Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Two Angry Females....

I’m not sure how to explain the photos other than to say that both bodies were lying a few feet from each other and it looked like they had been dead for only a couple of hours.  Even so, they were still quite beautiful.  Strange, how something so stunning can be so dangerous.  And yet, these females are in abundance out here.  Yesterday I found a bunch of them hiding in a row of concrete blocks placed to form a retaining wall near the cabin.  Each had a large egg case alongside and when I was messing with them one of the egg cases popped open and hundreds of little ones started running around.  The moms are fierce protectors of their young.  They’ll rush at you and if you’re not careful they’ll bite.  Ah yes, my friends they can mess up your life.  Woe to the fool who falls for the trap.  Did they kill each other?  Was it jealousy or a territorial dispute?  I guess it’s likely not jealousy since they terminate their mates when no longer needed.

You’ve heard of a cat fight?  Well, this is a fight with fangs and venom.  Some people report extreme pain upon being bitten while others say it didn’t hurt all that much.  Hmm, I think I’ve heard that before.  Nausea, muscle cramping, fever; the symptoms vary but if one is healthy then it’s not life threatening.  Still, who wants to be bit?  We’ve got another reclusive lady around here and I’ll tell you about her later.  Yes, the brushland desert is a mysterious place filled with all sorts of beauty.  But watch out for the temptress in black with the bright red birthmark on her belly.  She’s vicious when angry.  But then aren’t they all?

I spotted these two ladies on the trail walking back to the cabin.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Prickly Pear Cactus: Sustenance for Generations of South Texans

The prehistoric people of South Texas lived as family groups and small bands.  Their languages were similar though moderate geographical isolation or distance spawned dialects that overtime evolved into new languages.  People living at the extremes of the region whether at the eastern end along the gulf shore or several hundred kilometers to the west could no longer understand each other after a few centuries.  Regardless, trade in essential goods continued and cultural similarities made coexistence possible.  These were basically nomadic people who relied on staple foods such as the prickly pear and mesquite as well as other plants.  Meat sources included small animals and the occasional deer and javelina.  Bison were rare and found only to the north of the South Texas Sand Sheet.  Deep South Texas was an amalgam of dense riparian woodland and sparser upland brush interspersed with native grasses.  The waterway known as the Rio Grande (in Mexico it is called El Río Bravo) was literally a raging river known for massive floods that stretched north and south for many kilometers.  Within the waterway were thousands of islands on which many natives lived.  Their chief mode of transportation was the dugout canoe made either from the trunk of a Montezuma bald cypress (Taxodium mucronatum) or Sabal palm (Sabal texana).  Those living near salt or freshwater ate fish and mollusks and those food sources were a boon for maintaining viable human populations.  Regardless, diseases like malaria and yellow fever were present and often made life difficult.

In the upland regions the people waged a continuous battle to find food and water.  The Sand Sheet farther to the north was a desert without surface water and with minimal food sources.  Spanish explorers reported that the vast desert was essentially unpopulated and prior to the arrival of the horse it is difficult to imagine that any natives ever chose to cross that expanse.  Migratory excursions would have been around The Sand Sheet to the west or perhaps along the coast.  Archeological digs on the northern part of The Sand Sheet in what is now known as Brooks County show that at the end of the Pleistocene about 11,700 years ago small groups of people lived along streams and rivers that flowed into the Gulf of Mexico.

Regardless of whether people lived in the rich riparian belts along the Rio Grande or in the sparser upland regions the main plant food source was probably the prickly pear cactus.  To the Indians of the region the prickly pear (Opuntia sp.) was a multiple food.  By that I mean that different parts of the plant offered sustenance all year long.  In addition the prickly pear (el nopal) provided for other human needs both medicinal and structural.

The vast majority of people living in South Texas today are of Native American decent.  Political designations aside (Hispanic, Latino) their genetic lines can be traced back over 10,000 years to the earliest settlements in the region.  Amazingly, few people in this vast area understand that they are the progeny of the original inhabitants of the land.  Even so, the culture is rich with telltale signs of the past.  Among those signs are the many uses of nopal that tell a story reaching back into distant millenniums.

The prickly pear is such an important plant that without it the ecology of the region would probably change dramatically.  For humans the prickly pear provides food from the young pads (nopalitos) and the fruit (tunas); and the sap is brewed into an alcoholic drink or used unfermented as a tea to treat various ills like gallstones, colitis and diarrhea.  Some people today use prickly pear to combat diabetes and benign prostatic hypertrophy.  The fruit is made into a sort of cheese known as queso de tuna.  When I was young spending summers at a remote ranch in southeastern Tamaulipas, Mexico I witnessed the native people using nopal as a poultice to treat burns and minor skin abrasions.  The sap or juice from the plant has been used to make candles and I have found the sap a particularly good source as a sealant in woodworking.  In making a survival bow, for example, use the thick nopal juices to cover the ends of the bowstave and thus keep the wood from checking.

We are currently experiencing an exceptional drought in South Texas.  But as far back as I can remember ranchers have used nopal pads to feed livestock when times get bad.  Prickly pear is not particularly high in protein but it will serve over the short haul.  One frequently hears the roar of a propane “prickly pear burner” hundreds of yards away as ranch hands scorch off nopal spines so cows can feed.  But cattle are a recent phenomenon (some would argue not particularly beneficial overall) and before that el nopal provided both protection and food to another animal that even today provides a nourishing fare for people living in remote mountain regions to the south.  Known as the “nopal rat” this large rodent builds its nests in clumps of prickly pear.  The nests often extend all around the plant with strategically placed entrance/escape holes.  The nest entrance/escape holes are usually guarded with the spines from another cactus known as tasajillo, (tas-ah-hee-oh).  Cooked over a spit or roasted in an oven these rodents are a delicacy.

