Saturday, December 21, 2013

How to Make Suet for Your Backyard Birds....

One of the best presents you can give your birds is a batch of homemade suet.  It’s easy to make and your birds will love it.  We make enough suet to last about three weeks and as I write these notes four great kiskadees, three green jays, two golden fronted woodpeckers and two titmice are flying back and forth between our suet stations.  We place the suet about seven feet high in two mesquite trees and the only thing to watch out for are ants that find suet as scrumptious as the birds.  Sprinkle a small amount of insecticide at the base of the trees to keep them free of marauding ants.

The process we use was concocted using several recipes available online and in a number of books.  Our recipe is tweaked to meet our needs. It calls for the following ingredients:
1 Cup Chunky Peanut Butter
2-3 Cups of Mixed Bird Seed (we use three cups)
3 Cups Yellow Corn Meal
2 Cups Bleached or Unbleached Flour
1 Cup Lard or Shortening

Place the lard and the peanut butter in a large pot.  Put the pot on the stove at medium heat.  Remove the pot from the heat when the lard and peanut butter are melted.

Now add the corn meal, flour and bird seed into the pot and stir until well blended.  Place the mixture into a container sized appropriately to fit your suet cage.  Be sure and spray the containers with non-stick cooking spray before you fill them with the suet mixture!

We use plastic containers saved from guacamole purchased at the grocery store or from store bought suet.  In other words, be on the lookout for suitable containers.

Now place your completed suet containers in the freezer or refrigerator to set.  This will take about an hour in the freezer.

Fit the frozen suet into a suet cage and then sit back and enjoy watching your birds gobble it up.

Okay, fellow birders.  Can you identify the birds pictured above? 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Chile Del Monte for Augmenting Bird Habitat....

This is a busy time of year but I still find a few minutes each day to roam the woods surrounding the cabin.  I planted Phragmites australis (carrizo) rhizomes around the gray water outlet to help keep the pond area clean as well as provide a steady supply of arrow shafts à la Lipan Apache.  We’ll be putting in a second pond after the first of the year expressly for wildlife.  The birding has been phenomenal this fall and we spent a few minutes earlier today making a fresh batch of suet for the great kiskadees, green jays and golden fronted woodpeckers as well as a number of sparrow species and titmice that ravage our suet stations daily.

We’re lucky because chile del monte (chile pequin; chile petin), Capsicum annuum, grows wild around the house particularly in the granjeno/brasil/mesquite motts that make up this section of the South Texas desert also known as the Sand Sheet.  We live on the very edge of the desert so there’s a mix of classic Texas Brushland flora to the south of us and Sand Sheet flora to the north.  This makes for an interesting array of woody plants and herbaceous shrubs as well as a consortium of cacti within a few steps of my home.

I picked a few chiles the other day behind the house.  Mind you, chile del monte is hot but the mockingbirds don’t seem to mind.  Most plants get raided by the birds long before I spot them.  Look for the bright red dots in shaded areas within the motts.  Now if you live in town and the climate is sufficiently warm for chile del monte then you can have your own food source within reach.  If you’re a birder then you might consider adding chile del monte to your garden.  Unfortunately, chile del monte is susceptible to cold temperatures so that rules out planting in temperate climates.  Growing chile del monte is difficult unless you’ve got mockingbirds in your area.  But here’s how to grow this chile around your yard in abundance.  First you need some sort of fence or similar object where mockingbirds can perch.  Weed the area directly under your fence on both sides if possible and add a generous amount of potting soil.  Chile del monte is drought tolerant but requires shade and moderately moist soil.  Second you need a preliminary source of chile del monte.  Some grocery stores sell the chile so buy a large bag full and then place most of it in your bird feeders.  The mockingbirds will find the chile soon enough and gobble it up.  Then they will take a respite on your cedar fence or comparable platform nearby to digest their meal.  In order for chile del monte to sprout it must go through the gut of a mockingbird or at least that’s the easiest way to propagate the plant.  In no time you’ll have a line of chile plants growing along your fence or the back end of the dog house or behind the monkey bars or anyplace the birds can perch.  Now and then if you have a hankering for chile del monte you can go out and pick a couple or three and pop them in your mouth.  By the way, ice tea works well for quenching the fire.

Friday, December 6, 2013

An Inexpensive Arrow Quiver....

I’ve seen arrow quivers made from old cowboy boots, woven river cane (Phragmites and Arundo) and willow branches, brain-tanned deer hide, cowhide, PVC pipe, and canvas.  Some arrow quivers are short affairs about 15-inches long while others are up to 30 inches.  I’ve experimented with varying lengths and while the shorter quivers enable one to extract an arrow with less fuss, the longer quivers offer more protection in thick or briary habitats.  I live in what some people call “The Thorn Forest” so I prefer longer quivers.  Regardless, the arrow quiver is the cumbersome part of the bow and arrow duo.  Some bow hunters use a quiver that attaches to the bow and those are quite handy.  Years ago when I hunted with fiberglass recurves I always used a bow-limb attached quiver but since going au naturel (“Sin artificio ni mezcla o elaboración.”) I’ve opted for traditional over-the-shoulder or across-the-back quivers.  Mind you, when I hunt (I’m more of a target shooter these days) I lean several arrows against a branch or nearby bush so I can easily reach them if needed.

