Monday, March 24, 2014

Taking Advantage of Free Greens....

We’ve become a society wedded to the supermarket.  In fact, most Americans, even if given the opportunity, are not interested in learning to forage or studying the native edible plants around them.  If it doesn’t come wrapped in cellophane or if it’s not piled in the bin at the produce section of the grocery store then Americans won’t eat it.  The likelihood of pesticide residue or E-coli or salmonella contamination does not deter the American shopper either.  Push the shopping cart along the aisle where fruits and vegetables are displayed and then pick what you need.  That’s the American way.  Yes, some Americans grow gardens but not many.  Fewer still will ever forage for edible plants.

 This past weekend some people came to visit and while they were here the topic of edible native plants came up.  I told them that within 200 feet of where we were sitting grew between twelve and fifteen edible plants.  The typical look of surprise swept over their faces as did the subtle expressions suggesting they wouldn’t eat the plants even if they knew how to identify them.  They wanted to walk in the woods and go camping and take pictures and look at birds.  They brought their fancy camp stoves and super duper ultra-lightweight tents and all the latest gear as advertised in Camping Yonder Magazine and lavishly reviewed in a raft of outdoor and hiking blogs.  They wore the latest in camping fashion and hiking boots.  All except for one of them that is.  She wore blue jeans and a gray cotton shirt and she wanted to see the plants. Then she asked if she could taste them.  So I said: “We’ll pick some fruit and some greens and we’ll cook the greens along with some tender cuts of wild hog.  Her friends set off with all their gear and packets of freeze dried, salt-ridden polymono-saw dust and we stayed to forage and eat what had just come out of the ground and off the hoof.

 She’d heard of stinging nettle or ortegia as it’s called locally.  And she was honest and forthright enough to ask me if it would be safe.  I said, “When we cook it the formic acid and serotonin and the other chemicals will be neutralized and what we’ll have are tender greens loaded with vitamins and minerals.”

I’ll not go into the details of Urtica dioica, the stinging nettle or ortegia.  There are a thousand articles and posts in other places with recipes and the like.  But I will suggest you harvest the younger leaves for the best taste and always wear gloves when you’re picking the leaves.  Let me mention as well that around these parts the roots of ortegia have been used for various urinary tract conditions like benign prostatic hyperplasia.  Ortegia can be steamed, boiled, made into tea and added to juices.  But always after it’s been rendered safe by heat, i.e., boiling.

 We sat on the porch and ate our greens, and broiled strips of pork and a few other things that I’ll talk about in the next few posts.  Who knows, maybe I’ve helped generate the makings of a forager and native plant aficionado.  Time will tell.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Variations on the Apache Foot Snare

The Apache Foot Snare was presumably designed to catch large animals like deer.  As depicted on a number of websites and survival manuals it consisted of a hole about two feet deep and four inches in diameter that was ringed by a number of wooden spikes either pushed directly into the ground or affixed to a loop made from either vines or braided cordage.  A small snare was laid on top of the hole over the stakes.  The object was to catch a deer’s leg when it stepped into the hole.  In theory, the spikes either force the deer to fight to free itself thus ensnaring its leg, or the loop with spikes attaches to the leg and when the deer extracts its leg from the hole it pulls the snare upwards and the deer is trapped.  But it has always seemed to me that both designs are flawed—at least as depicted in various photos.  Given the region that the Apache roamed it would seem easier solutions to this trap were readily available.

Koeberlinia spinosa

Ziziphus obtusifolia

Condalia hookeri

All three of the thorny hardwoods pictured above are located within the Apache’s former range from South Texas westward into New Mexico and the Mexican states of Coahuila and Chihuahua.  These plants have thorns ranging in length from about four inches in the case of Condalia (brasil) and Ziziphus (lotebush) to nearly eight inches in Koeberlinia (junco; hoon-koh).  Admittedly, these are dangerous plants to handle.  So here is my disclaimer: This post is for historical reference only.  Do not try this at home.  What do they say on the TV show, Myth Busters?…I’m a professional blah, blah, blah, or something to that effect.  Okay, now that we got past all that let me continue:  Some of the photos of Apache Foot Snares are laughable.  Spikes pushed directly into the ground will either work free when the deer steps into the hole and the overlaid snare will be shoved farther into the hole or will have no effect whatsoever.  And the spikes secured to a ring of vines or cordage will not have enough spring tension to hold onto the deer’s leg.  In other words, neither type snare is going to work…unless a spring device is attached to the snare via a spring-pole or other apparatus that will snap the snare backward when the deer steps into the hole.

