Those of you who own dogs know they have their own special language. You know when a dog is just yapping because it’s happy. You recognize an alarm bark meaning that there is an intruder around. You also know that special bark meaning there is extreme danger close by. There are other barks and yesterday my dogs started up with their super excited bark. So I looked out the window and saw a raccoon treed in a mesquite. Watch the video for the rest of the story.
Saturday, January 26, 2013
I have mentioned before that people who come out to my cabin in the woods say things like, “This is so isolated.” Most people add that it’s nice living surrounded by nature but I can tell they wouldn’t trade city life for the way I live. After all, living in a city has its conveniences and once people get used to them it becomes hard if not impossible to leave. Some people fanaticize about living the way I do but I think it’s more metaphorical than real. A fellow I knew always said he wanted to live in a cabin in the woods but it was a symbolic wish and not fact. He lives in a big city and never made any real attempts to leave. But of course, this has a lot to do with the way people think. We all dream of a life without problems. The classic image of that idea is the cabin in the woods. Add to that the desire many people have of leaving their current situations and escaping to a world that is perfect or at least a whole lot better. The cabin in the woods is perhaps the corporeal embodiment of that wish. Religions and certain institutions and organizations play up that human fantasy and stoke people's anxieties about the way their lives are evolving. End of the world dramatics, conspiracy theories, doomsday scenarios, us against them hysteria…people are shoveled that sort of theatre on a daily basis. Live in a city and day-of-reckoning mania can become a lifestyle. I dropped in at a gun shop last week when I went to town to buy supplies and the walls were bare, the shelves were gathering dust, and the clerks looked like they were in a state of panic. “Business must be good,” I said. To which one of the clerks said, “Haven’t you heard? They [the quintessential “they”] want to destroy us….” I smiled and replied, “Well, business still looks very good.” But my remark didn’t seem all that important. After all, we’re talking about taking to the hills, living off the land, heading to the boonies….Bugging OUT!! Oh, the fun of it all. When the Mayan Calendar thing fizzled (As it turned out the Mayan’s just ran out of stones to chisel and the guy who wrote the calendar was about to retire and take his pension and nobody else wanted the job)….but anyway, a whole lot of people were sorely disappointed. Not the least of which were the folks who run The History/Discovery Channels who had to scurry around looking for a new crisis to exploit. But then here comes The Walking Dead! A classic depiction of good versus evil where the good guys can indeed blow the living (oops, wrong word) sh*& out of the bad guys and still get past the censors. It’s the great dream come true, at least on TV, where we take to the road living off our wits, facing evil and getting to annihilate it. And at the same time we’ve got the bathroom a few steps away, the refrigerator is buzzing and full of goodies, the air-conditioner is blowing cool air into the room and later on we can take to our favorite forum and poke keys for hours about the details of the most recent show. Ah yes, the modern day cabin in the woods. Now I too have to make my plans but in my case that means make my lists. A spiral notebook close at hand because when things come to mind I’d best jot it down quick or I’ll forget it and a 140 mile round trip gets expensive (and time consuming) and when I forget to get something all I can do is think, Why didn’t you jot it down on the list? Things must be coordinated. Grocery store, hardware store, doctor’s appointment, other odds and ends. I cracked a tooth recently and when I’d crunch down on that tooth a pain jetted into my upper jaw past my ear into my brain and exited out the top of my head. I went to my dentist a few weeks later and he said, “Arturo, it’s like a crack in the windshield. At first you can’t see it but it grows and grows and starts working its way across the glass. Your tooth is cracking and it will be painful but let’s wait because the crack will work its way through the tooth and in a few weeks you’ll be chewing something and maybe hear a click and find part of your tooth has fallen off.” Well, he was absolutely right. That’s just what happened. But I couldn’t call up and drop in to see him the next day. Not living way out here. Besides, if I’m going to run into town for every little thing then what’s the point of living the way I do? So I waited nearly a week until my appointed time to go to town and on that day my old friend looked at my tooth and asked, “Is it hurting?” To which I said, “Not anymore.” So he said, “You know this is a really clean break. You’re lucky. Let’s just leave it as is.” So, of course, I was quite pleased and off I went to run all the other errands on my list. You see that’s part of the reality of living in a cabin in the woods. Yes, there is a garden