A week ago I decided to make a new quiver.  I used a remnant piece of upholstery leather placed inside out, an inexpensive rawhide dog chew, some 1/8 inch wide rawhide thread I’d made from deer skin and a shaft made from granjeno (gran-hen-no) known scientifically as (Celtis pallida).  I dyed the leather and rawhide with a concoction made from dried cranberries, alcohol, and the roots and bark of colima (Zanthoxylum fagara).  By the way, I’m still experimenting with the formula.

Upholstery and dog chew rawhide

In case you’re interested the arrows in the quiver were made from Phragmites australis berlandieri.  Phragmites was used by a number of Indian groups to make their arrows.  Spanish explorers noted on several occasions that the Indians in what is  now known as northeastern Tamaulipas, Mexico and South and Southwest Texas made their arrows with phragmites.  NOTE: I will be posting an article about the current controversies surrounding phragmites and why both government agencies and environmental groups are “shooting the messenger” instead of dealing with the real underlying ecological problems.  Please keep an eye out for that article.

Close up of the granjeno shaft.

I fletched the arrows with commercial turkey feathers.  I painted the white turkey feathers with a compound I’ve been experimenting with that more-or-less make them look like feathers from the genus Buteo.  The experiment has been only partially successful and thus disappointing because the dye either fades quickly or simply rubs off in my hands.  You’ll note that I used plastic nocks on my arrows.  Those nocks are inexpensive and far less susceptible to damage and they work for me.  I’ve also made nocks directly into the phragmites and by inserting small pieces of wood into the cane as was done by some Indian tribes.

Rawhide broadpoint shield at the base of the quiver.

The quiver measures 28 inches in length.  The dog chew rawhide was allowed to soak in water for an hour then carefully unraveled.  I wrapped the dog chew rawhide around the base of the quiver; it’s the cranberry red portion in the photographs.  When dry the rawhide becomes stiff and hard and thus serves to protect the bowyer from being punctured by razor-sharp broadheads.  The granjeno shaft keeps the quiver from collapsing when empty.  The rawhide thread was placed on dry and then wetted with my homemade dye.  Like the rawhide shield at the base of the quiver, the rawhide thread became quite stiff when dry.  The quiver weighs but a few ounces.  I prefer my hunting quivers to hold no more than about six or seven arrows.  In the places I hunt there is no need to carry more arrows.  Folks, if you miss with the first shot your chances of getting a second shot range from zero to practically nonexistent so in truth the only reason to carry more than a couple of arrows is in case you need to shoot several “finishers” into your quarry.  The biggest mistake I’ve seen novice bow hunters make is stationing themselves too far from the spot where they expect to see game when they do not have the skills to consistently make that shot.  So learn to shoot first and then learn to get close.  Otherwise you’re being imprudent and callous.  Besides, all true hunters view killing as the tragic side of acquiring food.  “Sport hunters” be damned and that sort of thing for they are neither hunters nor true woodsmen.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Old Ranches and Memories....

 A 92 year old lady who is close to my heart has been telling me stories about growing up in the Texas Brushlands for a very long time.  A smile always comes over her face and as often a faraway look as she reminisces about her childhood.  About the house built by her dad at the little spot by the road he christened El Centro, Texas; and about the ten citrus trees he planted out back and the way her mother baked fresh bread in the oven built alongside the house.  Stories of geese flying low overhead and the old Remington model 10 her father would put into good use to fill their larder.  And how her mother made most of their clothes and crocheted and knitted and was an artist in the kitchen as well.

There were spring flowers and long walks out back in the thick brush and the lady who tells the stories says she’d often pick a handful of flowers then place them in a water-filled jar to set on the mantle.  They brought in a telephone line and a man from a distant town who owned a car dealership would bring the latest model and then say to her father, “Drive it around and let the locals look at it.”  Invariably someone would want to buy the auto so there was always a new car to drive.  There were stories too of rattlesnakes and other nasty critters.  But it wasn’t a time of violence.  Not like it had been a few years before she was born when the Texas Rangers were as blood thirsty and crooked as any bandit from south of the border.  And nowhere as violent as it is now with the current turmoil in Mexico that rivals the 1910 revolution.  Of course, there’s the incessant drug smuggling and people smuggling we see today.  No, those were different times way back then or so that’s how the stories are told.  Just yesterday I was chatting with her on the phone and she began talking about “the ranch.”  I could hear a change in the tone of her voice.  It didn’t sound frail anymore.  I’m sure she had that faraway look in her eyes as she spoke of those times so very long ago.

