Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Camp Knives…To Be or Not To Be

No other item used in bushcraft (woodcraft) gets as much attention as the knife.  Some devotees even list specific dimensions for what they consider a bona fide bushcraft or camp knife.  For example, the blade’s length should be the width of one’s hand with the handle of equal size.  The spine should run in a straight line to the rear of the knife, and the tang must extend to the end of the handle.  Carbon steel is favored over stainless and the grind is preferably the Scandinavian single bevel.  In addition the blade must be robust so it can be pounded (batoned) to split wood.  These requirements have spawned an industry of “bushcraft” knife-makers who dutifully shape their blades to these predetermined, if otherwise contrived, requisites.  Market infiltration with its correspondent push to purchase has likewise hatched a catalog of bushcraft “must-haves” that further attenuate the woodsman’s philosophy.  Perhaps you’ve seen the woodcrafter who arrives in camp—like an overburdened burro—carrying a trunk-like backpack into which he disappears to extract all sorts of gadgets from an expensive small forest ax to a high dollar techno stove.

But venture beyond the industrialized world to places where bushcraft is no longer a hobby but a necessity and you’ll be hard pressed to find any sort of knife other than what might be acquired at the corner store.  In some places this amounts to a machete and maybe a pocket knife.  Detailed woodcarving is relegated to the folder and heavier work is accomplished via the machete, parang or golok.  I should note, as I’ve done in the past, that experienced woods people are not prone to chop, chop, chop for the fun of chop, chop, chopping.  They are masters at energy conservation and more often than not go around or under a bush, branch or stalk instead of whacking it in two.  You’ll know the neophytes by their behavior with a machete or ax.  Newcomers like to whack and whack.  Experienced woods people walk silently and slice things only now and then.

Woodcraft cutting tools have traditionally come as a trio.  Perhaps you’ve heard of the “Nessmuk trio” recommended by a man named George W. Sears who gave himself the penname Nessmuk and who wrote the book, Woodcraft in 1884.  Mr. Sears is known not only for his recommendations of what to carry on a wilderness trek but also by his philosophy of frugality and perseverance.  Sears was about 5’3” tall and of slight build weighing a tad over 100 pounds.  What holds me in awe of Nessmuk is not his woodcraft knowledge but his doggedness.  Did you know that at the age of 62, suffering from tuberculosis and asthma, he trekked 266 miles (428 km) in the Adirondacks carrying a light pack?

But let’s get back to camp knives.  Nessmuk was not the first to recommend carrying a small axe, a game knife, and a pocketknife.  That tradition preceded him and has persisted through the years.  In 1973 a fellow named W. Ben Hunt published a book entitled, The Complete How-to Book Of Indiancraft.  Mr. Hunt echoes the pioneer mindset of carrying a knife to serve for butchering game.  Notice I didn’t say the fixed bladed knife is for whittling or making tent pegs or any of the other chores associated with bushcraft.  No, Ben Hunt relegates those tasks to either the camp ax (or machete) and to a folding or pocketknife.  Here’s what Hunt has to say on the subject: “A small ax will serve the purpose of [completing the heavier camp chores.]  While some people may be able to carve with a camp knife, it is best to use that knife for carving meat and to get a pocketknife [for intricate woodcarving tasks.]”  Yes indeed, explorers and old-time woodsmen used their knives almost exclusively to butcher game.

Now we arrive in the 21st Century with a world population at over 7 billion (The world population in 1850 was about 1.2 billion) and we are no longer capable of “living off the land” regardless of what fantasies some out there might hold.  In a future world collapsed by plague, environmental degradation, overpopulation, political turmoil, or war the chance to “live off the land” would be slim considering the sheer numbers of people and the available land on which to forage.  Some areas have had up to 98 percent of their forested land destroyed to make way for cities, highways and industrialized agriculture that will produce zilch if things go south.  In that time you’ll find human numbers plummeting at a rate comparable to lemmings running off a cliff.  A 50 percent reduction in less than 10 years is not out of the question.  Read my novel, The Trail, for what lies ahead in such a world.  It’s not a SciFi text but a story based on the known facts.  It’s also, if I say so myself, a darn good read.

