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.