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.