It’s conceivable that the Apache used spring poles; and if they wanted their traps to be effective I presume they would have opted for something along those lines.  However, it seems more likely they would have simply cut a few branches of junco, lotebush or brasil and then carefully (very carefully) wound them into a tight circle that they then slowly inserted into the hole.  In this case a hole of two feet would be minimum.  A hole of about 30 inches would be preferred.  The spiraling ring of thorns is the same length as the hole.  It is pushed all the way to the bottom of the hole but extra care must be taken that none of the long thorns stick into the sides of the hole as that would impede the thorns ability to snag onto the deer’s leg.  The thorns must all face towards the middle of the hole.  When the deer steps into the hole the thorns catch onto the leg and when the deer attempts to yank its leg out of the hole it brings the entire ring of thorns upward with it.  The snare (made from any number of materials) will then snag tightly onto the deer’s leg because the mass of thorns will not allow the snare to slip off.

And that’s how I think the Apache Foot Snare really worked.  Surely, I’m not the first person to come up with this idea.  I’ll bet some perspicacious Apache or a member of some other tribe had that idea a few thousand years ago.  Now remember that snaring deer is illegal and I’m only discussing a hypothetical topic here.  But so many bits of advice printed in various “survival manuals” and depicted on any number of TV shows are simply concepts passed from one person to another with little thought as to their feasibility.  I submit that the Apache Foot Snares seen on YouTube and other places aren’t going to work as effectively as their makers claim.  I think the Apache figured those things out many centuries ago.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Blogging from the Deep Woods & the Itinerant Life of a Nature Freak and Knife Hack....

A look from my back porch as dawn breaks behind me.  Last night two great-horned owls hooted in the woods pictured and several pauraques whistled until far past midnight….

Trying to keep a blog going while living in the woods is not without its problems.  There’s the availability of suitable Internet connections, for one.  And then there are the logistics of keeping a homestead going and still finding enough daylight to write blog posts.  You see, it’s not as if we have the complete array of conveniences available to those living in towns or cities.  For example, we must supply our own water, take care of our own garbage, defend ourselves (we have no access to immediate police protection this far into the woods), and also keep watch for the ever-present dangers that might precipitate medical emergencies.

Over the last few days we’ve been busy drilling a new water well.  While nowhere near as hectic as building a house in the backwoods, the process of digging a well in this locale is still problematic.  It’ll be another week before we can switch over to the new water source assuming there are no “events” in between that slow the process.  This morning my son and I were up at dawn preparing the pad where we’ll place a large storage tank.  We also needed to fill a 200 gallon holding tank for the well driller to use.  As I write these notes I can hear the rumble of his drilling machine about 200 feet from the house.

Winds are blustering through as another norther whips overland.  I’m grateful for the winter we’ve had.  In the last ten years we’ve experienced very little resembling winter and though we’re still suffering from a severe drought there have been some nice periods of rainfall which means this year we’ll have abundant wildflowers.  Last spring the entire region ranged from khaki brown to burnt umber with nary a flower in sight.

There are tens of thousands of blogs and it’s presumptuous for me to think that I have anything noteworthy to say to anyone.  What, after all, does a desert rat share with a society that is essentially urban, glued to television, infatuated with consumption, politically partisan, conservative, liberal, and otherwise so removed from the life I live as to either abhor it or romantically idealize it?  But perhaps the one who’s actually been educated in this blog is not you but me.  My contemplations on bushcraft, nature preservation and low-impact living are indeed subjective and perhaps a bit esoteric.  You see, I’m one of those oddballs who thinks we ought to fight (as in fight!) to save nature.  In other words, nature preservation is a really big deal for me.  I also view the subjects of bushcraft and low-impact living as both compatible and even synergistic.  That last statement is worthy of an entire blog post or perhaps even a book-length manuscript and perhaps I’ll tackle it someday.  Let it suffice to say here that bushcraft is far less invasive of nature than the process of mining, manufacturing and transporting materials across the world so that some na├»ve camper can “leave no trace” when he ventures into his favorite piece of woods.  Oh how I love stirring the pot.

