Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Old Ranches and Memories....

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 11, 2013

Dragon's Blood....

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Classic Board Bow....

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

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

More testing. This bow has a handle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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