reality.  They follow their emotions and turn away from empiricism.

Miniscule amounts of fracking liquids can contaminate horrific volumes of our underground water supplies.  One drilling operation uses about 2.5 million gallons of water.  In an average year gas drilling procedures use as much water as would be supplied to about 70 US cities.  This water is essentially unusable afterwards given its contamination of toxic chemicals.  An in depth analysis of the ill effects caused by all the chemicals used in fracking is beyond the scope of this blog entry.  But below is a website that lists some of the chemicals used.

Monday, October 1, 2012

My Latest Two Crooked Knives

Using crooked knives requires no more of a learning curve than employing any other sort of woodworking knife.  They may at first look odd but that is because, in truth, they conform more to the human form than do conventional knives.  The crooked knife is designed to be ergonomically proficient and when it comes to woodworking that concept lessens the probabilities of injury to the wrist and forearm muscles, ligaments and tendons.  In addition, crooked knives are given what is called a “chisel grind.”  That means they are beveled only on one side of the blade.  This can create problems for some since most crooked knives are built for either right or left-handed use.  So if you are left handed, for example, and you purchase a crooked knife built for a right handed person you will find it practically impossible to use the knife.  Some crooked knives are beveled on each opposite end of the blade to allow both right hand and left handed use.  But those knives suffer from disadvantages relating to spine strength and torsion stress sometimes associated with woodcarving.  Even so, a twin-beveled crooked knife is a good thing to have if its users might be either right or left handed.  In my case that is a moot point since I am right handed and thus need only bevel the left side of the blade.  If you purchase a twin-beveled crooked knife you will find you seldom if ever use the side intended for those who are opposite your dominant hand preference.

I use crooked knives extensively in my woodcarving.  The chisel bevel allows me to shave wood in increments not easily accomplished with a conventional woodcarving knife or any other type of knife.  The ability to shave wood comes in handy when making things that require detail work such as spoons, bowls, canoe paddles, canoe ribs, selfbows (I’ve used a Swiss Army Knife saw to cut staves and then used only a crooked knife to make entire bows), and other things like wood figures such as leaping gnomes and the like.

I’ve made dozens of crooked knives and as such I know just about everything one needs to know about what it takes to make them both useful and beautiful.  I’ve experimented with all sorts of blade shapes and contours and bevel angles and the like.  I’ve used different hardwoods both in terms of utility and aesthetics.  A well-made crooked knife is, for me at least, a thing of beauty.  The flowing contours of the overall knife as the curving blade melds into the handle and the handle sweeps gently into the thumb perch are inspiring.  Mono-dimensional creations where one knife looks just like the next are for me quite boring.  I want every knife I make to be unique.  Each project is therefore something new and I never seem to bore from making another knife.

I’ve got a bag full of knife blades ready to be hafted to wood and as time permits I will finish those knives even as other knives-to-be lie stored in a bag in the form of annealed files.   Someday they will be shaped, heat treated, tempered and then married to a beautiful wooden handle and perhaps be used to carve something that likewise will be unique.  In the interim this multiplicity of knives lies individually wrapped and stored to be taken out now and then and admired.  Below are closeups from my latest crooked knives.  I hope you like looking at them as much as I enjoy making them.

Note the chisel bevel in the closeup photo above.  The blade is beveled only on the topside.  The bottom side is left flat.

I've always been a sucker for pretty wood.

Some people like to carve designs into the thumb perch but I've never liked that.  I enjoy allowing the wood to make its own statement.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Pocket Strop

I’m obsessed with keeping my knives ultra-sharp.  If I use a knife even for a minor chore I always sharpen it afterwards.  For me a knife is not adequately sharpened unless it’s received the entire treatment from diamond stone to stropping.  Oftentimes however it’s hard to strop a knife in the field.  Unless, of course, you have a pocket strop and then it’s quite doable.

As you can see from the photos the pocket strop is sized to fit into a small diamond sharpening stone case.  I like those little diamond stones because…well, you can fit them in your pocket.  Besides, they are lightweight, they are inexpensive, and they work.  I’ve used those small diamond stones for years and have had no problems with them.  When they finally wear out I just go buy another one.  On a hiking or camping trip they are eminently useful because they are always with you.  I’ve seen videos of people carrying around cumbersome Japanese water stones and large sharping stones but I never do.  I own those things but leave them at the house.  On the trail I travel light.

My pocket strops are thick at about ¼ inch or even a bit more.  I strop on the rough side and, as shown in the photo, hold them in my hand.  Because I store them with the diamond stone I do not add any sort of rubbing compound.  That would probably make a mess and in the field rubbing compound is not really needed.  In the field the little strop puts a razor edge on my knife blade and that’s what I want.

Whether out roaming the woods or in town or on a trip I’ve always got a small diamond stone and the little strop on me.  Just a habit, I guess.  But if you’re like me and you cherish a sharp—really sharp—knife then you might want to add a pocket strop to your everyday carry stuff.