Saturday, June 29, 2013

Ranch Dogs....

On hot days and cold days and the days in between you’ll find a ranch dog on the front porch or maybe beneath the shade of a mesquite tree or even under the house if it can get there.  It’s an unhurried life.  Ranch dogs don’t know the meaning of a leash and there are no restrictions on things like pooping.  Besides, Southwestern ranches have their own pooper scoopers in the way of dung beetles that swoop in and roll everything to places unknown.

Ranch dogs spend their nights on alert.  In fact, ranch dogs prefer the night because that’s when the excitement begins.  One dog takes sentry on the back porch while another dog is at its post at the front door and dog number three meanders from the end of the driveway to the walk-around and all points in between.  When coyotes start howling in the distance ranch dogs join the chorus yodeling and whooping and sometimes singing.
Alla en el rancho grande, alla donde vivia
Habia una rancherita, que allegre me decia
Que allegre me decia….

                                            Oy on patrol

Ranch dogs come in two forms.  One type of dog stays close to the house always on guard.  Another sort spends its time roaming.  I’d probably belong to the second group if I was a dog but I appreciate the fact that my dogs stick around keeping me company.  The roaming dogs, however, can be a problem sometimes.  They get lost or hurt and sometimes they get shot by people who come from other places and don’t like seeing dogs on their deer leases.  Something along those lines occurred a few months back or at least that’s what one of my neighbors believes happened to her dogs.  Cisco and Bell were loving dogs and I enjoyed seeing them.  But they roamed.  One day they disappeared and rumor has it that some folks from the city shot them.  Maybe, maybe not.  I miss Cisco and Bell even though they didn’t belong to me.  They were good singers and could keep up with any coyote virtuoso.

Most ranch dogs belong to the mutt class.  Some are well fed while others look emaciated.  It all depends on who owns them.  Some dogs get a lot of petting and others never get paid any attention.  When I drive into the little town four miles south of here I pass by a house with five scrawny, underfed mutts that run out into the caliche road barking at my pickup truck.  I feel sorry for those dogs.  But there are three other dogs at another house I always like to greet.  Well-fed and obviously loved they’ll dash out barking as if ready to chew off one of my legs.  When they get to the gate I start talking to them.  “How is it going Alley Boy, Pepper, Shiner?”  The two males christen my pickup truck’s tires while the female circles me panting.  I started carrying treats in my truck and now when they see the truck they know snacks are at hand.

                                                       Maggie and Oy

This is thorn and sticker country so dogs need to have short coats.  A friend visited my cabin a couple of months back and brought his cocker spaniel with its long floppy ears and thick fur around its paws.  A beautiful dog but after a walk in the brush that poor animal was covered with burrs.

I love blue heelers but there are other breeds suitable for Southwestern ranchos.  A relative of mine just got a Catahoula Cur.  That breed comes in all sorts of different colors ranging from brindle to bluish to red to black and white.  It’s supposed to be a roaming dog and should be exercised.  My relative is not into exercising so I worried the dog would get itself into trouble.  But this Catahoula seems to hate walking as much as its owner so things look good.  I know a fellow who owns a couple of Rhodesian ridgebacks but I’m not very familiar with that breed.  I haven’t seen any Rottweiler’s, Dobermans or Pit Bulls around these parts.  Perhaps that’s a mindset not common to this region—at least not with the old timers who grew up in these parts.  Just like you’ll see more Winchester 94s than AR15s.  And more Colt single actions than you’d run into in other places.  You’ll see more slipjoint pocket knives too and dust-covered blue jeans, scruffy low-cut boots, sweat-brimmed hats and heavy cotton long-sleeved shirts.  And houses as well that aren’t built to impress as much as they are to be a home.  The dogs follow that line of thinking as well, or at least the types of dogs I’ve seen reflect that mindset.  Nobody feels the need to impress anyone else.  That ideation belongs in the city and folks out here don’t much care for cities.  Besides, those that want the city end up moving or they’re miserable which makes no sense because cities are always looking for more people.