So then what do we make of the knife?  Watch YouTube and you’ll see people heading out to parks, populated countryside, or even in their backyards where they post videos on making a wickiup or basher shelter.  They’ll carve out knife sheaths from birch bark and make bucksaws and then they’ll make pine-pitch glue and brew a cup of herbal tea.  The primordial need to simplify life, “get back to nature,” reduce stress, connect with the wild, experience a more primitive existence—but in the background you’ll hear cars and trucks rushing by and overhead jet planes burn contrails across the heavens.  So we play and pretend and imagine a “survival situation” and watch TV shows that do the same….and then worry about making the car payment, the ever increasing costs of healthcare, rising gasoline prices….

Ah yes, but the camp knife.  A Mora knife, a hunting knife, a butcher knife, a skinning knife, a Swiss Army Knife, a multi-tool.  Let us argue and debate and read “product reviews” and then shut it all off and head for the nearest patch of woods and make a wooden spoon.  But let us not forget (despite the attempts by some media sources to have us look in other directions) that the real need for those who love nature and primitive skills is that we must fight! to save the land from those who will bulldoze it, frack it, poison it, contaminate it, pave it and otherwise destroy it.  Judging from the hundreds of emails I get every week I think we are all on common ground and for us nature is truly our home.

Nonetheless, here are a few photos of one version of a camp knife.  These were Old Hickory blades re-contoured with new handles added.  They cost me about $10 in their original “skinning blade” design and another couple of bucks converted to the shapes you see them in now.  I practiced the art of self-reliance and thus have thwarted the modern economical trend to simply go out and buy super expensive things ad nauseam.  They are bi-beveled; they are made of 1095 carbon steel; they stain when used; they are comfortable to hold; they chop the heck out of onions, carrots and they slice fajitas in a surgical manner.  They are pointed and work wonders on fine detail butchering, i.e. a chicken.  They will last a long time if treated with respect.  And best of all, I had fun working them into shape.

 A semi-Nessmuk design: Those of you who forge metal know that pounding a piece of barstock tends to curve the steel upward and I have no doubt the original Nessmuk was simply a forged blade shaped into what you see above.  This skinning knife has a 12.5 cm blade and a 12.0 cm handle.  The blade is 2.0 mm thick.

Mesquite handle 11.5 cm long with brass pins.

Red Oak handle measuring 9.5 cm with brass pins. Blade length 9.5 cm.

 Osage Orange handle measuring 11.0 cm with a blade 9.9 cm long. Brass pins.

Blade length on mesquite handle knife is 9.3 cm.

 Handle wood is Uña de Gato

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Shooting the old Springfield Single Shot Bolt

In the good old days we’d head into the woods armed with a .22 rifle, a canteen and a sharp pocket knife.  We’d explore random places, sit atop hills looking off into the distance, trek through thick ramaderos, sit along senderos watching animal crossings and keep an eye out for rattlers.  We’d mosey back to the house for supper and maybe afterwards sit by a small fire watching the stars.  Oftentimes I headed out by myself and in fact I was still in elementary school the first time I roamed the woods on my own.  In my book, Adios to the Brushlands, I write about those days and even though I live in the woods I still think back on those years.

My oldest son and my grandson are visiting right now.  My youngest son is here too.  Of course, my grandson wants to shoot and so I took out an ancient .22 single shot rifle and am letting him target practice to his heart’s content.  Watching him shoot reminds me of those long-gone years in my life.

