01 December 2010

Remembering Stone

IIII ) llllllllllllllllllll I'naksa'pis (29Nov10)

1212 Sspopiikimi - ready to take my phenology study and relationship with place practice to a more complicated level

With all of the recent snow, the roots entombed in ice, the trails and runs of animals so blatantly revealed, my thoughts have turned once again to snares and traps. Last winter, when I was making routine runs to check my rabbit snares each morning, Mahoney and I set a goal to transform our diet within the course of a year to consuming only foods that derive from the Oldman River watershed. Well... we failed, time-wise. But we do have a freezer full of deer, porcupine, and all kinds of berries and vegetable material, suggesting that we have put more effort into it this go'round than ever before. If you'd have peeked into our deep freeze last year, it would have been packed with all kinds of microwavable processed Costco junk. Not anymore. But I have to admit, the majority of our diet is still imported and processed, mostly fast food. It's a problem.

This is not just a health issue. In my mind, it is a matter of social ethics. And not merely human-social, but eco-social. In Niitsi'powahsin, the place where we live is called kitawahsinnoon, meaning what feeds or nourishes us. Everything we need to sustain ourselves affluently is right here, or at least it was throughout all but the last few decades of human history. The bison were the first local victims of the industrial machine that swept across this land from the 1850s onward. When they were slaughtered, every other species of the plains ecosystem was affected. The magpies and eagles left for a time, and turkey vultures are only now beginning to return. All of the large predators waned in population and distribution. We don't even have the tools to measure or quantify the extent to which this change hit other animals, all the birds and rodents, plants and insects who had evolved their ways of life with the presence of bison.

What happened to the herds should never have been. Many thousands of years ago, humans entered into innaihtsiiyssini with the animals, an agreement that we would respect one another's right to life. The animals agreed to teach us ways of living sustainably as members of particular watershed-based eco-societies. We in turn were to limit our intrusions on their lives, and to make appropriate amends for any violations of the spirit of this agreement. For more than a century now, and especially in recent decades, we've continuously ignored this treaty. And the predictable result is that today we don't remember very much at all about how to survive (let alone thrive) as real human beings here, without mining for fuels or metals, without Walmart to sell us the means of our unsustainable culture.

I want to re-learn some of what has been lost, and in so doing to amend further my own relationship with this place and it's non-human inhabitants. Call it an experiment, if that language helps to make it seem any less... whatever. But basically, the idea is this: I will start with nothing, save for the clothes I wear and my fairly extensive (by today's standards) intellectual knowledge of plants, animals, and indigenous technologies. From this basis, I'll pursue the same objectives as before, but with a twist. I'll strive for a greater awareness of my environment by continuing to make regular phenological observations, but now more in the context of attempting to change (incrementally) my diet, from what it is today, to eating only that which derives from this place. And I'll do this completely without the assistance of store-bought technologies. I want to find out for myself what is required to access, gather, process and store nourishment from this ecosystem, to engage with it at that level as a human being independent of the global market.

1220 Just by posing this challenge, already my awareness is changing. As I walk beside north-pond to embark on this project, my immediate question is, "How does one begin in this season?" There's deep snow, the ground is ice. I have nothing, not even a knife. Well... I do have a store-bought hunting blade in my pocket, but I'm not allowed to use it. That's the rules. And for a challenge like this, a simple knife can make a world of difference. I mean, I'm pretty confident that I could kill a rabbit, today, just by way of blunt force trauma with a heavy stick. There's lots of mountain cottontails around, and they tend to allow me to get fairly close. But if I did kill one, I'd have no means of processing the carcass. Of course, I could get totally real and use my teeth, bite a hole through the skin on the neck perhaps, and then rip the hide off. But that would probably destroy the hide, and even with the skin off how am I going to work on it without a blade? Rabbit sushi? Clearly, knives or cutting tools are of the utmost importance. Where can I get one? Not likely I'll find appropriate rocks to fragment in this weather, with so much snow on the ground. I might get lucky and find a bone or antler, but again not likely given the weather and how early we are in the winter season. Probably I'm going to have to settle for some crude wood instrument to start with

1239 Rounding north-pond and walking the ice along the edge of the wet-meadows, I'm wondering how to even fashion a crude wood knife without some other tool. In order to function at all, it would have to be a hardwood like okonoki, but how could I shape it without having some kind of blade to begin with? One idea, and this is just brainstorming, would be to break a chunk of ice off the surface of the pond, and use body heat to shape this until it's sharp enough to work the wood with. But that might be a whole lot more difficult than it sounds, and it doesn't sound easy to begin with

