Friday, February 22, 2013

Wild Birds and Feral Cats Don't Mix....

I used to work at a university that had a significant population of feral cats wandering around campus.  Every evening several faculty members would dutifully go around feeding the cats.  Their numbers increased.  Finally, there were cats everywhere.  One night when I was leaving campus after teaching a night class I saw a cat attack a nesting bird in a tree.  In a few seconds the cat had killed the bird and the chicks in the nest.  Afterwards, I noted that with the exception of great-tailed grackles there were fewer and fewer birds on campus.  

I recall visiting Bentsen State Park west of Mission, Texas and when I arrived I saw many dozens of feral cats wandering around.  I also realized the bird populations were down significantly.  I contacted a biologist with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and told him he needed to close the park and get rid of all the feral cats.  He drove out to the park and was shocked at the number of cats living there.  The cats were multiplying and the birds were disappearing.  So the park was closed for a few days so that TPWD trappers could come in and rid the park of the cats.  I wonder what would have happened if no one had mentioned the situation to the biologist.  The bird numbers had fallen precipitously.  

Presently in a park in San Antonio there are dozens of cats in residence.  I’m not sure about the status of those cats, whether they are neutered, but I don’t think they are de-clawed.  I visited the park a few weeks ago and became concerned about bird numbers.  I have no idea if bird numbers have gone down but wouldn’t be surprised if they have.  Remember that a domestic cat is a killing machine.  Left to wander around and cats will decimate the wild bird population in short order.  One cat can wipe out several coveys of quail on five to ten acres in about ten days.  The message here is if you own a cat then keep it indoors.  Abandoned cats become lethal predators.  They often kill for the sport of killing.  Like a lot of people I might add.  Interestingly, evidence is emerging that healthy coyote populations keep feral cat numbers under control.  Here’s an interesting post from Field & Stream Magazine regarding how keeping coyotes around helps to protect your quail populations and other birds as well.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Smoke, Haze and Pollen-filled Skies.....

Picture a sky turned grayish-brown.  Now feel your nose getting plugged and your throat scratchy.

For those of us who live in South Texas this is the time of year when we are doused with an array of particles arriving as smoke, fine dust and tiny pollen grains.  Everywhere people are sneezing and coughing.  I imagine the pharmaceutical brigands are gleeful because nose sprays, pills and assorted concoctions are flying off drugstore shelves.  Remember, where there is suffering there is profit.  The smoke seems to arrive earlier each year.  The dust has become endemic as more and more habitat is destroyed.  And pollen counts are exacerbated by ever warming temperatures.  The smoke arrives from southern Mexico and even Central America.  The dust is home grown.  The pollen is a product of short winters and an early springtime.

I keep track of particulate amounts via the Internet, especially 2.5 micron levels.  Those same Internet sources provide forecasts for the smoke arriving as hazy clouds when, far to the south of us, indigenous people slash and burn their fields as they have done for centuries.  The only problem is that population numbers have grown meteorically.  Flash back a thousand years and the numbers of agrarian farmers were few.  Today they number in the millions.  Add to that the ongoing droughts that plague much of those regions and the increased numbers of pests resulting from warming temperatures.  It used to be that an area could be left alone for decades before the people came back to burn off the brush and plant their crops.  But today the land is continuously ravaged.  A few years back the president of Mexico was asked about the burning that sends murky clouds north every year and he said, “Well, it’s what the people do.”  In other words, he offered no solutions.  A political copout or a figurative throwing up of the hands; either way, nothing was done and nothing seems to be planned.  So now the smoke is arriving.  Back in 1998 the smoke was so thick it wafted all the way north to the Upper Midwestern United States.  My oldest son was going through basic training in Oklahoma at the time.  He said the smoke (thousands of miles from its source) made it hard to breathe.  In South Texas the air quality got so bad people were told to stay inside.

Decades of land destruction in South Texas (Read my books, Adios to the Brushlands and Keepers of the Wilderness from Texas A&M University Press) has left huge swaths of former brushland naked to erosion.  When the winds blow the land is literally lifted into the air.  In places where dry-land farming has been employed the soil levitates in the sky like a brown curtain.  The curtain drags overland where it clogs towns and cities as if someone had dumped millions of buckets of dirt on everything.  In fact, that is literally what happens.  And then, as if the smoke and dust were not enough, the pollen counts go wild.  On the pollen-count meter the color becomes dark red indicating extremely high amounts of pollen are in the air.