Prickly pear ecology is a complex subject but whether as a prime nesting source for birds or a natural erosion control mechanism or an important source of honey during droughts the prickly pear has offered untold generations food, medicine and even shelter.  In parts of Mexico I’ve seen indigenous people use prickly pear as fences and on several occasions we constructed wickiup shelters using nopal pads as roofing material.  When the shelters crumble the pads fall to the ground and in a year’s time a number of new clumps mark the spot where the shelter once stood.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Coming World War over Water....

“Water is a big issue! Fresh water––while globally abundant–– is scarce in much of South Asia, northern China, the Middle East, and parts of Africa, and will become scarcer in the years ahead. At the same time, global demand for water for agricultural and industrial production and household uses is increasing steadily.  Experts at the Global Water Policy Project estimate that by 2025, 40 percent of the world’s population will live in countries that are ‘water stressed.’  These countries—most of which are in Africa and South Asia––will be unable to provide enough water for agricultural, industrial, and household needs."
Intelligence Challenges Through 2015
United States Central Intelligence Agency

Future historians—if indeed any exist—will question the mental state of the people of this era.  Economic and population growth was held sacrosanct even as resources were polluted and depleted.  Entire regions began suffering from drought but at the same time plutocrats pushed for more expansion while the oil and gas mafia injected precious underground water supplies with highly poisonous chemicals thus ensuring even those reserves could not be used.  Even the CIAs report above is not without its underlying political softballs.  Note that the document states that water is “globally abundant” and that shortages will only occur over there…you know in far off places like Africa and South Asia.  But a quick look at places nearby like South Texas tells a different story.  At this very moment politicians, bureaucrats and “developers” are in a state of panic.  Water reserves are critically low and some communities are now saying they will not be able to provide water this coming summer.  This is not an oddity.  Other places in the United States are also seeing looming water crises.  In South Texas most of the water comes from the Rio Grande that marks the border between the US and Mexico.  But the Rio Grande’s water shed occurs mainly in Mexico and thus the United States is dependent on its southern neighbor to release water into the river.  This is according to an international treaty stating that over periods of time Mexico must discharge water from its reserves into the Rio Grande so that the people of South Texas can have water for their cities and industries.  Of course we should keep in mind that the United States has either violated or ignored many treaties that did not serve its best interests and Mexico has been the victim of this tactic in decades past.  As one letter writer recently told me, “What goes around comes around.”  But you see Mexico is also experiencing an acute water crisis.  In fact, Mexico’s water reserves are even lower now than in the United States.  And according to the water sharing treaty Mexico still has two years before it must comply with its part of the deal.  In other words, even though the politicians, bureaucrats and “developers” are panicked there isn’t much they can do other than whine and perhaps threaten.  Mexico is completely within its rights to hold onto its water reserves for two more years.  But, of course, this type of situation has been predicted for a long time.  A perspicacious few have been telling folks in South Texas for decades that they should be less reckless and instead initiate serious water conservation measures.  The mindset however has always been to install water conservation ordinances when things are critical but to quickly abandon those ordinances the minute the water situation rebounds.  But here are some frightening facts.  The two large reservoirs that hold water along the Rio Grande in South Texas can go from high to extremely low in less than a year given current demand.  Nonetheless, the business community and their politicians can be likened to the sinner who begs for mercy when in a tight spot but quickly goes back to his evil ways when things improve.

Here are some more facts: American intelligence community reports predict that wars are going to be waged over water shortages.  It will no longer be a matter of who has the great oil reserves but instead who has water.  Consider this: If you were a kid growing up in the United States in the 1960s the population was about 165 million people.  Today the US population is over 300 million and some are saying its closer to 350 million.  By the way, for all of you young “bushcrafters” out there who are going to the woods to make feather sticks, baton pieces of wood and otherwise partake of the wilds I’ve got some very bad news.  There ain’t any wild left…at least not in the contiguous 48 states!  In fact, what you perceive of as wild is in reality just a sort of playground where you can go and pretend.  Fifty years ago there were less than half the people on this land than there are now.  Your perceived wilderness experience is what those living a half-century ago called a picnic at the city park.  Add to that resources are depleting at light speed!  While some are frenzied over buying another knife or axe or piece of high-tech camping gear maybe it would be better if they made do with less and thus stopped participating in the rape of nature.  Just a thought but what I see in so many forums and “bushcraft/camping” blogs is nothing more than buy, buy, buy and more buy.  If people living 100 years ago could suddenly come to life I guarantee you they would take one look around and immediately conclude that everything has already fallen apart.  But here’s one more thing to imagine: Did you ever see the guy who runs out in front of the lemmings as they scramble headlong towards the cliff?  Well, just in case you’ve never seen that then let me tell you what happens.  The poor fool is waving his hands and yelling as loud as he can and the lemmings just keep coming and coming and then they make a mad dash around him and just then the man whips around to see the lemmings as they run (each and every last one of them) off the cliff and into the great abyss below.