It’s been cold and damp the last few days.  The Texas Brushlands take on an eerie look when blue northers sweep overland.  Not too far from my cabin sits a dilapidated dwelling that was probably built around the same time as the house the story lady grew up in.  Her house burned down after her father sold the place because oil was discovered in the region and that brought in a crowd that most of the locals wanted to keep at a distance.  So they moved away and after a while I imagine the stories took on an ambience not unlike that of myth borne into cultures and nurtured by time.  But then I also imagine that most of it is true.  Skies were less polluted then than now so they must have been bluer.  And the population was but a fifth of what exists these days so there was much less congestion and a great deal more room.  Last week as we were about to eat breakfast we heard the dogs barking in the way that tells us that it’s not a coyote ambling down the road or a raccoon in a tree.  No, this was a different sort of bark.  The dogs were letting us know that we should be alarmed and on guard.  Someone called out to me saying, “There’re two men out at the end of the driveway.”  I looked out and saw them and grabbed a firearm and walked outside.  A quick check around to make sure there weren’t others hiding and then the inevitable conversation about how they had been abandoned by their smuggler (el coyote) and there were twenty others wandering in the brush; and they had been waiting in the woods for el coyote to return.  So it was at that moment that I said, “He won’t be coming back.”  They looked at me confused and I added, “This is what they always do.  Let me guess, you crossed the river last night and they drove you to a spot along the highway and then all of you jumped into the brush and then walked several miles….”  They nodded amazed at how I knew almost exactly what had happened to them.  Like a broken record I kept thinking.  But as always I gave them water and sandwiches and then asked them to leave.  Even so it was a watchful day knowing there were others in the woods perhaps close by.

My son needed to drive into the hamlet that’s south of us by four miles to buy some supplies.  Past the first gate he spotted the two men’s tracks in the sand and then noticed they’d edged off the road in the direction of that old dilapidated house.  A quick look in that direction but he saw nothing.  No tracks merged back with the road so the two were probably hiding amidst those rotting boards waiting for darkness.  Perhaps they planned to keep heading north though I had warned them there is no water for nearly fifty miles in that direction.  People learn their lessons hard sometimes.  My neighbor a few miles to the east wondered recently how many bodies lie out in the desert.  Their bones covered now by layers of sand.

Do you ever have dreams about going back into the past?  Not the past of your life but the past of lives that went before you were born?  Perhaps you might want to see your parents when they were young or maybe visit with your grandparents or great-grand parents.  I guess the Texas Brushlands run deep in my veins.  A corpus of memories formed from mesquite sap and nopal thorns and cauterized by the South Texas sun.  Maybe I’d like to journey back five or ten thousand years.  Spend some time with those who came before the Quahuiltecan people or the Lipan Apache.  Make an atlatl from a mesquite branch and a dart from a straight stalk of phragmites.  Build a wickiup and then roam the woods all around.  Have you ever stood at some spot and thought about what that exact place looked like thousands of years ago?

It’s raining outside and though it seldom freezes in the Brushlands we are expecting a hard frost tomorrow night.  The brush will take on a khaki-gray look afterwards that won’t change much until springtime.  The mesquites will go leafless though the ebony and brasil will stay green.  It’s a time of little wind and intense quiet.  Not something most people would want even though many claim otherwise.  The story lady remembers but never really seemed all that eager to return.  Maybe that’s what happens to some people though I’m not sure why or what it means exactly.  But we all have memories.  Do they ever wake you up in the darkest part of the night when there is no one to talk to and the recollections bore into you like an auger turning slowly round and round?  I wonder if the story lady ever feels that way about “the ranch?”  I know I do even though it was long before I was born.

PS: Check out the link below.  Go to Starr County and look up El Centro, TX.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Dragon's Blood....

Hundreds of medicines used today originated as plants that were employed in various parts of the world to treat everything from bronchitis to inflammation to bacterial infections.  As you read these notes there are ethnobotanists scouring many regions of the planet in search of some new wonder drug.  From the jungles to the deserts and even to that wooded patch behind your house scientists oftentimes begin their data collection through interviews with the locals.  The inquiry often goes something like: “I’ve been told there’s a tree in these parts with a bark that’s used to make a tea that’s good for arthritis…..Have you heard of it?”

Remember that for every plant believed to have medicinal properties there was someone who was either brave or foolish enough to give it a try.  Most likely people did not taste plants in search of medicine but instead to learn if they were edible.  Understanding a plant’s medicinal properties probably took centuries.  Tens of thousands of medicinal plants are found in the desert regions of the United States.  Shrubs, grasses, trees and cacti have been used to cure things ranging from gum disease to ulcers.  Speaking of gum disease there is an odd looking plant found in South Texas and on into parts of Mexico that has long been used to treat mouth sores, swollen gums and related ills.  Mind you these curative plants were discovered by the native peoples who roamed the land as far back as twelve thousand years ago and whose progeny reside in this region even today.  As such they should be given full credit for many of the medicines we now use derived through their experimentations over a dozen millennia.