Now here’s my point, folks.  If you are reading this then more than likely you are a nature person.  You might be a hiker or camping enthusiasts.  Perhaps you are a bushcraft aficionado.  Lots of people who read this blog are all of the above and they are also birders and native plant lovers.  I received an email today from someone who longs to experience the sort of quiet I wrote about in my post, “There’s nothing wrong with quiet.”  I get mail every day from people telling me about their part of the country or of the world.  All of them share an affinity for nature.  We are, in fact, a sort of brother and sisterhood.  What matters to us is the land.  I’ve written several times about saving our lands.  For us this means preserving the land so that we (and future generations) can partake of its beauty.  We also know that it encompasses more than mere beauty.  The health of our planet, and thus all the living things on this earth, depend on nature being preserved.  So then let’s all work together to save the land.  We may have different ways of accomplishing things and that is our strength.  In other words, our diversity makes us strong.  Some of you might join a conservation organization.  Others might write letters.  Still others might become active in a local issue relating to preserving nature.  But the bottom line is that we all do something.  If we don’t then the skies will get browner: the air will become more polluted; the climate will get even more chaotic.  Folks, it’s not as if we get a second chance to run this experiment.  Isn’t it more prudent, logical, indeed rational to err on the side of actually getting out and doing something to save the land?

Here are some websites you might find interesting.
Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (Air Quality Forecast)

Air Now site

Directory of Air Pollution Sites

EPA Air Pollution Site

American Lung Association

Soil Erosion Organizations

World Allergy Associations

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

There's Nothing Wrong with Quiet....

There is a quote from the 1972 movie Jeremiah Johnson that I have always liked.  “There’s nothing wrong with quiet.”  That’s something most people these days know little about and, in fact, don’t seem to care.  I’ve wondered what it was like in centuries past when no cars or trains or airplanes existed to break the silence.  When I was a young boy spending summers and holidays along the banks of the San Fernando River in central Tamaulipas, Mexico I had the opportunity to experience something approaching primeval silence.  The nearest town was about thirty miles away.  There was no electricity where we had our cabin and we cooked with wood and used kerosene lanterns at night.  Sometimes when the breezes quelled to a hush and the pauraques stilled and even the owls took a respite from their haunting coos we could hear the distant rumblings of trucks as they ground their gears on the highway leading south to the city of Victoria many miles away.  If you didn’t stop and listen carefully you would miss the tortured inhale and exhale: A slow and monotonous plea in the lowest registers as C slid into D flat and then to G.  “Listen,” someone would say.  “That’s a truck thirty miles away.”  But other than that the quiet was intense.

Back in 1982 I drove from South Texas to Boston, Mass.  On the road fourteen hours a day living on granola bars and coffee, and on the seat next to me in a small box a cargo worth more than gold: an echocardiogram of a little five-year-old boy who was going to have open heart surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital.  All that mattered to me was my child’s health and safety.  I think every parent knows exactly what I mean.  That love does not diminish over the years and the greatest gift of parenthood is the chance to relinquish self for the rest of one’s life.  When I passed Allentown, Pennsylvania I saw a luminous glow to the east.  I stopped for gas and asked the attendant, “What’s that light?”  He smiled and said, “That’s New York City.”  I replied, “But New York City is a long ways off.”  The attendant nodded and said, “Well, it might be but that’s still New York.”  An hour later at about midnight I pulled over at a rest stop and even as cars and trucks sped by I could still hear the great roar of the city that never sleeps.  At about two in the morning I drove across Manhattan and I remember seeing The World Trade Center in the distance.  By the way, in 1969 I was in a taxi heading from Kings County through Manhattan and then to the airport to catch a flight to Houston and we drove by a huge construction project.  The taxi cab driver said, “That’s going to be The World Trade Center.”

But on my way to Boston that lonely night in 1982 I drove across one of the bridges leading off Manhattan Island and all I could think about was putting as many miles between me and the madness all around.  At four that morning I stopped in Worcester, Massachusetts exhausted.  I rested a couple of hours and then drove on to Boston.  At about two that same afternoon that very special five-year-old boy walked off an airplane with his momma.  I can still see the look in his eyes when he saw me.  Every father and mother who has ever loved their children with all their heart will understand why even now all these many years later I still choke up remembering that time.  A couple of days later I helped wheel that little boy into an operating room.  But that was a long time ago (though it often seems like just yesterday) and that little boy is now a doctor himself.  As I write these notes a breeze blusters over the cabin’s roof and whips the limbs on the mesquite trees surrounding me.  That is the sound of primeval quiet.  Last night the dogs barked for a while.  Was it a wild hog or a deer or perhaps someone moving overland nearby?  I figure that I am okay in the hush that slips in after the dogs settle down.  I glanced out the window at a darkness intensified by overcast skies.  Earlier a pauraque had whistled for what seemed an hour.  A calm and reassuring call that says all is well.  Sometimes the coyotes will start singing and my dogs engage them with falsetto whoops and sliding portamenti.  The clumsy acappella lasts a few seconds then abruptly stops.  The concert is over.