and there are tons of birds all around to watch and I’ve got deer and hogs out back. For some people that’s what it’s really all about: They just want to hunt and trap and fancy themselves Jeremiah Johnson. But in some ways that’s a rather hedonistic attitude. Besides, I don’t have much of a taste for red meat anymore and so I don’t hunt although I would if I were really hungry. I do like to fish. The saltwater bay is 100 miles or thereabouts east of here and now and then I’ll mosey over that ways to drop a hook. But that’s not very often so I abide by my list and take to the road about every two weeks and in the interim I….just live. Yeah, that’s it. I write and tinker around in my workshop and take my dogs for long walks and sit on my porch and bird watch and at night look up at the stars. I make hook knives and crooked knives and other woodcarving knives and sell them to carvers and now and then I’ll forge a big knife I call a Woods Roamer Knife; and I’ll send articles out for publication and other editorial related endeavors. Ah, the beauty of using pen names. Especially if you enjoy privacy and living in a cabin in the woods. But for every place—and this you must take to heart—there is a downside. I miss my boys who live so far away. Of course, many people in the cities have their grown children far away too. Lucky are those who have family close by. But I can’t drop in on people to chat like those in a city and I think about that sometimes. Fortunately, I’m of the type who prefers working on various projects and who writes and who is a voracious reader and prefers a contemplative lifestyle. I think that’s essential for anyone who wants to go beyond the fantasy and actually live in a cabin in the woods. A fellow who lives nearby moved here from the city and became miserable within a few months. He looks for any excuse to drive into town 65 miles away and I’ve been told he will sometimes take the long trip stay a few hours and return and then after another while he will hop back in his car and take another trip into town. He will invent any excuse to go to the city. He complains incessantly about living out here and so people generally avoid him. It’s sad, actually. A lady told me not long ago that she asked him why he wants to be so miserable. But he used the opportunity to complain a bit more and then walked off. I wonder if someone like that would be the same if they lived in the city. Maybe not and it seems to me, based on what I’ve read, that longstanding depression can affect a person’s behavior in the sense they become aggressive, hostile, impatient and grumpy. But here’s the point: We can think of living in the woods on two levels. We can think of it as a literal experience or a figurative lifestyle. In the latter sense anyone can live in a cabin in the woods if they are sufficiently strong in character and will. Those who must live their lives through the eyes of others need not apply. They are forever at the mercy of trends and fashion and propaganda and that need (which can become pathological) to fit in with the crowd. So you see it is a matter of mental attitude although the more introverted, contemplative and analytical have a decided advantage. Ask yourself this question: Do I draw energy from crowds or do crowds wear me out? And then ask yourself: After being in a crowd do I often need time alone to recharge my batteries? If you answered that crowds tend to wear you out and you need to be alone and recharge your battery after being in a crowd then you can find that cabin in the woods no matter where you live. You can learn to be less self-indulgent, less hyper-consumptive, more contemplative and less prone towards living your life in accordance with the masses. Whether in the city or way out in the woods it is your attitude towards yourself and others that steers the course of your life. Remember that how you feel about yourself will determine to a great degree how you feel about others and the world around you. Witness the people who are constantly trying to show off and grab attention and who shop incessantly and must drive a fancy car because it’s really all about impressing others. But truth is that nobody but the most frivolous is impressed by those sorts of people. And in the end it all comes to nothing. They wasted their lives in pursuit of what is essentially unobtainable: Unlimited admiration and worship. Maybe someday you will indeed get to live in an actual cabin in the woods. Understand that it’s not the place you live that matters but the way you view life. A man can live far removed from everyone and be miserable. Note the fellow I told you about earlier. A person can live in the inner city and be quite content—not because of the things all around but because of the mental perspective that person has mastered. We live in an increasingly complex world. A man moves to the woods and builds his cabin and along comes the Oil and Gas Mafia and drills a hole and “fracks” the underground and ruins the man’s water supply and his quiet place in the woods becomes a nightmare. This has happened and is happening to many people right now. All things have their downside and it does not look like it will get better. More to come.
