Thursday, May 26, 2016


They’re a bit smaller than cherries and they look like tomatoes.  In fact, they’re related to tomatoes so why anyone decided to call them ground-cherries is a bit mind boggling.  I would’ve guessed the name wild tomatoes or perhaps tomatillo del monte (little tomatoes of the woods) might have been more appropriate.  Some people say they taste like strawberries while others say they have their own unique sweet taste.  Bite into them and you’ll get a mouth full of crunchy seeds; and the one’s I’ve eaten were, to me at least, slightly bitter.  Nonetheless, “ground cherries” grow in abundance around our house as do wild gherkins, pepino del monte, granjeno berries, anacua berries, nopalitos, and an assortment of other wild berries, roots, and vegetables that make foraging both fun and practical.  We’re lucky to have edibles throughout the year.

Ground cherries are in the nightshade family, as are tomatoes, and thus they have some very poisonous cousins.  Plant field guides tend to concentrate on flowers and leaves and not much more.  The idea is to be able to walk around and identify the plants and maybe take some pictures.  The field-trip elitists will spout off the scientific names and then walk off as if bestowed with some secret powers.  It’s all quite silly but I’ve been guilty of doing that myself.  Besides, the scientific names that are supposed to be immutable and perhaps even sacrosanct change so often nowadays that the whole nomenclature process has become rather flippant.  I remember one guy telling me years ago, “Hell, you could be making up those [Latinized] names on the spot and we wouldn’t know the difference.”  But I was young and smug and didn’t realize that the most important names in any region are the folk-names because those are the names the rural people understand.  Ethnobotanists and bushcrafters, on the other hand, are more interested in whether or not the plant’s parts may be eaten, used medicinally or can be turned into things like cordage, hunting implements, structural materials and the like.  What I find interesting is that many woods people don’t seem all that concerned with giving things names.  After all, they know that everybody else in the area knows what they’re talking about so oftentimes the plant's identity is more closely related to its function than anything else.  The other day, for example, my water well man was out here and when he saw a bunch of ground cherries growing nearby he said, “Oh look!”  He bent forward and picked several of them then removed the thin, papery husks (an outgrowth of the calyx) and extracted the orange berries.  “What do you call that fruit?” I asked.  He shrugged and said, “I don’t know.  We just eat them.”  He ate a few more and I recalled that one of the last times he was here he spotted some wild cucumber growing from a vine near the well.  He got all excited and bent down and picked a bunch of pepinos and started eating them on the spot.  “What do you call those?” I asked.  Another shrug and then, “I don’t know.  We’ve been eating them all our lives.”

Now the craze around this homestead is to make salsa.  Mind you, I’m not much of a salsa eater.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy spicy food, it’s just that my stomach doesn’t seem to like them much anymore.  Regardless, experimenting with different salsas is a big deal here at the house.  The master concoctionist in this family is Matthew who can create meals and dishes better than anyone I know.  So it was only natural for Matthew to declare that he was going to experiment with making the perfect salsa using ground-cherries or tomatillo del monte as I prefer calling them.

Matthew’s recipes are quite tasty.  He’ll go around selecting the best quality tomatillos del monte and then spend an evening canning.  People come around eyeing the salsas and, of course, friends always get a sample.  The other day a Border Patrol friend was out here and Matthew gave him a jar.  Early the next morning he sent us a text saying, “Damn, I forgot my jar of salsa at your house.  I was all ready for some eggs and salsa this morning.”  So as soon as he can break free he’ll zip on out here and pick up the jar he forgot.  I imagine we’ll fry him up some eggs on the spot and add a plate stacked with fresh corn tortillas.  It’ll end up being a group thing.

FAMILY: Solanaceae
GENUS: Physalis
Approximately 90 species.
Ground Cherries grow in tropical or subtropical climates.  They grow low to the ground and seem to prefer sandy, alkaline soils.