I am a student of population ecology.  I’ve concluded, based on my analysis of the data, that we humans have far surpassed our maximum carrying capacity.  That makes certain issues like exponential human population growth and unrestrained immigration critically important.  This, however, is a good example of where political ideologies and economic “theories” collide headlong with science, particularly biology and above all nature preservation.  Let it suffice to say here as well that we cannot cram more and more people into any box without suffering some sort of cataclysmic event.  This is a non-refutable truth.  But in the world beyond my deep woods enclave emotions steer the boat far more than empirical evidence.  We are therefore stuck in a political and “market driven” climate that ignores biological realities.  Perhaps we’ll also stir the pot on this subject a bit more down the road.

Your emails and blog stats have taught me a lot about your personal interests.  Take knives for example.  Don’t get me wrong: I really like knives.  But it’s not the alpha and the omega for me.  I’m not a knife collector nor am I one of those who dreams knives.  I enjoy making knives and, in fact, I’ve got a number of knife projects in queue.  So in that sense I collect my own knives.  None of these knives are for sale.  Please understand that I am honored and deeply grateful for the dozens of requests I’ve had for one of my knives.  But it would become a chore—a genuinely stressful chore—if I had to go out to the shop to build knives for people.  And besides, I don’t want to deal with the litigious aspects of selling dangerous handmade tools nor am I all that gung-ho about spending long hours around metal dust.  I take all the necessary precautions from respirator to eye and ear protection but it’s still a risk.  So I make knives as I please and there is no pressure doing it that way.  If I want to make a knife then I make a knife.  Otherwise, I have gobs of knives on hand from crooked and hook knives to skinning knives to the large Woods Roamer knives and I could stop making them today and still have enough for my great-grandchildren to use.

A Few of My Crooked Knives

Woods Roamer Knives

My life in the woods, however, has taught me that though a knife is a nice tool to have it’s not really of maximum importance in a survival situation.  The fact that so many “survival experts” make the claim that a knife is the paramount item to possess is based, I believe, on repetition and not actual experience.  Yes, give me a knife and I’m very content.  But your classic “bushcraft knife” is not the knife I would prefer to have on hand if I were in a “survival situation.”  I’ll take a machete in desert or tropical regions and a small axe in the northern latitudes over any four-inch, Scandi-ground etc. etc. blade.  My second cutting tool would be a pocket folding knife.  Just remember that humans lived without any steel knives for about 40-thousand years.  And they managed to survive.  Also recognize that owning a knife does not bestow expertise.  I know a couple of fellows who own dozens of expensive bushcraft knives and neither one knows much about the woods other than how to make feather-sticks and scrape a blade over a ferrocerium rod.  I did, however, teach one of them how to make a fire using a bow-drill.  That’s all good to know but bushcraft is far more than making fire with sticks.

My next post, by the way, is on variations of the Apache Foot Snare.  I think you bushcraft types will find it interesting.  I’m going to discuss the way I think the Apache Foot Snare was really made…or should’ve been made.  And one more thing: We’ll keep this blog going a bit longer if you’d like to know more about Brushland and Southwestern bushcraft and nature preservation.  A lot more things on native plants and ethnobotany too….So keep in trouch.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Naturalist's and Bushcrafter's New Year

Blogging has taught me a few things about myself, the land around me and people in general.  Unless you’re trying to make money off a blog (and there’s nothing wrong with that) then there’s no reason to write about anything that you don’t find interesting.  If you’re passionate about a subject then it will probably be the main impetus of your blog; otherwise, the blog will fizzle quickly.  As you might have gathered over the last few years my passion is nature.  It’s not about buying things for camping or hunting but instead about living in the woods quietly and peacefully.  Yes, I like knives and bows and arrows but I make my own instead of buying them with the exception of a few pocket knives.  I visit knife forums and selfbow websites only occasionally.  I do, however, read a lot about subjects relating to ethnobotany especially as it correlates to primitive technologies.  Lately, I’ve been spending time reading as much as possible about how various grasses have been used around the world to make everything from arrows to dwellings to musical instruments, watercraft, fences, and the like.  You might recall a recent post about the “Columbian Exchange” and the war on Phragmites australis as an “invasive species.”  For those of you who enjoy bushcraft then phragmites is a plant you might consider studying.  As recounted in the previous post it has been used extensively for many things.  I make all my arrows from phragmites but I’ve also lived in huts that were thatched with the reed and years ago I had an opportunity to ride in a boat made from carrizo.  Even so, phragmites is not the only grass species employed for bushcraft projects and in future posts I hope to discuss those other grasses in detail.