Finding the plant called sangre de drago or dragon’s blood with leaves intact is an oddity.  Most of the time these plants look (as their other common name implies) like long stems made of leather.  The “skin” is quite thin however and is easily peeled away.  Beneath the skin one finds an emerald green sheath with a clear juice (a type of latex) that upon contact with the air turns deep red.  Thus the name Dragon’s Blood or Sangre de Drago.

Dragon’s blood is in the Euphorbiaceae family also called the spurge family.  The genus and species is Jatropha dioica.  Acclimatized to desert regions it quickly flowers and blooms following rainfall but then sheds its leaves to form that cluster of leather stems I mentioned above.  I’ve always referred to the plant as Leather Stem or simply Jatropha because that’s how I learned it.  You’ve got to cut it open in order to see the “blood.”

If goats eat leather stem stalks they will become quite ill.  I saw this occur some years back when a flock munched on leather stem and a couple of them died.  But the old people used to chew on the roots and apparently the juice or latex acts as an astringent in that it constricts tissues to limit bleeding gums.  And therein is the reason that people found it useful with gum and mouth sore disorders.  Mind you that you should not try any medicinal plant without first understanding the possible dangers involved.  Allergic reactions (some quite severe) can occur as can other detrimental effects.  In other words, you try these plants at your own risk.  For me sangre de drago, or dragon’s blood, or as I call it, leather stem speaks of the desert brushlands and will always be a part of my life.

The leaves are beginning to drop after a week of rain.  Soon the dragon's blood will appear like nothing but a cluster of leather stems.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Classic Board Bow....

Checking out the tiller on a D-bow.  This bow is being held upside down.

I made my first bow from a lumberyard board back around 1980.  Made of ash and if memory serves about 64 inches long; a simple bend-through-the-handle design or D-bow that worked for about 100 shots before cracking and splitting.  At the time I knew nothing about selecting the proper grain structure with boards and despite admonitions from various bowyers about never using kilned wood, I decided to literally give it a shot.  I didn’t try another board bow for over a couple of decades or at least until I read Tim Baker’s treatise on selecting boards for bows.  Another ash bow that worked okay but was a bit sluggish so from there it has been primarily red oak though I found a nice piece of hickory once and made a decent bow with that wood.  Red oak, however, is easily found at hardware stores and though it has problems with “follow” and can be slightly sluggish it nonetheless makes an adequate bow that is easy to construct and fun to shoot.  Of course, it helps if certain design elements are incorporated into the bow like keeping the near-handle section a bit stiffer and the tips quite stiff in order to alleviate follow where the bow remains slightly arched after shooting.

More testing. This bow has a handle.

I have built many modified D-bows with stiffer handle sections but lately I’ve built more bows with glued on handles or “risers” since that design helps to eliminate follow and makes for a very smooth shooting bow.  Mind you that the people who kiln boards for carpentry and cabinetry are not concerned with all of us amateur bowyers who want to tiller their boards and make shooting implements.  They are in the business of business which said another way—or at least in the modern capitalistic sense—means: Reduce costs and maximize profit.  So I suspect that the quality of kilned boards has diminished overtime.  This applies primarily to the big companies that produce millions of boards for mass consumption.  I’ve been told that the kilning process includes the use of chemicals that hasten the reactions but greatly destabilizes the wood.  I’ve seen boards that when sawed or whittled are powdery and despite proper grain structure are not suitable for any bow.  It’s best to obtain your boards from a mill that produces boards on site and does not use any sort of chemical additive or gas to hasten the kilning process.

Powdery fragments in this red oak bow caused by excessive chemically induced kilning.

The results of an over-kilned bow that despite excellent grain structure did not hold up to shooting because the fibrous inner-wood had been pulverized.

In my view the major mistake made by newcomers in making selfbows is impatience.  Unfortunately, this is somewhat promoted by the literature that often says: “You can make a board bow in a few hours and be shooting it in no time.”  I think that’s poor advice.  Newcomers need to go slowly and thus avoid critical mistakes.  The two worst mistakes are going too fast and thus creating “hinges” that effectively destroy the bow’s overall draw weight, and over-tillering that creates a bow of greatly diminished draw weight.  So my recommendation (even to experienced bow-makers) is be patient.  Go slowly.  Take your time.  Enjoy the process of making the bow and be observant.  I guarantee you that caution in the building stage will result in a much better shooting stick.

I’m testing out a new red oak board bow. Photos help you spot flaws.

I use a variety of tools but mostly I stick with rasps and crooked knives.  My favorite rasps are a farrier’s rasp and the Nicholson #49 and #50 woodworking rasps.  My favorite crooked knives are made by a guy named Longoria….need I say more.  I’ll also use cabinet scrapers but I’ve made dozens of bows (particularly bows fashioned from staves collected in the woods) using nothing more than a couple or three crooked knives.  Honestly folks, if you don’t know how to use a crooked knife then you have not given yourself the opportunity to explore woodcraft in a way that will give you great personal satisfaction.