Saturday, May 21, 2016


I hope I’ve made it clear over a half-dozen posts at least that in the Southwestern US the most important cutting tool you can own is the machete.  I'm referring, of course, to those of you who spend significant amounts of time in the desert and brushland regions.  Those areas are known for their endless varieties of thorns and spines and their abundance of dense hardwoods.  A cute four-inch-blade Scandinavian grind knife that might be all the rage in the north country becomes rather anemic when faced with thorns and spines that are almost as long.  Besides, genuine bushcraft has little to do with “fine carving tasks” and instead focuses on the construction of shelters and the acquisition of food.  In the rain-forests of South America indigenous people construct almost everything with their machete.  The same goes for those who live in remote regions of Southeast Asia.  Hunters use machetes to construct dwellings and to make bows and arrows.  They make their fishing gear with machetes, clear the greenery around their abodes and even carve figurines during fiestas.

Most of the indigenous people carry their machetes unsheathed, and they sharpen them with smooth rocks gathered along streambeds.  In other areas where firearms are restricted (so the only people who own guns are crooks, cops, and military) the people use their machetes as weapons.  A man wielding a 24-inch blade is a fierce combatant indeed.  The machete is so ubiquitous along the borderlands and farther south into Latin America that the thought of restricting a machete seems tantamount to genocide.  How, after all, is a man to provide for and defend his family without a machete?  How does one kill venomous snakes and make fishing equipment without a machete?  It boggles my mind when I hear of East Coast politicians wanting to restrict the machete from the citizenry.  Folks, that’s another world out there as mysterious and foreign to us as we must appear to them.  As one old codger told me not long ago, “God Bless ‘em but may they please not move over here.”

A lot of people toss their machetes behind the seat of their pickup trucks or in the tool box attached to the truck’s bed.  To them a machete is no different from a hammer or saw.  It’s just one more tool among many.  But for those of us who are particular about our cutting implements then the machete is given a sheath.  In Mexico one will see nice leather machete sheaths sold in the markets for about ten US dollars apiece.  But for someone living on an ejido (agrarian village) ten dollars might as well be a thousand.  I’ve seen some folks carrying their machetes in sheaths made of carrizo but for the most part the long blades are kept naked and oftentimes tucked between belt and trousers.


I always take modified, short-bladed machetes with me when I’m woods roaming. My woods roaming machetes vary in blade lengths from eight to ten inches.  I modify them to have a Kephart style point that comes in handy for slicing and tossing nopal pads out of the way. 

Here’s how I make my machete sheaths.  First, I cut a piece of heavy weight cardboard so that the length will be an inch or thereabouts longer than the machete blade.  Then I wrap duct tape around the sheath and incorporate a piece of paracord beneath the top wrap to serve as a dangler. The other day a fellow who uses the handle, Mattexian, commented on my post about tow strap knife sheaths saying that old Boy Scout handbooks recommended using a tin can as a protective barrier inside axe sheaths.  Thanks, a million, Mattexian!  Because of your suggestion I’ve started using soda cans to protect my makeshift machete sheaths. I now cut open an aluminum soda can and then fold it until it measures the same dimensions as my cardboard sheaths end-point.

Since the cardboard fold is on the side where the blade edge rests there's little chance of the blade slicing through at that point.  If it makes you feel more comfortable then you can easily incorporate a piece of aluminum there as well and wrap it over with duct tape. I make my sheaths tight to keep the machete secure.