The other day my son and I went woods roaming and the dogs stayed back at the cabin finishing their evening meals.  We’d hiked about half a mile when we turned and saw a spot in the distance coming towards us.  “It’s a dog,” my son said.  Sure enough, Oy had tracked us down and was running full speed.  When he got to us he was obviously excited.  We gave him some water and looked around to see if any of the other dogs had followed but it was only Oy.  He looked at us with this expression of “What’s going on guys?”

The next day I took Oy and Maggie walking and Maggie, as usual, had to explore the surrounding area.  But Oy stayed close by my side.  It was hot and as we headed back to the cabin Maggie decided to push ahead and was soon out of sight.  But not Oy.  Even as the light faded and the gloaming receded into darkness Oy stayed next to me.  When we got to the cabin the other dogs came out to greet us.  “Go get water,” I told Oy.  Afterward we sat on the front porch looking at the super moon rising above the eastern horizon.  I reached down and petted Oy and thought about how much he means to me.  As do all my dogs.  We’ve got a new addition to the pack named Little Boo.  We keep her inside because this land can pose real dangers to small dogs.  My friends Benito and Toni Treviño lost their Maltese-Poodle mix not long ago when they let it out for a few minutes at their ranchito and a rattlesnake struck.  You’ve got to be careful.

                                                            Little Boo

Now and then a wild hog or two will venture too close to the cabin and Maggie lets us know from her station on the back porch.  Oy will swing around and the barking gets fierce.  Pita will start barking too.  Sometimes long-distance-travelers get too close and the dogs go wild.  You see, ultimately that’s what a ranch dog does.  That’s their main job.  They protect the human component of the pack.  Fearless and brave and loving and a host of other things ranging from rambunctious to stubborn to patient and forgiving.  When one of them passes as did Chucha after being bit by a rattler or Chula and then Dingo after old age crept up on them there was a lot of sadness and even some tears.  You see a ranch dog is the quintessence of what a dog should be.  It is the truest expression of a dog.  Not to demean the perritos living in city houses or apartments.  They are loving and watchful and worthy of the best care.  But take those animals to the ranch and watch the metamorphosis occur before your eyes.  An instant connection to its lupine past.  Then your dog turns to you and you see true love in its eyes and you know you will never be abandoned.  The world might be falling apart around you with crazies and other assorted fanatics on the loose.  But when you’re with your dog all is good with the world.  That’s what a dog does.  Someone told me that a dog helps lower your blood pressure.  That’s true, I guess, sometimes, maybe.  Most of all a dog just lets you know you’re number one.  And hell, that’s good enough in my book.

                                                      Little Boo and Pita

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Kitchen Spoons....

A wooden kitchen spoon is one of those items that’s easy to make and saves the environment as well.  First, you don’t have to consume gasoline driving to the store to buy one.  Second, your spoon is produced locally from a small branch you just pruned in your yard.  The product is derived locally thus deleting the expense of manufacturing and transportation.  To make your spoon all you need is a sharp knife, a few grits of sandpaper and some food-safe mineral oil.

I make my own knives because I enjoy making things but you can purchase a knife at any number of places.  There are knives made specifically for woodcarving but you don’t necessarily have to go that route.  Any good quality carbon-steel pocket knife can be used to whittle out a spoon.  The main thing to remember is that the blade shouldn’t be too long.  I prefer a two or three inch blade.  Also, a Scandinavian or a hollow-ground knife is preferable to a convex grind in woodworking.

I used this knife to make the spoons. 

The kitchen spoons presented here are made from a local wood called Wright’s acacia (Acacia wrightii).  It is a somewhat brittle wood from a small tree that like its cousin the mesquite grows in twists and turns.  In other words, these small trees don’t like straight lines.