There’re a lot of excellent arrows in this stand of carrizo.

I see an annual circle completed when spring arrives and not in the middle of winter as is generally the custom.  In other words, the new year unfolds with the emergence of flowers and trees leafing out.  The new year begins when I see bobwhite and scaled quail coveys break into pairs and when I encounter new bird’s nests in the trees around my cabin.  The coyote’s songs take on a different quality as spring approaches and other animal behaviors are also altered around this time of year: The white-tailed deer, for example, become more elusive as do the javelina.  Soon I’ll start seeing quite a few Painted, Indigo and Varied Buntings in my front yard as well as Hooded and Altamira orioles.  The bird list is extensive and not a day goes by (perhaps not even an hour) that I’m not watching out for birds at the feeders and watering stations.

Huisache Flowers

And then there are the smells of springtime.  You see South Texas is probably the first place in the United States where spring shows up.  One of my sons lives far to the north and he just sent me a text saying, “Here we go again.”  He was referring to the latest winter storm about to hit.  Two of my other sons report sleet in their area.  Even though the same blue-norther is blowing through as I write these notes, it will be mild compared to most other places and will do little to deter the springtime that has already begun.  All around the huisache trees (wee-sach-eh) (Acacia farnesiana) are blooming with bright yellow flowers that are nothing less than beautiful.  The flowers’ fragrance is indeed tranquilizing and in fact the blossoms are distilled to make an ingredient for perfumes.  The bark of the huisache can be used to make a black dye.  People in parts of Mexico and Central America sometimes press the seeds to make cooking oil.  But the best part of the huisache is the honey derived from its flowers.  I’ve written about this before but it’s worth repeating.  The only way to get pure huisache honey—the nectar of the gods—is to find someone who has placed hives in the middle of a large huisache grove and then buy directly from that person.  Of course, that’s difficult to do.  One more note: Huisache nomenclature suffers from the same academic nuttiness that has besieged other plants.  Perhaps one of your former biology teachers told you that scientific names are the definitive moniker of any plant or animal.  Well, unfortunately that doesn’t hold anymore for plants.  There are so many synonyms that my advice (if you’re not a professional botanist) is just stick to the common name in your area and learn how to identify the plant and if you’re interested in bushcraft or ethnobotany then find out as much about the plant’s uses and then be done with it.  Also know that the botanical community will continually fumble around with all sorts of names and only they will find the process edifying.  So here goes: Huisache is not only known as Acacia farnesiana, but also Vachellia farnesiana and it was formerly called, Mimosa farnesiana.  The plant’s family name went from Leguminosae to Fabaceae but it’s the same thing because both refer to the “bean family.”

One more note:  I’ve been asked in several emails what makes a person passionate about the woods.  By the way, “the woods” is the universal metaphor for nature.  Facts are that there is no definitive answer to that question.  Some answers have been proposed but I find all of them lacking in both empirical proof and substantive logic.  Furthermore most of the research in that regard is too crammed with variables to be worthwhile—at least in my opinion.  Some have suggested that one must be introduced to nature at an early age by someone who is passionate about nature in order to become both an ardent and zealous nature lover.  I’ve seen many examples of that occurring but I’ve also seen plenty of instances where people were exposed to nature via a “nature person” and they did not develop any sort of infatuation towards the woods.  And yet there are others who had no such encounter with a nature person and yet as children they developed a deep seated affection for the woods.  This brings up the nature/nurture equation with all its obstacles and additional questions.  I am increasingly convinced that a driving passion for nature is as much a product of genotype as it is derived from any nurturing experience.  In time I’m convinced that will be proven true.  Anyway, as springtime approaches may I wish all of you nature and bushcraft folks, Happy New Year.