The rifle is a Springfield single shot bolt action.  Nobody makes a rifle like it anymore.  Winchester and Savage used to make similar rifles.  You insert a cartridge into the chamber and close the bolt and then manually cock the hammer.  The workmanship is superb.  In the old days rifles like that sold for about fifteen dollars each.  Magazines like Boy’s Life had full-page ads featuring those great single-shots and I’d stare at the photos wishing…

Somebody out there is saying, “They’re currently making a single-shot .22 rifle with a manual cocking bolt….”  Yes, I know but the one I recently examined looked cheaply made.  The butt-stock did not have enough drop-at-comb and to make things worse it had a Monte Carlo comb which makes shooting without a scope nearly impossible.  The bolt looked flimsy; the wood-to-metal fit was poor; the trigger pull was atrocious; the gun just wasn’t of the quality of those old single shot rifles we used to lust after as kids.  The single shot .22 my son and grandson are shooting was made in the 1920s.  The workmanship is of a quality rarely seen anymore.  I bought the rifle for $50 about twelve years ago.  The stock was in bad shape but a little refinishing fixed the dings and scratches.  The bluing is essentially gone but we keep the rifle clean and oiled.  It’s unlikely anyone will ever make a good single-shot rifle like that old Springfield or the great Winchester 67 or the Savage model 3.  Yeah, those were the good old days.

Back in the Woods: The Oppressive Heat Continues

Drove to San Antonio then on to Dallas and now back in the woods.  Live in quiet for a time and it becomes difficult to be amongst so many people.  The heat seemed more oppressive “over there” than here but perhaps millions of autos and what seems an infinite number of asphalt miles has a lot to do with creating oppressive temperatures.  It’s still hot in deep South Texas and will stay hot until the first “cool front” wafts through in mid to late October.  The reprieve will be short-lived and within days warm weather will once again settle over the region.  The winter cycle of cool then balmy will continue into early spring when unremitting heat will again take control.  Indeed, it will come as a pleasant surprise if temperatures ever dip below 40 degrees this coming winter.  Now and then we get a freeze and though some people, farmers mainly, deplore the frigid temps most of us revel in what we think the season ought to feel like.  In other places chaotic climate produces not only severe heat and drought it also makes for crippling blizzards.  After all, as tropical oceans heat up water evaporates into the atmosphere where winds carry the water across the globe.  In places to the north a waterlogged sky dumps its cargo in the form of heavy snows.  All of this is to be expected; it’s not as if increasing global temperatures make for nothing but heat.  But the dramatic melting seen in Greenland is disturbing.  And the American Midwest is now in a severe crisis as rainless skies emit nothing but scorching sunrays onto desiccated soils.  Is this global warming or simply bad weather?   I wonder if statements like, “Its summer; get over it,” are only admissions of underlying self-indulgence and profound foolhardiness especially given the mountains of data indicating our climate is becoming more and more chaotic.  Some submit that mature people will always err on the side of prudent behavior and take measures to reduce any chance of human’s contributing to the chaos.  Of course, the key word is “mature.”

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Bow Making Pocket Knife

A pocket knife is an important working tool when you live in the woods.  From fashioning an impromptu stake for buttressing a sapling during strong winds to making perches for bird feeders to whittling shims to stabilize a workbench, the small knife comes in handy several times a day.  Yesterday I used my folding knife about a dozen times on various tasks ranging from sharpening a pencil to delicately removing bark around a bowstave’s knots.  Tonight I’ll use that same knife as a scraper.

The Trapper Model Clip Blade

The first time I handled a Trapper model folder I knew it would make an ideal pocket bow-making tool.  And because I’m currently making a series of bows I’m using my Case Trapper frequently.  The clip blade enables me to perform woodcarving tasks associated with sculpting the riser or fashioning string knocks or perhaps making an arrow rest.  But the spey blade is the real gem on the Trapper folder.  It makes an excellent scraper.  Keep it ultra-sharp and you can scrape towards you or away from you to avoid chatter.

Trapper Model Spey Blades

I own two Trapper pocket knives both with carbon steel blades.  In my experience carbon steel is easier to sharpen than stainless and it keeps an edge longer.  When using the spey blade to scrape the bow’s belly I keep a diamond stone handy and re-sharpen the blade often. By the way, the Trapper model also makes a good arrow-making knife.  The spey blade's scraper function works great for shaping arrows.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Biology and the Concept of Deregulation

Biology gives us an important insight into the concept of deregulation.  Take the human and the amoeba for example.  The amoeba is a relatively simple one-celled organism.  It has no eyes or ears; it cannot walk nor does it have a multipart digestive structure.  The amoeba has no brain.  The human, on the other hand, is enormously complex.  Humans have eyes and ears and a highly evolved brain.  Humans walk and talk, and they have an intricate digestive system.  They also have a cardiovascular system, an endocrine system, respiratory system, reproductive system, skeletal system, muscular system, nervous system, lymphatic system and a urinary system.  Anyone who has ever studied biology will tell you that a human, when compared to an amoeba, is nearly infinitely more complex.