Thursday, May 12, 2016


In the early morning hours of May 11, 2016 three bailouts occurred, each within two hours of the other.  The first bailout at 2:00 AM, the second at 4:00 AM and the third at daybreak.  Each bailout was preceded by felony pursuits where smugglers refused to pull over even as state and federal law enforcement police followed lights on and sirens blazing.  In each case the smugglers eventually crashed their vehicles into ranch fences and headed inland knocking over small trees and cutting wheel-rutted paths through the brush.  Usually, it’s a mesquite tree that stops the smuggler’s vehicle, but even before the dust settles one can hear people yelling to jump out and run, thus the term “bailout.”  Smugglers pack anywhere from ten to twenty illegals in their trucks, vans and cars; and when the people run they scatter into the night.  The US Border Patrol will send in a team of trackers and, if available, a helicopter will be flown in from the Rio Grande Valley about seventy miles to the southeast.  Just hours after sunup on May 11, 2016 a Texas Game Warden was on patrol in the same area where the three bailouts had occurred the night before.  The warden spotted a pickup making a suspicious U-turn on that lonely stretch of paved road and he decided to follow the truck in order to get its license number.  The warden radioed the plate number to the Starr County Sheriff’s office in Rio Grande City some forty-five miles to the south.  Within a minute the sheriff department dispatcher replied that the suspicious vehicle had been stolen out of Houston, Texas a couple of days before.  The warden flicked on his lights and siren and simultaneously the pickup truck hit the gas pedal.  Another hot pursuit was in motion.  After traveling about a mile the pickup truck veered left and blasted through a ranch fence.  Like the bailouts the night before, the truck launched into the air as it struck a mound of dirt and then it rammed into the brush at fifty miles an hour.  The driver whipped his vehicle sharply to the left and paralleled the fenceline as the warden stayed on the paved road moving alongside and preparing for a possible gun battle.  Then the smuggler’s vehicle lurched up and down when it hit head-on with a mesquite tree.  The warden—who had kept the Starr County Sheriff’s Office abreast of the goings on—stopped his truck and jumped out, M4 rifle in hand and a Glock .40 S&W on his belt.  The young warden scaled the high game-proof fence the smugglers had breached about a quarter mile back and then cautiously approached the stilled pickup.  “They were obviously coyotes [smugglers] getting ready to pick up a load of illegals,” the warden said later.  The stolen truck had already been readied for its cargo of people.  The rear seat had been removed in order to accommodate as many illegals as possible.  One 12 gauge shotgun shell was found in the truck but if the smugglers had a firearm they took it with them.  The warden returned to his truck (scaling the high fence once again) as not to leave his vehicle alone where the smugglers could circle back and steal it.  Within a few minutes a Starr County Sheriff’s deputy arrived to assist.  It took five hours in nearly one-hundred degree temperatures to secure the stolen truck and have it towed out of the ranch and back on the paved road.  As of this writing the coyotes have not been found.  “If they’re veteran smugglers then they know how to escape,” the warden said.  “But if they’re newbies they’ll be dead within a couple of days from lack of water and sunstroke.”

This morning (May 12, 2016) another bailout occurred near a crossroads called McCook about thirty miles south of my little ranch.  A few days ago another bailout was witnessed in the tiny hamlet of San Isidro about four miles south of here.  In that case the smugglers drove through the parking lot of a family owned convenience store and then almost crashed into a windmill across the road.  A friend who oversees a small ranch west of here near the intersection of FM 1017 and FM 755 tells me that over the last few weeks there have been nearly a dozen bailouts at that location.  Last night at about 10:00 PM we heard a helicopter (Homeland Security or US Border Patrol) circling to the east.  We knew what was going on—another large group of illegals was observed moving through the brush.

When you hear the suits in the New York Media as well as the groups associated with various political factions telling you that illegal immigration is down then they are either lying outright or they are horrifically misinformed.  Facts are that the US/Mexico border is as out of control as it has ever been.  The New York Media will tell you that apprehension rates are down and from that statistic they erroneously conclude that illegal crossings are likewise down.  This is just one more example of why agenda-driven news coverage coupled with an extreme lack of knowledge about US Border issues and the unique culture that makes up the Borderlands leads to the wrong inferences and thus bad news coverage.  Let’s make this clear at the outset: If apprehension rates are down then all you know is that apprehension rates are down.  But you do not know if illegal crossings have, in fact, lowered.  Border law enforcement will tell you that nothing has substantively changed.  The reasons apprehensions are down are numerous ranging from the politics of amnesty and presidential executive orders and what that does to law enforcement morale to purposeful fudging of the data in order to gain political advantage.  Let’s also make it clear that the fault of our immigration problems is just as much with the Republicans (who want cheap labor) as it is with the Democrats who live under the delusion that “the Latino vote” is a monolithic and mindless group that will always vote Democratic.  Regardless, it’s the Borderlands that are suffering as constant waves of illegals cross into the region to wreak havoc on ranchers, farmers and even city dwellers.