I’ll take my guitar out on the porch and serenade my dogs.  They don’t seem to mind.  I might even decide to sing a song.  They endure.   I read in the evenings when I’m not out in my shop goofing around making a knife or a wooden spoon or maybe building a bow.  A person should do divergent things in life.  It helps the mind and the body.  Spend your time on cerebral efforts and then work with your hands.  Try to do it surrounded by quiet.  That’s precisely why I dislike electric tools—an affront to the quiet surrounding me.

The sun is trying to break through and maybe the breeze will calm down by evening and I’ll take the dogs for the walk they look forward to after their late afternoon meal.  I don’t have to tell them we’re going walking.  I amble out of the cabin with a canteen dangling over my shoulder and they get all excited.  When I grab my walking stick from the storage room they start jumping and can barely contain themselves.  But we all know to keep it quiet.  On our long walks (at least four miles) nary a word is spoken.  I mimic the squeal of a rabbit and they know that means to hurry up.  I make a whheest sound and they know to hold still.  I freeze and they freeze.  They freeze and I freeze.  We sniff the breeze as birds chirp nearby.  All the while quiet surrounds us.  Yes, there’s nothing wrong with quiet.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Real Bushcraft is about becoming Self Sufficient

It’s amazing how nowadays nearly everything gets corrupted by consumerism.  Nothing is spared.  Take the field of bushcraft, for example.  If anything relates to self-sufficiency, independence, and on not relying on manufactured goods then it ought to be bushcraft.  Taken to its primal level, bushcraft is at the very least Neolithic in practice.  But looking at many of the “bushcraft” sites on the Internet and it quickly becomes apparent that what most people today call bushcraft is more a combination of “end of the world” survivalism and “flee to the woods and live off the land” fantasy.  Mixed in with all of that is a nearly endless focus on consumerism.  Bushcraft sites are an interminable array of product reviews and “what I want to buy next” excess.  Now if someone wants a boat, three cars, a plane, a big house, fancy jewelry, expensive furniture and so on then that’s their problem.  And, in fact, that can become a negative when people are no longer able to live their lives without obsessing about how they are viewed by others or without placating the quick psychological fixes offered by compulsive buying.  I know a fellow, for example, who buys both impulsively and compulsively.  It’s a rush for him.  It makes him feel good.  But the high lasts only momentarily so he’s off again to repeat the cycle of accumulating “things” to lift him from the doldrums he’s created for himself.  Does he see it?  Does he understand it?  No, not one bit.  He is oblivious to his lifestyle of self-indulgence, transient ecstasy and then intense let down.  Like so many he has never learned how to bring happiness into his own life by learning to appreciate those things that arrive for free and by becoming more self-sufficient.

Now enters the world of bushcraft.  In its purest form, bushcraft is about living modestly within a natural environment.  It is about understanding the relationship between the biotic and abiotic world in such a way as to create a lifestyle that is neither self-indulgent nor is it destructive.  At 7.5 billion and growing the world’s population no longer allows for a rampant and hedonistic obliteration of the planet.  But we’re doing it anyway.  In fact, an entire class of people has sprung up who insist that progressing to a level where we no longer rape the land, where we live frugally, where we strive to be less self-indulgent is a bad thing.  These people insist on same-old, same-old.  They are not interested in acting responsibly nor are they concerned with prudent behavior.  But even those who might want to steer their lives in another direction are met head on by the realities of living surrounded by an autodiocentric (self-god-centered) society.  It envelops us sometimes literally.  Your nylon tents, titanium drinking cups, state-of-the-art camping stoves, plastic water bottles, unbelievably-incredible-stainless steel knives and the like are the products of intense destruction, expensive transportation, and ultimately a drain on both resources and the environment.  No great favor is accomplished if instead of cutting a small branch to use as a walking stick you drive to a store, buy a collapsible aluminum cane and then proudly claim you are safeguarding nature in the process.  A branch taken from a proximate setting is nearly infinitely more conservative as it relates to saving the land than an aluminum walking stick that resulted after mining, manufacturing, transportation and much pollution.  The knife you made from a used mill file or old leaf spring or discarded machete is a recycled item built onsite to be used in the immediate area.  Compare that to the knife you buy at any store.  The selfbow and arrows made by collecting a branch (that is the product of careful coppicing) is nature-conservation at a profoundly deep level especially when compared to the compound or fiberglass bow or the graphite arrows or aluminum framed crossbow.  The same applies to any fiberglass stocked, steel alloy etc. firearm.