Most selfbows these days will never taste blood.  They will however encounter many bales of hay and legions of Styrofoam targets.  Some people like golf and others go bowling.  Then there are all of us woods types who just want to build our own bows and then go into the backyard or find a deserted field someplace and spend an hour or two shooting.  It’s absolutely silent and the quiet enhances the experience.  Just you and your bow and a set of well-made arrows and a few bales of hay or even a cardboard box and that’s all you really need.  You built the bow using a board you purchased for less than ten bucks at the local lumberyard or hardware store.  You made your own arrows from river cane or perhaps stems of hardwood growing along the edge of the woods.  Your arrow-points are made of recycled steel or bone or maybe you’ve learned to knap chert or flint.  Maybe you’ll use B-50 string to make your bowstring and you’ll wrap your points and feathers with artificial sinew; or perhaps you braided a string with sinew or rawhide from last year’s buck or used some sort of cordage made from plant material.  Your feathers are from a turkey or even from an old plastic folder you saved from the office.  But the bottom line is you did it all yourself.  And if perchance you go into the woods come hunting season and bring home the venison to feed the family then good for you.  And again, you made everything yourself.  So afterwards you mosey on down to the local sporting goods store and after the clerk finishes his political rant (they all seem to do that) he asks you if you bagged anything this year.  Before you begin he interjects that he shot this or that with his thousand dollar custom rifle or fiberglass contraption with training wheels using a five-hundred dollar scope or red-dot apparatus and then he says, “Well, what did you use?”  And you coyly shrug and say, “Well, I used a five-dollar red oak board (or I cut a branch from the woods behind the house) and made a selfbow and then I went down to the garden store and bought some bamboo stakes and made a set of arrows and I made my arrow-points from some 16 gauge scrap steel I found and used some fletching from domestic turkey feathers.  And I figure the whole shebang cost me about twenty bucks or maybe a little less….”  And now watch the look on that guy’s face as he realizes he’s talking to one hell of a woodsman.  Of course, he won’t ever admit it.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Meat Knives Today and Yesterday....

When it comes to woodcraft any notion that meat knives are outdated is ill conceived.  While most “bushcrafters” indulge in the activity as a hobby there are tens of thousands of rural folks who use “meat knives” on a daily basis.  I’m not talking about carving out a roast on the kitchen table or slicing sausage into segments.  Instead, I’m referring to butchering hogs, goats and deer or processing a chicken that spent the previous night in a tree behind the house.  Nor is this about gutting an animal then shipping it off to the butcher shop.  I’m focusing here on those who take the animal from “on the hoof” to “in the freezer” or “across the drying rack” with nothing more than a cleaver and a knife.  Gutting, skinning, quartering, deboning; the meat knife is as much an essential part of one’s kit as it was in centuries past.

I understand that most urban folks are light years away from this concept.  To them bushcraft (woodcraft) is not much more than a weekend trip into the forest where they recreate or perhaps reenact something that to them correlates to getting back to nature and gives them the opportunity to practice things like making feather sticks or bow-drills or maybe building a wickiup.  I applaud those efforts and am heartened to hear that people want to be close to nature and believe in preserving the land.  Too many other self-indulgent types think nothing of tearing up the ground, knocking down the forests, laying pavement through the wilderness and fracking the heck out of our precious underground water supplies.  But let’s not dismiss the meat-knife as outdated just because some of us don’t fully understand its intrinsic value or realize that there are many people who still live close to the land.  Jim Bridger and Jeremiah Johnson may have been great woodsmen but there are people today who are just as knowledgeable and depend on well-made meat knives as much as their forefathers did in the way back long ago.

Trade knives, butcher knives and skinning knives tended to be thin bladed and perhaps a bit larger than today’s popular “bushcraft” knife.  And here’s a key bit of information: They were never used to chop wood or make feather sticks or cut out tent pegs…at least not if the owner could avoid it.  A meat knife’s primary purpose is to prepare food and not make a camp.  If one needed to make a camp then the ax or machete was the optimal tool, and for detailed work on tent pegs, pot holders, deadfall traps and snare triggers or for anything that required finesse the jackknife—especially if multi-bladed—saw service.  In other words, the “bushcraft” knife seems to be more of a recent innovation designed around today’s gentleman bush-crafter.  Now in some parts of the world the dedicated bushcraft knife might solve various logistical problems but those areas seem confined to extreme northern latitudes where wood is soft and not prone to obliterate bevel edges.  In other places hardwood is aptly named and takes a lot more than a knife to properly cut, slice and otherwise cleave.

A couple of old meat knives have seen a lot of use.

The other important thing about meat knives is that they should be capable of maintaining a sharp edge.  There’s nothing more exasperating than working with a knife that goes dull after a few cuts and slices.  That’s one reason I’m no great fan of stainless steel.  It either dulls quickly or if one of the modern space age types then once it does go sour it takes a while to re-sharpen.  High carbon steel knives on the other hand made of 1095, 1080, L6 or O1 are not only easy to sharpen but also keep their edges longer—if the knife maker did a good job of heat treating and tempering.  Their only downside is they rust and stain.  And that, of course, means you’ve got a choice assuming you don’t live next to saltwater.  You can take a few minutes to keep your knife clean with a swipe of oil ranging from olive oil to some petroleum based product or you can watch your trusted blade corrode into powder.  It might not, however, be a good idea to get petroleum on the knife you plan to use to butcher your next deer.  I usually clean my carbon steel knives and then dry them thoroughly with a cloth.  They will stain but not rust.