But in order to keep an organism as complex as a human running properly it must have millions of regulatory functions constantly working.  To do otherwise will lead to chaos.  Without stopgap and counter measures; without feedback mechanisms; without biochemical and cellular oversight; without multiple supervisory formats the human would collapse.  Just imagine waking up without the regulatory systems responsible for vision, balance, proprioception, cognition and cardiac stimulation?  If all of a sudden these systems were deleted (in other words human bio-physiology was deregulated) upon awakening you would either have an epileptic-type seizure, an intense episode of vertigo, an inability to stand or all three at the same time.

You see, the more complicated a system the more need there is to regulate it.  Otherwise, like the suddenly deregulated human, the system begins falling apart.  But let me give you another example to help make my point.  Let’s now talk about cancer.  Just imagine going to your doctor and discovering you have cancer.  You ask the doctor what he suggests.  But to your surprise the doctor says, “We shouldn’t do anything.”

You look on aghast and say, “Wait a second.  Shouldn’t I take some sort of medicine to control it?”  But your doctor says, “You mean to tell me you want to regulate it?  That’s nuts.  We need less regulation, not more!  Cancer left alone will grow and develop!  The immune system will go into overdrive.  And you’ll burn so much fuel you’ll hardly gain a pound.  In fact, you’ll lose weight!”

But what does cancer ultimately do to its host?  If left unregulated then in the end cancer kills you.  If you think of the human body as a society or government then you might look at cancer as an economic entity.  It’s important to remember that biological systems transcend animals and plants and extend all the way to societies and governments and even economic constructs.  And like the human body or any multifaceted biological system these social milieus will implode if unregulated.  To think otherwise is perhaps naïve.  We understand implicitly that a rapacious organism like cancer must be regulated, indeed controlled, but yet we often fail to realize that economic systems likewise must be regulated lest they, like cancer, kill their host?  If you could miniaturize yourself and live within close proximity to a cancer you might find it indulges in its own propaganda to confuse the body into allowing it to persist unregulated.  Indeed we see the same phenomena occurring around us as special interests (no less nefarious than cancer) try to convince us that we should deregulate complex social systems—even as we have proof that when these systems are deregulated they, like cancer, cause severe destruction.  That is the great incongruity presented by those who want more “growth and development” but at the same time “more deregulation.”  As I hope my biological examples show the two cannot coexist.  The more complex a system, the more regulations it must have.  Otherwise, like the deregulated human waking up in the morning or the cancer left to its own devices, the society experiences its own epileptic seizure and ultimately the host dies.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Save Our Lands!

They are at it again.  The oil and gas mafia that owns at least half of the Congress and got its way for eight years is back trying to destroy another patch of great American hunting land.  Recall that between 2001 and 2007 the best pronghorn and mule deer habitat in North America was turned into thousands of miles of dusty roads, hundreds of gas wells and a seemingly endless column of pipelines.  The people of the Powder River Basin in Wyoming saw their peaceful lives and unique habitat ruined by anti-nature, pro-drilling (“drill baby drill”) politics. Isn’t it strange how you never hear from a certain crowd that claims to stand for “hunting rights” when their political buddies are out annihilating precious hunting lands.

But if you care about the outdoors or if you’re a hunter or nature person then hear this: Your lands are methodically being wiped out by a gang of political gofers and their masters. I’m not talking politics here; I’m talking about saving the land. Stand up to preserve it or you’re going to lose it. It’s that simple.  There are people out there with limitless amounts of money who will spend mega-millions to get you thinking their way.  They will distort facts.  They will contort your value systems in order to get you to do what they want.  They will bombard you with propaganda. And all the while—like the Wyoming Powder River Basin—the land is being turned into moonscape.

