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When it comes to woodcraft any notion that meat knives are outdated is ill conceived.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  But let’s not dismiss the meat-knife as outdated just because some of us don’t fully understand its intrinsic value or realize that there are many people who still live close to the land.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.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Small Cast Iron Dutch Ovens as used in Mexican Jacales….

Dutch Ovens from Mexico nearly always have handles and that’s because they are often used in fireplaces built into mud and stick dwellings called jacales.  That’s pronounced ha-kahl-es; the singular is jacal (ha-kahl).  You need the handle in order to reach into the fireplace and extract the Dutch oven.  As a kid I’d spend summers and Christmas vacations at a remote ranch along the southern edge of the Brushlands that range from South Texas into the northeastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas.  In those days I slept in both cabins and jacales and dwelled amongst indigenous people who knew a thing or two about living off the land.

Lately, I’ve read articles on various “bushcraft” sites relating to long-term wilderness survival.  This is nothing new as I’ve been reading this sort of stuff for decades.  Back in the 1960s you had the commune movement where disenchanted youths (mainly from the cities) took to the wilds to live off the land.  Naïve, delusional, toked up…who knows but invariably they drifted back into the cities and rejoined society (whatever that means) and became active consumers like most everybody else.  In the 1970s came the “Survival Movement” with doomsday gurus like Mel Tappan and Ragnar Benson and a host of others who claimed the world was going to fall apart; and they offered methods to subsist in dire situations ranging from buying tons of guns to buying tons of supplies.  It reminds me of the saying from an old Robin Williams movie, “But there will always be mail order!”  After a while it became something tantamount to a circus.

Nearly 40 years later you’ve got a raft of TV shows with various actors, charlatans and sundry “personalities” and likewise a young crowd of what I assume is another round of frustrated city dwellers.  So the blogs and forums discuss amongst themselves the latest TV survival episodes and speak of heading into the wilds and living off the land.  And so it all just goes round and round…and round.  Remember that doomsday talk goes back even before the time of Jesus.  Eschatological narratives abounded and people were preparing for the “end times” and associated calamities over two-thousand years ago.  This is not to say that one cannot live in the woods.  Heck, I live in the woods.  But it's important to calculate realistically the number of sacrifices you need to make and understand that one must accept certain limitations. 

But in the remote areas of Mexico and other places where people don’t have electrical switches to turn on and off and H2O taps to open and toilets to flush and cars to cruise in or nearby supermarkets or even paved roads they have learned to indeed live off the land.  Lest some of you think this is an idyllic life or believe that you would be happier in this situation then rest assured the vast majority (let’s say 99.999%) would not be very content.  You see, the Survival Movement is perhaps more a metaphor for societal frustration and angst than it is for anything else even remotely coherent.  People indulge in the fantasy of getting away from it all and living secluded from the maddening crowd and the bureaucracy and from political disarray and the frenzied rush of city life.  Their musings are seldom analytical in that they do not calculate the logistics involved primarily in evaluating population dynamics, habitat scarcity and overall costs.  But what the heck: Most humans are propelled more by emotion than logic or reason.

Anyway, these people who inhabit jacales are able to live comfortably (and some would say that on a certain level they are living much better than the average hyper-consuming American) because they grew into it.  That is to say they learned the life of the woodcrafter from infancy.  I don’t care how much of an expert some people think of themselves because compared to these people who live in remote areas our so-called “experts” are nothing but trainees.

Experts at native plants, trapping, hunting, trailing and herbal medicine these remote region dwellers spend most of their time working the land around them.  They are not farmers in the sense that they have large crops.  But they do have gardens and small plots of maize and perhaps beans.  Without TV or even radio (they have no electricity) they heat their fireplaces with wood and they retreat to an outhouse when nature calls.  They live among wild creatures and sometimes catastrophes occur.  Someone might get bitten by a poisonous spider or maybe a venomous snake and no medical help is at hand.  Some might injure themselves.  When these things happen it often takes many hours to reach medical attention.  I recall a jungle campsite that took us two days to reach.  If anything happened to any of us we were toast.  That awareness makes one extra cautious.  I also remember a man who had diabetes and lived in an isolated jacal.  He was in his mid-30s and very ill; and on one of my trips to the area I learned he had died.

Beans are cooked in clay pots and tortillas are heated on cast-iron griddles like the one pictured above.  But just about everything else gets cooked or baked in a small Dutch oven.  We used to be able to cross into any Mexican border town and buy a Dutch oven or whatever else we might need but nowadays the violence in Mexico forbids any sort of casual jaunt over that way.

Mexican Dutch ovens have three pies or feet like most other Dutch ovens.  The two pictured above are a Number 10 and Number 12 measuring about 20.96 cm and 25.4 cm respectively.