Here’s my suggestion: Carry a good quality meat knife like the ones pictured above.  In your pocket carry a couple of jackknives.  I prefer a carbon steel “trapper style” or at least that’s what I prefer these days.  The pocketknife is your detail woodworking tool in case you need to make a pot holder or maybe whittle out a skewer.  And bring along a camp ax or a well-built machete for light chopping in the case of the ax or clearing away underbrush with the machete.  Now I understand that many of you will never butcher an animal nor will you use your knife for meat processing of any type.  Your personal knife is for making feather sticks and goofing around with bow drills and for batoning a chunk of wood because that’s what Captain Survivor does on his new hit TV show “Alone in the Wilds!”  You will pack in your food and hopefully you will carry out your refuse.  And that’s the right thing to do in your case.  But please don’t believe the skinning knife is outdated.  Lots of folks in isolated places would suggest that’s just not the case.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Woodsman's Life....

I’m back at el ranchito after a week on the road.  Here at the cabin things run at a decidedly slower pace.  Visitors sometimes complain that it’s just too quiet.  Others say they couldn’t live so isolated.  It has its downside and we always try to keep that in mind.  A trip to the doctor or emergency room takes over an hour and so we’re extra careful to watch for things that could be life threatening.  The other day my son was walking out to one of the bird feeders and you know we just can’t live in a constant state of being on guard.  Still, he noticed something moving close to him and he glanced down and saw a large rattlesnake within striking distance.  Now if you’ve ever been advised to freeze when you’re next to a rattlesnake then rest assured who ever told you that was giving you bad counsel.  I’ve encountered tens of thousands of rattlers over the years and the only sane reaction is to jump out of the way as fast as you can.  Put distance between you and the snake!  And if you happen to get bit then more than likely it was going to occur anyway.  Freezing or jumping out of the way was no longer an option; you had crossed that line and the snake was going to strike!  Anyway, I was in the cabin and my son walked in with the usual nonchalance attitude experienced woodsmen possess and he grabbed a pistol and said, “There’s a big snake next to the house.”  Now mind you that we always leave rattlers alone when they are away from the cabin.  But when they are in the “yard” we have no choice but to shoot them.  Please don’t preach to me about transferring them off the property.  We get that sort of naiveté from well-intentioned folks who invariably are not as experienced as they might believe.  The “transferred” snake will be right back in your yard within a couple of days at the most.  That scenario by-the-way has occurred too many times to other folks who subsequently lost dogs or were forced to take care of things when the snake returned.  So my son did what had to be done if we are to protect our dogs and avoid hectic trips to the emergency room and that’s the end of that story.

I took a long walk through the brush a couple of days ago and reflected on the fact that I’ve probably spent what would total several decades roaming the woods.  I never tire of hiking the back trails.  Most people drive from place to place but I’d rather walk.  I don’t care for ATVs or horses or motor scooters or anything else.  I prefer walking.  I carried a Mora 511 because I had no particular reason to carry a larger knife—though that was a mistake and I should’ve known better.  As always I hefted a 2-quart canteen, flashlight, leather gloves, some parachute cord, a small bottle of antibacterial lotion, and a customized pruning saw.  Small knives like the Mora 511 might be ideal for the boreal forest when coupled with an ax but they are too lightweight and short for the Brushlands and desert regions.  When you encounter prickly pear cactus you need a blade that’s long enough to reach in and slice away pads to facilitate easy passage.  The four-inch blade on the Mora is insufficient and invites a bath of cactus needles.  I’ve got half a dozen Woods Roamer knives and why I didn’t take one along I have no idea.  I carry a walking cane to push aside thorn-ridden brush but nopal cactus needs to be sliced away.  The little Mora was just not up to the job.

Three Woods Roamer Knives with a Mora 511. I removed the finger guard on the Mora.

Around here landmarks typically come in two forms: Man-made and those bestowed by nature.  Gates make good landmarks as in, “I’m going to walk to Tololo’s gate” or “I’m going as far as those two tanks at the split away.”  Then there are the natural signposts like the green pond or the big anacahuita or the coyote trail.  Live long enough in the woods and you get to know just about every tree and shrub within four or five miles of your casa and you’ll know when things are the way they should be or are out of place.  You’ll recognize the smell of a particular locale and know when something moved through by the faint odors left behind.  You’ll sense when javelina are close by or when a deer walked the path in front of you or maybe a badger is close.

Each gate has a name. The more the merrier if you're a hermit.