Thursday, January 17, 2013
I might walk in the woods for an hour or two and never resort to anything other than the canteen slung over my shoulder. A pleasant walk, quiet contemplation, and then I’m back relaxing on my cabin’s porch listening to pauraques and great-horned owls welcoming the night. My walks are usually near sundown but occasionally it’s a morning walk. It depends on the time of year and the weather. In South Texas not many people venture out under the noontime summer. Likewise, I recall living in Michigan and during winter there were days when even a short jaunt to the St Joseph River a mile from campus was dangerous. Once I fell through the ice up to my thighs in 10° Fahrenheit with a wind chill of zero. The walk back to the dorm was torturous. That was a long time ago and these days I make a habit of always carrying some essential items in my pockets. Mind you, these items are not in a bag draped over my shoulder or dangling from a carabineer. They are snug in my pockets. I seldom use them except for one item; nonetheless, these things are on me and available if need be.
I carry two pocket knives. One is a Swiss Army Knife “field-master” model and the other a Case carbon steel in the trapper configuration. Occasionally I’ll switch the trapper for a canoe model. I also carry a pocket diamond sharpening stone, a butane lighter and a bandana. Those items go in my front pants pockets. Slipped into my back pocket is a small AA flashlight and the pocket is secured with a button. In my shirt pocket I’ll have a bottle of antibacterial lotion. In the woods antibacterial lotion is important especially if you get cut on a thorn or some other object.
I could carry other things like parachute cord or a compass or some sort of “bushcraft” knife. But I seldom carry those things, at least not in my pocket or on my belt. If you watch some of these YouTube videos you’ll see guys walking around with five or six pounds of stuff draped on their belts and in their pockets and….well, that’s up to them. A couple of years back a fellow showed up to go woods roaming with me and he had all kinds of gear hanging onto him. Like a walking bushcraft magazine advertisement. There was so much jingling and tinkling emanating from this guy it was driving me nuts. So I politely asked him if he might shed some of his paraphernalia. He didn’t look very pleased but when I explained it was making too much racket and would spook the animals he agreed.
The above things go into my pockets glued to my body so-to-speak. I don’t ever want to get separated from those items. The SAK is essential because of its saw blade. I might find occasional use for some of the other SAK tools but the saw is the key item. I use the Case carbon steel folder because it keeps its edge and I use it like others might use a fixed bladed bushcrafty knife. I don’t go around batoning things. In South Texas we don’t baton wood all that much. Mainly you just find a rotting piece of dry mesquite, make sure there are no scorpions or black widows using it for a house, and then slam the dried mesquite hard on the ground. It will break up and walla! you’ve got firewood. Mainly, the Case trapper is used for making trigger mechanisms on hog traps or for impromptu whittling. The bandana is vital for all things applicable to bandanas not the least of which is wiping away perspiration. Most of all that little flashlight is a lifesaver. That’s the one item I invariably use because I can never manage to get back to la casita before nightfall. Been doing that all my life and have no plans to change. That habit drives some people crazy. A long time ago I took one of my relatives hunting and I put him in a deer blind and said, “Keep quiet” and then I moseyed off into the woods to find a spot where a buck had been messing around. Well, as the sun went down I started hearing all sorts of shooting like a war was going on. It was coming from the direction of the deer blind where my cousin was supposed to be sitting still. So I started moving as quickly as I could toward The Mighty Hunter and he was still shooting. “What the hell is going on?” I kept wondering. Now earlier I’d heard a bunch of coyotes wailing it up in the direction of the deer blind and that’s always a great thing to hear. But my relative (who was carrying a Ruger Mini-14) didn’t appreciate the falsetto wailing of coyotes. No sir. He went to blasting and just shooting off in every direction like a wild man. When I arrived at the blind about thirty minutes after sunset I got an earful.
“Where were you…you *#&(&*%!!
“I was hunting.”
“Didn’t you hear all those coyotes?”
“I was surrounded.”
“But you were safe in a deer blind. And besides, those coyotes weren’t going to hurt you.”
“They were everywhere! And I was….”
Well, the story goes on but I’d best end it here. Later on down the road I’ll post more about the things I carry when woods roaming.