Of course, we’re all guilty of this excess.  But at least we can begin to strive to be less destructive.  Even a moderate approach towards self-sufficiency is a step in the right direction.  The lady who grows her own garden; the man who knits his own sweaters (we’re not going to be sexist here, folks); the persons who make their own knives; the people who hunt with selfbows and arrows they made themselves; the family that raises their own chickens; the list is extensive and can effectively cover just about everything.

But it’s not easy.  You have to drive to work.  I have to drive into town to get supplies—that just so happen to have come from far away.  We have to use electricity to cook meals and maybe heat the house.  We no longer have the time to make our own clothing so we have to buy it instead.  Yes, the entire system is predicated on intense consumption that comes at the expense of our lands and water.  But maybe we can all take a few steps to curve this predicament we’ve created for ourselves.  I heard about a young fellow and his wife who both insist on buying only used clothing.  They have the income to do otherwise but they have made a conscious choice in their lifestyles.  I think the first thing was getting past the frivolity of feeling the need to impress others.  Maybe our attitudes about how we view the important things in life need to change.  What was considered “cool” might now be considered “lame.”  What was thought of as a picture of “achievement” might now be looked at as a representation of “insecurity.”  But you know what folks: If we don’t start changing our attitudes then things are going to force us to change.  In the end a hyper-consumptive, hedonistic society implodes.  We poison everything around us.  We annihilate the land.  We encourage criminality.  We blindside ourselves to our own self-destructive actions.  I saw where this preacher, for example, lives in a gated community in a mansion and drives a limousine.  This guy is pompous and incredibly vain it seems.  And then once or twice a week he stands on a pulpit dressed in thousand dollar suits and wearing two-hundred dollar shoes and waxes eloquently about a fellow who was essentially homeless, who wore sandals, who dressed modestly, who lived an austere lifestyle, who said things like “blessed are the poor” and “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to...etc.”  You know, in a sense this contemplative fellow was a sort of bushcrafter in his own right.  Hmmm, makes me think.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Huisache: Texas Brushlands Sweet Honey

Huisache, Acacia farnesiana, is one of those plants people either love or hate.  Folks who see the world as nothing more than fields of grass find the little huisache tree an eye sore.  They want grass to feed cows and as such their collective myopia blinds them from the many good things associated with this legume.  Native Americans living along the Rio Grande and into the desert regions and thick brushlands found huisache useful for everything from making selfbows and eating utensils to fabricating their jacales—the high R-value mud and stick dwellings they lived in.  Huisache was also believed to be a viable food source though evidence on exactly how the seeds or beans were prepared remains sketchy.

 For me huisache has always marked the arrival of springtime.  Strange how we’re in the middle of winter and yet all around me spring is breaking out.  Heads up folks, this may mean we’re in for a brutal summer.  I know huisache is blooming far in advance of actually seeing the flowers.  There is no way to adequately describe the aroma of huisache blooms other than to say that no commercial perfume maker has ever produced anything that matches the sweet and delicate fragrance of a huisache tree heavy with flowers.  I’ll be walking along the trail and a timid redolence—nothing harsh or overpowering—will waft across the path.  I begin searching the woods looking for the tree, and then as the trail rounds a bend I’ll see a mass of brilliant yellow.  Spring has arrived.

Now the bees are at work.  Master bee keepers, those who specialize in exotic Brushland honeys, will safeguard groves of huisache because they know the huisache bloom produces nectar for the gods.  Pale yellow, almost clear, the huisache’s honey is so tantalizing that once you have tasted it you will never be pleased with the mundane honey bought at the local grocery store.  Indeed, huisache (along with mesquite) produces honey superior to perhaps any other bloom.  Finding it pure is hard and expensive.  Interestingly, huisache blooms have been used as an ingredient in fine perfumes.  But to my mind nothing matches huisache in its natural state.  A quiet walk amidst huisaches in bloom is hypnotic.