I’ve got some knife projects that are about ready to be photographed and that will come in a few days.  I also want to talk about the genesis of medicinal plant usage.  That article is in the making.  But mainly it’s good to be back in the woods.  I figure most of the people who read this blog will understand that unique kinship with nature.  Perhaps for me it goes a bit further.  I think of something Cary Grant said in the old movie Father Goose.  He said, “Several years ago, I made peace with the world.  Now if the world isn’t bright enough to make peace with itself, it’ll have to settle things without me.”

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Two Sides of Tracking....

It’s nice to get into the woods with someone who’s an expert tracker.  Never talks loudly, keeps their nose to the wind and their eyes along the skyline and then takes note of not only the tracks but the plants, birds and insects as well.  By the way, the really great trackers can identify every plant and bird because tracking is just a part of their overall woods knowledge.  Years ago I knew a fellow who was a great tracker.  He was about 50 years older than I was and I’d drop by his place in the woods and he’d make me a cup of coffee.  We’d talk about the Brushlands and about hunting and sometimes he’d ask me if I wanted to walk with him because he was looking for one thing or another.  It was an education just watching that man move through the woods.  We never said a word while woods roaming or tracking; and we would just keep going sometimes zigzagging left or right but always on the trail.  He’s been gone awhile but I think of him often.

Trackers come in two varieties: Those who read sign and those who feel sign.  The first type traces the route an animal took by dutifully taking note of every nuance like the tracks themselves or bent twigs, droppings, bits of fur and residual odors.  People who “feel” sign are something quite different.  They experience the animal as it wandered through the woods or fled the scene.  In a sense they become the animal, or so it seems, as they move into the forests and hills oftentimes going directly to where the beast is lying or hiding.  Both types are successful but the first is more mechanical while the second often appears clairvoyant.  Of course, those who track by feel will also check for physical sign just to make sure their senses aren’t fooling them.

So what is it that allows some people to track by feel?  Simply put, they have a vast body of experience in the woods.  Like that old man I used to know.  It’s not necessarily that they are born with the gift although they tend to be infatuated with the outdoors from childhood.  But a life in the woods taking note of all things turns them into what can only be described as part deer or coyote or bear or cougar.  In other words, it becomes part of who they are.

When I was a kid a buddy of mine and I made a great effort to learn how to track.  It was, however, something that for us was as much a part of our survival as it would be for a city dweller to learn to negotiate neighborhoods or alleyways.  We spent most of our time in the woods and as such we were forced to understand our surroundings or suffer the consequences.  We were in grade school and were often left alone in very remote places.  The itinerary was broad and somewhat vague but essentially one learned to observe every sound and memorize any new scent and study each and every track be it from a mammal or reptile or even an insect.  We learned to never speak loudly; in fact, we often went for days without ever talking above a whisper.  It helped that we were both enamored with nature and couldn’t think of ever living anywhere else.  Perhaps you’ve heard the saying that commonalities foster friendship or at least encourage assembly.  People who don’t drink or smoke won’t be found in a bar, for example.  And people who are committed woods types don’t fare well in cities.

But tracking in its simplest forms is not an art but instead a technical achievement.  There are scores of books on tracking and most people, if they spend enough time in nature, can become rudimentary trackers.  I see this every hunting season when somebody shoots a deer and it runs off and then someone follows the blood trail and finds the downed animal.  But that is not tracking nor is tracking necessarily following a line of footprints.  No, tracking in its finest manner is the art of learning to interpret sign and to see ahead—not so much into the future but into the past.  A great tracker can see the animal or person as they walked through the area an hour before or a day before.  Superior trackers can “cut sign” that’s a week old.

There aren’t many good trackers anymore.  And why should there be?  It’s a skill that’s really not needed.  Even the US Border Patrol that once upon a time was known for having some fairly good trackers is no longer focused on producing great sign cutters.  After all, we live in a technological world with electronic sensors and helicopters and drones and even satellite imagery.  The USBP drives around or sits in their vehicles waiting for sensors to go off.  Or if at night they depend on night-vision equipment and radio communications.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that other than the knowledge of tracking has essentially vanished from that organization.  There are a few holdouts but they’re rare.  Several months ago a fellow from the Hebbronville, Texas BP station called me to talk about some tracking he’d accomplished.  I was pleased to hear he took tracking seriously.  But I recall not too long ago arriving at a brushy tract and a BP fellow approached my truck and said, “We’ve got a helicopter coming because there are about fifteen illegals hiding over there in that brush.”  I nodded and said okay since I was the owner of that land.  Within a few minutes a helicopter arrived and started making all sorts of noise.  Six or seven BP also showed up along with several US Army types replete with M16s, camouflage and fancy sunglasses.  I was collecting some pieces of wood to make knife handles so I kept to myself and let the fellows and chopper do their thing.  But after about twenty minutes of noise and guys walking back and forth behind me everything grew quiet.  I looked around but everyone had left.  After another few minutes I decided to walk into the brush where the BP said the illegals were hiding.  In all there had been about 10-12 pairs of boots on the ground but no one had come by to tell me whether or not they’d found anyone.  So anyway I started walking quietly (what a relief to have that noisy chopper gone) and entered a narrow trail leading into thicker brush.  I’d gone about 100 yards when I turned to my left and saw eight fellows sound asleep in a shallow gully.  Folks, I was dumbfounded.  I could see where the BP and the Army people had walked that very trail only minutes before.  All they had to do was look to their left and they would have seen those guys fast asleep—even as the chopper burned fuel overhead!  “Hey, wake up,” I said.  But those boys were off in dreamland.  So I fired three 20 gauge rounds into the air and that woke them up.  “What are you guys doing here?” I said.  But they didn’t say anything and just got up and we all walked to this little road another hundred yards away.  Just then several BP fellows approached from a grassy field along with a couple of US Army guys.  One of the BP fellows asked, “Who found them?”  I was not thinking kind thoughts towards the BP at that moment but nonetheless I said, “I did.”  I could see the look on that BP guy’s face as he realized the old woods rat he’d seen earlier knew a few things about the thorn country.