I used a pruning saw to cut the branch and then completed the work with one of my crooked knives.  Making the spoons took about an hour or perhaps a bit more.  The crooked knife allows you to shave the wood and therefore not a lot of work is needed with the sandpaper.  After shaping the spoons I went from 80 grit to 100 grit and then 150, 220, 340, 400 and finally 600 grit.  This makes for a smooth finish that takes the mineral oil well.  Rub on a thin coat of food-safe mineral oil and let it stand for about an hour.  Then wipe the excess oil off.  I also made a monster stirring spoon for my cousin who lives nearby so that Adela who works for her can stir boiling strawberry jam and not get scalded.  I should have taken a photo of that stirring spoon made from mesquite because it was beautiful.  It’s too late now because these pretty kitchen spoons start looking drab after they’ve been used.

Almost any sort of wood works but best check the wood you select to make sure it doesn’t have any toxins that might leach into whatever you’re mixing.

Making a stirring spoon is perhaps the easiest spoon to carve because it requires no bowl.  I use one of my hook knives to make the bowls in scoops and ladles.

If you’ve never made a spoon then may I suggest you start with a mixing spoon in order to accustom yourself to severing wood grains.  That’s another post but let me leave you with this recommendation.  Immediately after cutting your branch seal the ends with some sort of non-toxic wood glue.  This is important because on a small branch the inner core will usually begin cracking almost immediately.  We’ll talk more about making spoons in a later post.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Nopalito Knives….

The ideal prehistoric plant food provided three essentials.  First, the food needed to be available even during periods of drought.  Second, humans needed a plant that was multifaceted having various edible parts.  Third, it should exist in abundance so that humans facing other stresses would not fear the loss of that particular staple crop.  The indigenous peoples of the Southwest and other desert or semi-desert regions southward relied on a plant that provided all three requirements.  In fact, the nopal or prickly pear cactus (Opuntia sp.) was such an ideal plant food that overtime aspects of prehistoric cultures steered their myths and rituals towards ensuring abundant harvests.  After all, it was the prickly pear cactus that could sate the belly and mollify the mind.  The ripened fruit or tunas were edible as were the young pads called nopalitos.  And the juices from the nopal were fermented to produce a potent alcoholic drink.  (Note: The term nopalito is the diminutive form of the word nopal.)

South Texas prehistoric groups and bands relied heavily on the nopal because even when tuna and nopalitos were unavailable the thicker pads, though not as succulent, could be mashed, cooked and eaten thus averting starvation.

Read some of the anthropological literature related to South Texas and you might think the Indians that lived in this region ceased to exist long ago.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  As equally fallacious is the suggestion that their cultures were completely eliminated by the Spanish.  In fact, the descendants of those Indian groups live in South Texas today.  Erroneously referred to as “Hispanics” or “Latinos” these Native Americans have preserved many aspects of their former cultures.  Though their original names and languages have long been forgotten (This is perhaps the true story of lost roots.) the Native Americans of South Texas are still closely tied to many of their prehistoric food sources and they hold to myths and other beliefs ensconced in ideations developed thousands of years ago.

Like many other aspects of Native American culture and foods, nopalitos transcend the people who discovered them.  Like corn, potatoes, tobacco and chile piquin (Capsicum annuum) the nopal is now enjoyed throughout the country.

Deep South Texas has several nopal farms growing prickly pear sold at local grocery stores.  For many, however, the experience with nopalitos is a bit more traditional.  The first European settlers in the region, for example, learned from the indigenous people in the same manner that the Pilgrims learned from those living around them.  Thus harvesting nopalitos goes back generations.

In former times people carried small pocket knives with the primary function of harvesting the small prickly pear pads.  These knives are generally known as “pen pattern slipjoint” or folders.  They average about three inches in length and have two opposing blades.

Two well used nopalito knives from the J.R. Guerra collection.  Note that the bottom knife is the prized Kabar brand.

Most ardent nopalito harvesters swear by these little knives.  They are perhaps the perfect size for removing the tiny spines and ephemeral leaves of nopalitos.  The knives small size make them easy to carry and thus always available.

 Schrade Old Timer pen pattern knife I purchased in the early 1970s.  Carbon steel blades on this knife and the two knives pictured above produced razor sharp edges.