Monday, January 14, 2013
Even experienced woods roamers can get turned around on occasion. Perhaps they are busy following a set of animal tracks or maybe preoccupied trying to identify a bird or simply hiking along a twisting trail. And then they spot a set of footprints and realize those prints belong to…Me! There is always a moment of thinking, No way...This can’t be me. But just as quickly reality sinks in and the wanderer realizes that she or he has walked in circles. It’s at this point that people can go from being turned around to getting lost. What you do in those few moments after discovering that you are turned around will determine whether or not you calmly readjust your internal calibrations or go straight to being utterly lost. It’s a weird feeling realizing you are not where you thought you should be. It’s even more bizarre if you begin thinking that you are suddenly helpless. But allow me to make a comparison: If you are in a city trying to get from one place to another and you take the wrong road and get turned around you generally don’t panic or even feel particularly lost. You are perhaps accustomed to these temporary episodes of navigational disorientation and you simply recalculate. If you are carrying one of those GPS devices that talk to you the voice may indeed say, “Recalculating.” So you wait a second and sure enough the voice comes back and tells you which way to go. But in the woods (assuming you’re not carrying a GPS device) you may not be aware of your navigational error. By the way, I knew a fellow who went hunting in Montana and he got lost. He had opted to buy a high-tech direction-finding gadget. Only problem was that he dropped the device into a gully and when he studied his compass he still wasn’t able to find his way out. He panicked and had it not been for two hunters who happened by he would probably have spent a night or two listening to owls and chattering teeth. Years ago I found a man (or what was left of him) who had gotten lost and he too was carrying a compass. But though compasses are handy they only tell you direction. They provide no information about terrain nor do they come with any sort of tranquilizing materials to soothe frayed nerves. That, my friends, is something you must learn to control on your own. You should also learn to find your directions without the aid of an artificial device. Lose the device and you are sunk.
When turned around in a city you might look off and see a large building you’re familiar with and use that as a direction guide. You can also pay attention to street signs. In the woods you can study the sun’s movement or if near sundown find your general directions via the setting sun. Remember, however, that during the winter the sun sets further south in North America and in mid-summer the sun sets further north. But please note the underlying requirement in either of the above two suggestions. You must stand still and not do anything. Please take that advice literally. If you find that you are turned around then don’t move. Don’t wander off because you will gain nothing by the endeavor. Just stand where you are and start recalculating. Here are some tips:
Listen for noises that might help you determine direction. For example, if you have heard vehicle sounds or maybe a pump or any other sort of mechanical device then orient on that to help you understand where you are in relation to the noise. If the noise was north of you and now it comes from behind you then north is to your back. This might get confusing if you are in the mountains where sounds echo and can be deceptive. Nonetheless, aberrant noises can help you to find your direction.
As in the city take note of large land masses or in some cases artificial structures like radio towers or even contrails from established airline routes. A fellow I know told me about getting lost years ago in Nevada. Night came and he was still lost in the desert. He rounded a knoll and in the distance saw a pulsating radio tower that he knew was near a town he was familiar with. On the ground he marked out an arrow indicating the direction of that faraway blinking red light. The next morning he took note of the arrow in the dirt and although the direction felt all wrong to him he decided to follow it. He made note of boulders and hills in the distance and went from point A to point B and after a few hours he reached a dirt road.
The key to all of this is remaining calm. Panic will in this case, harm you. By the way, panic in nearly all other cases does nothing to you. Don’t fear panic. In fact, revel in its occurrence and it will have less of an effect on you afterwards. Only when you fear panic are you at its mercy. When you decide that it will not control you nor interrupt your life it will begin to abate. Everyone, or nearly everyone, experiences panic at one time or another in their life. But remember that panic is never going to hurt you but with one exception and that’s when you are suddenly turned around in the woods. At that moment you must force yourself to sit down and do nothing. If you are afraid then think of the time you were at the beach and the waves began brushing against you. A wave would come and build and build and then suddenly it was gone. That is all that panic in the woods can do. It will build like a wave and then be gone. Sit still and recalculate. If you are carrying a compass then study it. But also study the direction the clouds are moving and as well the movements of the sun. In some areas the prevailing winds are an excellent indicator of direction. In South Texas, for example, winds usually come from the southeast off the Gulf of Mexico. Stop and feel the wind. Face the wind and you are facing southeast. In your part of the world there are similar phenomena. Learn about them and study them and always remain alert to your surroundings. And the next time you are turned around you will do nothing more than smile and, in fact, you might even relish the experience. You will realize that you are simply human and were so engaged in enjoying the woods you failed to note that you were going in circles. Stop and recalculate. Nature is beautiful.