I once helped find a man who’d been lost for about a week in some thick woods.  Scores of law enforcement people and others on horseback had obliterated all the sign and so it became a matter of sensing the man as he walked perhaps lost and scared.  I entered the thickets just after daybreak and about forty minutes later I felt something nearby.  All around me were horse tracks and horse dung and dozens of tread-soled boot prints.  Sadly, the man had faded away probably that night after having had a stroke or heart attack.  Not more than 100 feet from where he lay were horse tracks.  When his wife showed up to identify the body she looked at me and I remembered seeing her as I had walked into a ranger station at daybreak.  I didn’t think she’d noticed me.  But she said, “When I saw you earlier I got this feeling you would find…”  She said his name and then looked down at him and knelt and placed her hand on his forehead.  Those are hard moments, my friends.

Track a lizard through the woods and find where it ate a beetle.  Take note of the snake track in front of you and decide whether it was a rattler, an Indigo or a whip snake.  See where the hogs crossed and then watch them as they traversed a meadow ten hours before.  See the bobcat that came through yesterday.  Visit the coyote’s sign post and find out who has come to visit.  By the way, that old man I spoke about at the top of this piece was married about fourteen miles east of here back in 1920.  He wedded a beautiful girl who lived on the ranch where they became man and wife.  I miss them both.  He passed on in 1973 and she left in 1987.  And for those who might be wondering…his name was Trinidad M. Valverde and she was Rafaela Guerra.  They were my grandparents.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The First Cool Spell and Stalking Butterflies in South Texas....

Our first cool front of the season blew through night before last.  We sat up watching the sky well past midnight anticipating the wind shift though earlier in the evening subtle breezes had wafted in from the north as a foreshadowing of the nippy weather about to arrive.  This is the time of year for rains in South Texas and over the last month we’ve had what will probably amount to our annual allotment of water.  South of us in the Lower Rio Grande Valley people are panicked over the extreme drought the region has experienced.  But the effects of drought are more a measure of population densities than of actual hazards to the land.  The Brushlands have evolved to endure droughts, and months of cloudless skies did little to affect the ecology of the area.  The hardwoods flowered and produced fruit and the shrubs simply stayed dormant awaiting future rainfall.  But where people amass and emphasize unmitigated growth things are different.  Congestion, pollution, crime and now they worry over where they will get their water.  All of it calculable and foreseeable and yet they scurry along with parochial recklessness fixated on a singular theme that will eventually do nothing more than pull them under.  And so it goes.

When the cool front blew in clouds enveloped us and at last the summer heat disappeared.  Of course, it will return as it always does but for now we revel in the chill.  It is the best time to go woods roaming and so I set out with my little camera as millions of butterflies traversed the brush around me.  When I say millions I should perhaps instead say billions.  The sky dances and flickers as butterflies of all colors and descriptions make their way south.  Without a telephoto lens I must stalk them as they take respite on a blade of grass or a flowering shrub.  But as I approach off they go.  So farther and farther into the woods I roam until the cabin is out of sight and the world, at least as most people understand it, is someplace distant.  A mourning dove coos nearby and a flurry of bobwhite quail breaks the silence.  Butterflies everywhere, I continue trying to stalk them and pause as well to photograph flowers and look at animal tracks and now and then gaze up at those wonderful gray clouds above.

When I arrived back at the cabin my son had a barbeque going and so we ate.  More clouds arrived and I couldn’t help but reflect on what a cloudy sky means.  For those of us accustomed to nearly endless sun the clouds and especially the wintry air are like a glimpse at heaven.

In the afternoon I set out once again woods roaming.  To the west I heard thunder but somehow it seemed good to keep walking.  Then the skies darkened even more and the thunder grew louder.  Foolish perhaps but it made more sense to go forward than to turn around and head back.  Then the rain came.  More of a drizzle actually, I looked on as the monarchs retreated onto the blades of grass and amidst the granjeno trees as did thousands of other butterflies.  But I kept going.

When I finally arrived at the cabin near dusk I was a bit soaked but as happy as I have been in a very long time.
Just keep going forward, my friends.