Another knife suitable for nopalitos is the muskrat pattern slipjoint.  I’ve used these knives as well but they are not as popular as the pen pattern.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Wild Tales from the Texas Brushlands and the Making of a Small Woods Roamer Knife

In the Southwest and particularly in the thorn and spine-ridden places called “brushlands” the need for proper cutting tools is oftentimes paramount.  These are unforgiving lands.  Unless immersed in the brush from an early age it is unlikely one ever becomes fully acclimated and “at home.”  There is no such thing as a casual jaunt into el monte.  And while many people journey to these regions to hunt or engage in various outdoor activities they are usually carefully monitored or looked after by seasoned guides.  This applies as well to folks who come to the brush from nearby cities.  Most of them drive or are driven from one place to another.  They frequently hunt from or are placed in “deer blinds” during the hunting season and they are usually kept a safe distance from the thickest brush.  Old woods rats (and there are not that many still around) can talk for hours about some tenderfoot or another who made trouble by getting himself snake bit or became a human pincushion or got lost or ran into a bunch of hogs and panicked.  One of the weirdest stories I ever heard was about a businessman who some years back went hunting on a ranch not too many miles from where I live.  The ranch owner, who himself was only minimally proficient in woodcraft, put the businessman in a deer blind and instructed him not to go wandering around because the brush was teaming with wild hogs.  Apparently, the would-be hunter had recently had a face-lift in Houston and his stitches had yet to be completely healed.  For whatever reason that the rancher never understood the man decided to get down from the blind and start poking around in the nearby brush.  Well, as predicted the fellow ran into a mess of hogs and panicked and loped wildly through the thorn brush.  In the process he ripped out most of the stitches on his face.  I remember the rancher saying, “That crazy son of a bitch looked like he’d been mauled by a cougar.  His face was a bloody mess and his clothes were covered with blood.  He had to go back to Houston and get his face put back together.  I guess some folks never learn.”

There are always stories floating around about people bending down to pick up mesquite firewood and being struck by a lightning bolt emanating from a scorpion’s stinger.  And then there are stories about people getting lost in the woods when they ventured away from the pickup truck to answer nature’s call.  One fellow not long ago told his guide he needed to use the bathroom and so the guide stopped the truck and told the man, “Just go beyond that nopal cactus yonder.”  The guide waited in the truck and after what seemed too long he got down and yelled out for el dude hunter and got no response.  So he uttered a few choice words and then set out to find the man.  Two hours later and two miles away the guide (now accompanied by several other sign cutters) found el dude hopelessly lost and ripped apart by thorns and spines.  He was suffering from heat exhaustion and thirst.  “Where’d you go?” asked the guide.  The man looked at him and with tears in his eyes said, “God sent you.”  The guide shook his head and answered, “Well it sure as hell looks like you found the devil out here.”

In the way-out-north-of-here people grab a backpack and head into the forest carrying their little “bushcraft” knife with its four-inch, Scandinavian grind blade and maybe a small ax and they make a neat camp and take a siesta on the ground and then sit enjoying nature.  And we are so jealous in the way-way-south of them where we dare never sleep on the ground lest a rattler or scorpion or pamorana ant or centipede or velvet ant cuddle up alongside and plant a big kiss on tu como se llama.

If you’ve kept track of this blog you’ve read about walking through the thorn brush and negotiating stands of nopal cactus and keeping eyes out for rattlesnakes and never venturing far without water and about the preference for longer blades than the four-inch classic bushcraft knife.  Without question, we prefer carrying machetes and pocket knives.  In fact, if you ask a local if he or she has ever heard of a “bushcraft knife with a Scandinavian grind” they will look at you and probably say something like, “Nope.”  But ask them their opinion about Latin American machetes compared to machetes made in other places and invariably they’ll start getting technical and say something like, “I prefer the Imacasa (or Tramontina, or Bellotto or Hansa) brand because of XW and Z.  And then they’ll lecture you about what blade length they prefer and why.  Ask them about pocket knives and you’ll get responses dependent on their level of woodcraft skills.  A real serious woods rat will probably be carrying a carbon steel slipjoint made by Case or Böker or maybe Queen.  You won’t see many of those hokey-pokey tactical numbers that urban folks carry.  After all, there’s really no need out in the deepest brush to whip out the knife with a one-hand opening while looking cool and mean.  Besides, woods rats tend towards the meticulous and contemplative.  And anyway it’s usually too hot to do otherwise.