Now the birds are mating and the huisache tree will play a part in the beginning of new life.  Soon the ghost doves (white-tipped doves) and mourning doves will be making their nests amidst its thorn-ridden branches.  As will other bird species and by May the trees will be dotted with nests.  Perhaps another blooming will arrive in mid-summer if all goes well.  I’ll be waiting.  One more thing: It's pronounced Wee-Sach-Ay.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Couple of New Woods Roamer Knives

Those of you who track this blog know one of my favorite hobbies is making knives.  I like to make crooked knives, hook knives and a large bushcraft knife I call The Woods Roamer Knife.  There are posts and videos scattered throughout this blog of my WR knives and I have come to rely on them almost exclusively for the light chopping work I engage in around the cabin and in the nearby woods.  These knives aren’t intended for heavy chopping but are designed for what one might need in a survival situation where a knife serves for making a small shelter, building a makeshift camp and setting out traps.  I have come to rely so heavily on my Woods Roamer knives that I feel sort of naked if I go walking any distance from the cabin without one in hand.  A few people in the area started asking me to make them a WR knife and over time I have made about twenty or thereabouts.  I have three personal knives and I also gave one of my knives to Son Number Three who is an avid woods guy.  I think he’d rather be in the woods than anyplace else and in that regard he’s a lot like me.  People started emailing me asking me to make them Woods Roamer knives and I usually said I’d make one when I had the chance.  Work gets in the way of fun but I try to spend time in my little shop making knives and selfbows—my other hobby.  So anyway, I just completed two Woods Roamer knives and I have decided to put them up for sale in my Etsy Shop and I’ll include that listing in a couple of days.  Please don’t write me regarding either one of these knives unless you go through Etsy.  They are peculiar in that respect and so I’ll honor their request.  They do, after all, have to get their cut out of the deal and that’s included in the price.  I’ll post a link to the shop in the “links” section of this blog.  But just in case you get lost the shop goes by the name of Woods Roamer.

One knife was made from a 14 inch industrial file and the other knife was made from a large rasp that also measured 14 inches.  Below are some photos.  When I put them up for sale through my Etsy Shop I’ll have more specifications.


The handles are mesquite with brass pins.  I’ve learned to swell the rear of the handle in order to give more control in light chopping.  Of all the WR knives I’ve sold I’ve only made one sheath.  A fellow said he wanted one to give away as a gift and so he also wanted a nice sheath so I made a pretty leather sheath and upped the price by fifty bucks.  Most desert rats around here say, “No thanks…I can make my own sheath.”  I’m posting a YouTube video tomorrow if I can (Two Part Video) on South Texas Machetes and Machete Sheaths.  We’re not too particular in the ranch country on our sheaths as you will see.  They are simple and functional…that is to say, they work.  So I have no plans to make sheaths for these knives in order to keep the price under $150.00 with shipping.  Keep an eye out for the video.  If all goes well it will appear within a day or two at the most.

UPDATE:  Neither woods roamer knife made it to Etsy.  They were both gone within three hours of this post.  I'll try to have a few more knives available later this year.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Brushland Peach: Duraznillo

Winters used to last longer in deep South Texas and it usually wasn’t until mid-March that the duraznillo (doo-raz-nee-oh) began blooming.  That was the time to mark the locations of each plant and start watching for the little peaches appearance.  It was always—and continues to be—a contest between potential consumers.  The birds always win out but other critters like deer and humans claim a few peaches if they are quick and observant.  But this year the duraznillo blossoms have arrived far too early.  Scientists worldwide have accurately predicted a chaotic climate where weather extremes strafe the planet, i.e. one area is bombarded by a massive winter storm while another endures extreme drought.  The Northeast is about to suffer a blizzard while parts of the Southwest go without rain.  I had a relative tell me recently that someone she knows does not “believe” our chaotic climate is being influenced by human behavior.  I responded that science is not based on what people believe but instead on what the data tells us.  Supportive data or lack of supportive data is the plank on which scientists rest their determinative fulcrum.  And in this case the data is overwhelming: Our chaotic climate is indeed a product of human deeds.

So here we are in early February and the duraznillo is flowering.  Yes, I was surprised to see the blooms but other plants are blossoming as well.  Way too early and definitely out of kilter, I am now wondering if this means that a torturous summer lies ahead.  Of course, my in denial relative will continue with her quintessential head in the sand (as will others) but the data is clear and continues to mount.

I will be watching the plants and in a few weeks the little peaches will be ripe and the birds will gather in hordes and the deer will arrive as well and the old Woods Roamer will be there too.  We’ll eat the peaches ripe and, if the birds give me a chance, I’ll make some tasty jam.  I’ll keep you informed.
Family: Rosaceae
Scientific Name: Prunas texana
Folk Name: Duraznillo (little peach); Brushland Peach