Take note of the map I provided.  The South Texas Smuggling Triangle encompasses over a thousand square miles.  The epicenter is Starr County but the triangle extends in to Hidalgo County to the east and Zapata County to the west.  Affected counties also include Jim Hogg County and Brooks County.  This is a harsh landscape divided by rocky outcrops along the south and the South Texas Sand Sheet to the north.  Regardless, this land kills if given the opportunity.  Whether from lack of water or unrelenting heat or from snake bites and a score of poisonous insects or simply shear exhaustion from trudging across a land that enjoys taking life whenever possible, the Smugglers Triangle always begs the question: Why do they attempt to cross an area so forbidding to human life?

Good Samaritans have placed 55-gallon plastic barrels filled with one-gallon water jugs alongside the paved roads that crisscross the Smuggler’s Triangle.  I assume the barrels are placed alongside the roads to ease the illegal’s crossing into the United States.  What these groups don’t seem to understand is that once the barrels are filled with water jugs and then left by the roadways they are essentially abandoned.  Some of the Samaritans have complained that people have been “stealing” the water jugs from the barrels.  Pray tell, how does one steal from something that has been abandoned?  Regardless, I assume that people sometimes stop by one of the barrels for a jug of water.  If people want to place water along the farm to market roads then that water is available to whoever wants it.  Case closed.

So what happens next?  Of course, this is election season and the spin doctors on either side are busy blaming each other for the chaos along the US/Mexico border.  One guy wants to build a wall that will likely “create jobs” but will probably have little effect on curbing the human tide.  And a woman candidate says she’ll keep the borders open—or at least that’s what she’s proclaiming this week.  Lest you forget, after September 11, 2001 the American president did absolutely nothing to secure the borders.  Federal and state law enforcement officials working along the border were aghast that Junior Bush abandoned the border to whoever wanted it.  Have things gotten any better since then?  Well, yes and no.  The Border Patrol has been augmented since the Bush years.  But simultaneous deferred deportations have made the problem worse.  It’s as if the country takes a step forward and then three steps backwards.  It seems that Washington DC has become impotent over the last couple of decades.  An oligarchy wedded to corporatism where less than one-percent of the population pulls the strings for all the rest.  When I was a kid the US population was around 165 million people.  There’re not many people anymore who can remember what it was like to have truly open lands and an abundance of nature.  The youth of today have no idea what real woods roaming is all about.  How can they?  They’ve never known it—not really, not truthfully, not tangibly.  Today the US population is estimated to be around 340 million people.  Population ecologists tell us the country reached its “maximum carrying capacity” at about 220 million back in the early 1980s.  The date at which the US population will reach 400 million people keeps changing with the timeframe continuously revised downwards.  If you think things are chaotic now then wait a few years.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016



Prickly pear cactus has been distributed to many parts of the world but it originated in the Americas, specifically in what are now the Southwestern United States, Mexico, and Central America.  There are several dozen species of prickly pear belonging to the genus Opuntia.  Throughout the region where these cacti are found you’ll hear prickly pear referred to as nopal (no-pahl).  When the pads are beginning to grow and thus fleshy and light green they’re called nopalitos, the suffix, itos, being the diminutive of the word, nopal.

In 1995 the Texas legislature named the nopal the Texas State Plant, an appropriate decision considering that you’d best not mess with nopal or with Texas.

Ask anyone around these parts which is the best tasting species of nopal and they’ll reply nopal de castilla (Opuntia ficus-indica).  Go to local grocery stores and you’ll see bins laden with nopal de castilla pads.  Families grow nopal de castilla in their yards, and nopal farms are found throughout the area, all of them growing this favorite prickly pear.  By the way, in case you’re wondering, nopal de castilla originated in Mexico.  The good news is that nopal de castilla is easy to grow if you live in dry, arid, desert regions.

Since we’re a bunch of knife nuts around here I just had to show you a photo of my new favorite nopalito spine remover.  It doubles as my Port Mansfield, Texas fishing trip pal.

Monday, May 9, 2016


If you like pretty and nice, and you rarely use your knife for anything more than a weekend camping trip or afternoon of whittling in the backyard then you can afford to be fussy about your knife sheath.  Let’s face it; nothing quite matches the beauty of a well-made leather sheath.  For those of you who are into the “tacticool” look then a Kydex sheath is probably your thing.  But what if you’re going to be using a knife on a ranch or out in the jungle or perhaps even in a remote military zone where the sheath is subjected to abuse ranging from bumps and scrapes to high humidity and even monsoons.  What if stealth is of primary importance?  What if the ability to improvise the sheath at a minute’s notice is also important?  If that’s the case then allow me to introduce you to a sheath system I’ve been using for at least twenty years. These sheaths are for the person who's looking for a rugged, no nonsense sheath.

