October 8, 2008

Gifts and Chirps

Last week we had an outdoor, hands-on class on the Skykomish River. We were introduced to different stones such as agate, basalt, and my favorite, obsidian. Frank Sherwood, hunter, naturalist, and teacher, showed us how to create tools from these stones. The gift of stones was generously offered by the river and we were reminded by Frank to thank the river and the valley for providing these stones. We learned about the hertzian cone, or cone of force, which is the direction cracks move in when stones are struck. With our cone of force in mind, we began to bash our stones with larger, heavier hammerstones. A few bloody knuckles and a lot of gravel flakes later, we all had at least one sharp edged "survival knife." We also learned how to percussion flake edges off of rocks to shape them into tools. By the end of the day, each of us had a cutting tool made of natural materials (except for the artificial sinew lashings):

Thursday was an introduction to ethnobotany. This is the study of how people use plants. The three things that plants are utilized for by humans are food, medicine, and utility or craft use. Karen Sherwood, Frank's wife, began the day with a slide show of numerous wild plants in the pacific northwest. She gave us a snack of muffins made from acorn flour topped with Oregon grape jelly. If you've never tried Oregon grape before, beware. It is edible, full of nutrients, and bitter as bitter can be. Luckily Karen used a bunch of sugar in her jelly recipe. The treats were a delight. We then went on a walk and learned about dandelion, dock, thimbleberry, elderberry, and western red cedar. The gift of plants provided by the soils is greatly appreciated by all native peoples. Soils provide all of us with the fruits and vegetables and grains required to sustain our lives, and when you pick the leaf or fruit yourself, you can't help but be thankful. Some other plants around the Alderleaf property:

Cooley's Hedge Nettle (Stachys cooleyae), of the mint family (the square stem a dead giveaway), is utilized as medicine and as a scent depressant. Aboriginal fishermen would wipe their hands and arms with the leaves to decrease their human smell. The rhizomes, or spreading root structures, can be dried, ground up, and made into a tea or tincture to treat migraines, hangover headaches, and internal inflammations.

This is Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium), one of my favorite plants. Yes, it's all in the name. This beautiful, common gift is found along roadsides all over western Washington. It has edible roots, leaves (when the plant is young), and stalks (again, in young plants). The buds and flowers can be eaten throughout the summer as well. The bast fibers of the fall stems can be twisted, much like stinging nettle, into cord. The tea from the boiled herb helps to relieve constipation, settle an upset stomach, and diminish a harsh cough. My favorite gift from the fireweed, however, is its down. After flowering, in late summer, the stems become littered with this cotton-like substance that is fluffy, light, and dry. What could this fluff be used for? Like I said, it's all in the name.

Friday was an introduction to bird language. We learned the calls of birds like song sparrows, winter wrens, spotted towhees, and stellars jays. Understanding the language of the birds is important to any hunter, wildlife enthusiast, or tracker. Knowing how to tell the difference between a song, a call, and an alarm will give a person a tremendous advantage in the outdoors. For example, a few weeks ago, on Tiger Mountain, Filip and I heard a Spotted Towhee alarming across the swamp from our trail. Then, a Stellars Jay joined in a bit further up. Soon enough a winter wren alarmed in its machine-gun like fashion a bit further up. Filip and I scurried across the forest floor as quickly and quietly as possible to try to get a visual. We stopped and listened to big, careless footsteps across the swamp moving fairly slow and breaking a lot of sticks. Which one of our animal friends could this have been?

A tremendous third week of class left us inspired and excited to start incorporating wild foods into our diets and investigating areas of multiple bird alarms. The other day we had lentils with dandelion leaves, a chantrelle mushroom quiche, and pot pie made with dock and plantain bread.

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