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.