The idea started with an extra-heavy-duty olive drab military tow strap I bought at an army surplus store over thirty years ago.  The tow strap was brand new and it made a nice addition to my truck’s emergency package.  Over the years the tow strap was used for pulling other vehicles out of mud or sand and towing cars and trucks from one location to another.  Then one night my two youngest sons were attempting to pull a disabled pickup truck and the strap snapped when one of them gunned the engine.

Perhaps most folks would’ve tossed what was left of the strap into the garbage but I saw an opportunity to give it a second chance so I made my first tow-strap knife sheath and immediately discovered it was a practical concept.

Before I get into the details let me tell you what I like and dislike about other sheath materials.  I’ve already admitted that leather is beautiful.  If you take care of it then it can last for many years.  Neglect it and it will be gone in no time.  To begin with leather, being an organic product, can quickly degrade if not pampered.  Leather is subject to mold in humid climates and if you’ve ever fallen into a lake or river wearing a leather knife sheath then you know what a mess that can be.  Even if treated with silicon or some other leather preservative the sheath will soften to the point of being mushy.  If it dries too rapidly it’ll harden and become brittle.  You can work the leather fibers back and forth to put some “life” back into the sheath but you’d best treat it with a conditioner (saddle soap, Neatsfoot Oil, Mink Oil etc.) as soon as you get a chance.  Wet leather takes a while to dry and if you’re using a carbon steel blade then watch for rust spots on the blade where it came in contact with the leather.  Furthermore, leather stitching has a tendency to unravel over time.  Kydex on the other hand is practically impermeable to the weather.  It is, however, horrifically noisy.  If you’re trying to move through the woods or brush without making aberrant sounds then Kydex isn’t for you.  Brush against thorns and you’ll hear an icky scraping sound that can be heard a hundred feet away.  Besides, every time you extract your knife from a Kydex sheath you might as well yell, “Here I am!”

So then what’s the advantage of the military tow strap knife sheath?  To begin with it’s inexpensive to buy and easy to make.  Remember, I’m referring specifically to a military grade tow strap.  They’re available at army surplus stores or online.  These are not your thin, bright yellow straps sold at auto stores and larges retail outlets.  Military grade two straps are heavy, thick and rugged.  If you decide to buy one then get a strap that’s 1 ½ inches wide.

 Depending on the overall length of your knife, cut a piece of strapping long enough to be made into the sheath itself and the carrying loop.  Note the photo above. I lay the knife on the table and then measure the length I’ll require for the sheath then I’ll overlap the loop for the belt.

You can add a leather patch at the bottom of the sheath (where the knife point will make contact with the sheath) or if you choose then leave it as is.  In all my years of carrying these knife sheaths I’ve never had a knife point come through the heavy sheath.  Not that it won’t happen, but that it’s never happened to me—so if that bothers you then attach the leather piece.

To secure the sheath wrap the entire area with duct tape.  You can use any color you want.  I just use whatever I have on hand but I imagine you might use a camouflaged duct tape and that would look quite spiffy.

Some of you might be wondering about a welt along the cutting edge of the sheath, or where the knife edge will make contact.  Again, I seldom bother with that detail.  It’s never been a problem for me but you can fashion a strip of leather or plastic and insert it between strap or you can wrap it over the outside.  I’ve done the latter and it works well.

There are a number of improvisations that can be done with this easy-to-make knife sheath.  I wrap my sheaths with parachute cord.  You might also insert a ferro rod under the cordage or you can slip some fish hooks and fishing line via a pouch made from another piece of strap that’s wrapped along with the sheath. These straps are rugged, waterproof and the duct tape adds more protection to the sheath.  Remember that I’m not referring to lesser tow straps and I am not recommending any other type of strap like that from a seat belt.  The seat belt strap is far too thin and fragile.  In other words, I don’t recommend seat belt straps.