Here’s a link to a Field & Stream story that discusses another impending move to destroy hunting lands.

Here’s some history of what happened in the Powder River Basin.

There are hundreds of articles detailing the devastation that has occurred on Western Public Lands.  The amount of empirical evidence describing the impact on the land is daunting. Even so, there are people who refuse to listen to reason, who become enraged when reality faces them squarely and who are seemingly addicted to a particular media that spends its time indulging in misleading propaganda.  Many of you, I’m sure, are perplexed that people could be so easily duped. And all the while, our lands are being devastated.  It’s time to take a stand and save our lands!  

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Day in the Woods

Perhaps you’re thinking this post is about a trip I took to the woods.  I see those posts often in various blogs…pictures of trees and camping gear, backpacks…that sort of thing.  And, in fact, I had wondered about doing this post for a while since in my case it would probably be more appropriate to write something entitled, A Day in the City.  You see, I live in the woods.  Via the miracles of technology I’m able to send you these writings, but aside from being “connected online,” I live an isolated life.  You might recall I’ve mentioned there is a hamlet about four miles to the south of me.  Four hundred people or thereabouts, but I seldom go there other than to check for mail at the Post Office or pick up something at a little Ranch & Farm Supply store. Aside from that my trips to “the world” are few and I like it that way.

I read an article recently about this fellow who wanted to make a selfbow using primitive tools. He had a nice collection of rocks so he acquired a few good flakes and set to work making his bow.  But he could never leave the concept of time out of his essay.  Throughout his story he kept telling the reader how quickly he was performing the work.  “It only took me ten minutes to chop down the sapling.”  “I had the stave floor-tillered using my hand-axe in less than an hour.”  And so on.

But live in the woods and the idea of time—as it relates to accomplishing a task or anything else—becomes superfluous.  You see, the concept of time is only important to those who must live their lives by the clock.  I imagine that primitive people thought little of time and concentrated more on simply accomplishing the task at hand.  Ask a Neolithic man how long it took him to make his bow and he would look at you wondering, “Why is that important….I have no idea…I started and I finished…Does anything else matter?”

That’s exactly how it is for me living in the woods.  I wake up and get to work.  I eat when I’m hungry.  I go to bed when I’m sleepy.  I have work to do…I do my work…I finish the job.  All the while the woods are but a few feet from my cabin.  I have a yard of sorts but it’s really nothing more than a somewhat cleared area beyond my front door.  I also have a storage shed and workshop about 100 feet from the cabin.  Perhaps you’ve seen my post and video entitled, “Using a Machete with a Gancho hook.”  I made that video when we were building the storage cabin.

That, my friends, is my day in the woods.  As I write this post I can see a number of birds at my four watering stations in my “front yard.” Here is a list of the birds I’ve seen in the past two days:
Rose-throated Becard (gravis sp.)
painted bunting
brown thrasher
curved bill thrasher
white-tipped dove
mourning dove
ruddy ground dove
common ground dove
Inca dove
Eurasian collared dove
black-crested titmous
green jay
bullock's oriole
hooded oriole
Altamira oriole
ladder backed woodpecker
golden fronted woodpecker
greater road runner
yellow billed cuckoo
great kiskadee
cactus wren
vermilion flycatcher
bobwhite quail
Harris hawk
Great-horned owl

Looking out the window to check on the birds is an ongoing affair.  I’ve had birds nesting all around and, like an expectant father, I’m watching for new hatchlings. It’s been quite hot lately but, of course, this is a South Texas summer and to be expected.  What I find amazing is the weather in other places and especially the wildfires. I have a cousin who lives in Colorado Springs.  Her emails have been alarming. She and her husband were within a few miles of the devastating fires.  I have a friend who lives in Ruidoso, New Mexico.  He was plagued by a wildfire a few weeks ago.  Hope things are going okay, Leroy.

Last night I listened to a great-horned owl and several pauraques and now and then I’d hear a screech owl. And so it goes. There is always something new to see or experience.  I’ve received a number of emails asking me to write more about my life in the woods. I will oblige my readers.