Sunday, January 13, 2013
At the end of the Pleistocene (about ten thousand years ago) the great ice sheets were retreating north across what is now Texas. The lands along The Rio Grande (or Rio Bravo if you live in Mexico) were at the time a mixture of dense riparian forests and vast stretches of mixed woodlands spanning north and south. Prehistoric people had dwelled in the area for at least one-thousand years camping along waterways. They trapped with snares and deadfalls and by funneling animals into enclosed areas; and they hunted using a simple catapult-like tool called an atlatl. The atlatl is an implement best suited for group use against animals where hunters can surround their prey propelling the small spear-like “darts” into flesh until the animal succumbs to its wounds. Using an atlatl in densely forested areas is difficult since the tool must be swung upwards and then forcibly downwards in order to propel the dart forward. Anyone who has ever tried sneaking up on a deer in brush or forest land with an atlatl knows how difficult that is without alerting the animal to your presence. It wasn’t until the advent of the bow and arrow that lone hunters were able to successfully venture into the wilds in pursuit of game. The bow and arrow’s stealth enabled a hunter to dispatch an arrow at close range without alerting the animal. And yet, until that time trapping was the most successful means by which prehistoric people obtained meat. Traps came in all sizes but most were small designed for animals like rabbits, raccoons, and birds. A family band could set hundreds of traps in an area and successfully exploit the faunal population for food. I suspect that small traps were used more frequently since they could be easily made and spread over an area without expending too much energy. If local plants offered appendages useful for traps then all the better since that reduced energy outflow even more.
In the brushland and desert regions grow a group of plants ideally suited for small traps. Two of the plants are members of the family Rhamnaceae and the other plant belongs to the family Capparaceae. The first two are given the scientific names, Ziziphus obtusifolia (folk name, Lotebush) and Condalia hookeri (folk name, Brasil). The third plant is Koeberlinia spinosa (common name, Junco or Allthorn). Note: the word Junco is pronounced Hoon-Ko. The J is given an “h” sound. Years ago I was camped in the mountains of New Mexico and an oddly dressed pair walked up on my camp and began asking me about the birds I’d seen in the area. Just then a bird called a Junco lit close by. The pair were both dressed in identical khaki shirts and Bermuda shorts with knee socks and Aussie-style hats with turned up brims. They both had gold ascots and gold name-tags. Identical hiking boots and binoculars; they seemed like a nice and friendly pair if not a bit eccentric. The woman saw the Junco and said, “Look, a joon-co.” Without thinking I said, “Its pronounced hoon-ko, the J is given an “h” sound.” Well, that was not a good idea since they both obviously thought of themselves as hot-shot birders and how dare a kid living in a debris hut in the forest tell them how to pronounce a bird’s name. They smiled, turned around and walked off.
Both lotebush, brasil and junco can be used as spearing devices for small traps and oftentimes the branches are cut and used as the swing-arms for a trap without any further modification. Very simple and effective, the long spines (up to four inches long) will implant firmly into any animal that wanders into the trap. Most common trap forms include swinging arms moving either horizontally or vertically when the trip line is sprung. A spring driven branch of junco, lotebush or brasil will drive a number of spear-like thorns as if they were daggers into a small animal and hold it in place until the trapper arrives. Oftentimes, the animal is killed instantly.
Mesquite thorns above are long, sharp and strong (I've been stabbed by enough to know these things first hand) but they are not as prevalent on a stem to be sufficient for a good trap.
Tasajillo spines are mean but not strong enough for a trap. Still, the spines are used by nopal rats to line the entrance of their nests. This keeps intruders away. Each spine has a sheath that slips off and remains in the skin where it festers and can cause infection. Stay clear of this cactus.
I have used lotebush, junco and brasil for small traps over the years. Brasil has built-in barbs from off-shooting smaller thorns and is quite stiff. As a side note: brasil wood has a specific gravity of over 1.0 and thus is one of the hardest woods in the American Southwest. The thorns of these plants are long and vicious and you should always wear gloves when constructing a trap. I’ll post a video making a couple of traps when the weather outside calms down a bit. A blue norther is blowing through as I write these notes.