I had a 12-inch Nicholson file that had been worked down to the pulp like an old man’s teeth after years of bruxism and so I decided to make it into a smaller Woods Roamer Knife.  My intention was to have something handy to whack off the thorns after cutting a branch to make whatever I might have in mind.  You must always whack off the thorns because everything has thorns—unless, of course, you want severe puncture wounds in your hands.

The handle is mesquite sap wood left large enough to provide a good grip.
Blade Length: 20.32 centimeters
Handle Length: 15.25 centimeters

The blade has a steep convex grind that couples blade edge integrity with whittling needs.

The smaller 12-inch mill file is also narrower in cross-section and thus a bit lighter weight than the larger Woods Roamer Knives made from 14-inch files.

The smaller Woods Roamer Knife placed alongside a larger Woods Roamer Knife.  Note: The black spot on the smaller knife is not a pin but a knot projection from the heartwood.

 Three Woods Roamer Knives: Two made from 14-inch mill files and the newbie made from the 12-inch Nicholson file.

P.S.: tu como se llama in South Texas usually refers to one’s backside.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Old Camargo Cannonball…and the story it tells

I see the moon cratered and pockmarked though in this case the sphere is solid iron and the story it tells hints at failed hopes and dreams.  Discovered in the late 1970s in a clay quarry by a man working a backhoe the old cannonball was buried in delta mud about six feet deep.  Ten pounds or thereabouts the projectile was fired within sight of the Rio Grande on a hot afternoon or perhaps it was at sunrise.  We will never know though history tells us that around the Mexican town of Camargo, Tamaulipas just south of Rio Grande City, Texas armies battled over the years for causes both complex and frivolous.  Today they battle as before with both bullets and bombs.

The oldest settlement along the Texas/Mexico border founded in 1749, Camargo was at the time a haven for Celtic Iberians who, as I have been told, wanted to put as much distance between themselves and the Spanish as possible.  Remember that Spain was but a small kingdom in the southern part of a peninsula called Iberia that itself was filled with competing kingdoms until 1492 when Isabella and Ferdinand consolidated the kingdoms into one country.  In the early 700s CE the Mediterranean kingdoms of Granada and Spain were overrun by Islamic Moors.  Castile was a kingdom caught in the middle of the Iberian Peninsula and thus the name “castle” for the fortresses built to protect the northern Celtic people from Moorish advancement.  In the north lay the Celtic kingdoms of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, Navarra et al, though only Asturias was spared any Moorish occupation.  Even so, Germanic influx via thousands of Visigoths saved much of the region from the Islamic invaders and it was the children of these German-Celts who migrated to the New World and settled in the land now known as northern Tamaulipas and northeastern Nuevo Leon.  Today the territory is occupied mainly by people of Native American decent but there are still a few who can trace their genetic ancestry to those earliest settlers.

Perhaps more than anything the cannonball tells a story of ephemeral peace.  What tranquility those Celtic settlers may have found was in time destroyed by politics, geography and clashes of culture.  Today the town of Camargo is but a vestige of its former times.  Mexican drug cartels have taken over and though the media seems oblivious to the horrors occurring on the US/Mexico border the residents of South Texas and Northeastern Mexico know all too well how war ravages not only families and communities but also trust.  In my next report I will tell you about a US narcotics task force called “The Panama Unit” that was found to be corrupted to the core.  Members of the task force were involved not only in taking bribes from the cartels but also in smuggling and distributing narcotics themselves.  This is a report you will want to read.

Images of Camargo, Tamaulipas, Mexico