1241 I've come across an area of the north-pond wet-meadows that has a lot of dogbane or Indian hemp. The Niitsi'powahsin term for this plant is i'naksa'pis, or little-rope. As the name infers, this is an important plant for making twine and rope, another very essential first ingredient for this project. I recognize this i'naksa'pis by sight, and I'm intellectually aware of its properties - the root was once used in tea as a laxative and as a wash to prevent falling hair, the latex can be dried and chewed as gum, and the fibers of the inner bark were famous across North America for producing a quality twine used for making snares, nets, clothing, bow strings, you name it. What I don't know about this plant is the experiential side, the relational aspect. When is it best gathered for twine? I'm going to collect some of the stems right now and find out for myself what i'naksa'pis has to offer in early winter

1405 I've picked hemp stems until my fingers and toes grew numb, now I'm walking again, trying to get the warmth and circulation back. The stems are definitely still good to use this time of year, and I noticed that sometimes, when a bit of root came off, it would have one of the stems from two years ago still attached. So apparently, pulling the stems in early winter will not harm next year's growth, because the plants will be sending up new shoots anyway

1414 I climb back on the levee and move to the cutbank overlooking the Oldman. There's a large, adult bald eagle in a tree on the opposite shore, but it sees me before I see it, and heads downstream. There's a decent open crag below the trees where the eagle had been sitting. I figure it was either waiting for fish to swim by, or for ducks to land

1423 Now I've dropped back down off the levee into the forest main, and my thoughts are totally consumed by the knife... how am I going to get a blade? I need a knife and cordage, immediately. And the next necessity after that is flame. I haven't attempted fire by friction in decades, but it's going to be necessary in order to cook or smoke any meat. For that, I'll require a softwood base, willow root perhaps (something that won't be easy to come by in this season). And I'll have to fashion a hardwood spindle, out of saskatoon perhaps, which again leads me back to the importance of a blade

1426 I'm barely into the forest main when my attention is drawn to a small, fiber-woven nest in some bulberries. As I'm looking at the nest, probably that of a yellow warbler, I also start considering various uses I might have for bulberry thorns. Fish hooks, sewing needles, eventually I would like to build a nice fishing kit, for sure. But I'll leave these thorns alone for now. Most of them have next year's buds attached, so I don't know if I'd want to disturb them. Plus, I'd like to have a good look at the hawthorn trees as well, so I can compare those

1449 My last thought of the day has to do with containers. I didn't go far into the forest main before turning back, and now I'm at my vehicle. But all the way along, my mind was on containment systems. A person can't gather or store very much without containers. The simplest means of acquiring something would probably be to use the skins of animals I'm eating. But there's also the possibility of basketry, and in the past there was even a pottery tradition here. Nobody today remembers how the pots found in archaeological digs here were made. If I could experiment with local clays, and eventually renew the pottery-making technique, that would be quite something

IIII ) lllllllllllllllllllll Remembering Stone (30Nov10)

1308 Sikoohkotoki Kawaahko - this afternoon I've decided to take a hike in the coulee just below my house. I never got the chance to start stripping and twining the dogbane I collected yesterday, because we had guests staying with us last night. But hopefully soon. In the meantime, there are other essentials I need to start collecting. Foremost among them, some kind of a knife

1310 Walking along, I come across a patch of prairie sunflowers. They're all black and dried out, and by appearances one would assume they've long ago dropped all their seeds. But I pull the head off one and roll it between my fingers, over the open palm of my other hand, and sure enough there are still seeds falling. These would make a small but beneficial addition to a local diet. Unfortunately though, following the rules I set for myself yesterday, I have no container with which to collect them. I also see, as I start heading into the draw leading toward the river, areas along the rim where land has slid off, exposing an assortment of roots. Some of these would be worth collecting as well, but again no container. So that's another immediate necessity to think about

1313 Yet another food resource is at my feet while I consider the exposed roots of the landslide areas. This is black medick, the smallest of our clovers that, in this season, still carries berry-sized clusters of black seeds, hoisted just above and in contrast to the surface of the snow. Today it's all coming back to containers. If I had something to put these seeds in, I could collect a whole lot of them in a very short time. They are still nice and black, not grey like some of the sweetclover, so they appear to be fungus-free. I pop a couple dozen seeds in my mouth and they taste good to me

1319 One of the best tools for containment is a basket. I'm see the crested wheatgrass is growing pretty thick in some places here on the coulee rim, and it makes me wonder whether I could use these stems as material for something like a coil basket. In order to collect and keep something like the small seeds of black medick, I'll need a tight weave, and a coil basket would serve that purpose well

1330 Okay... I've finally come across some exposed stones near a fencepost on the ridge I'm walking above the coulee draw. It's amazing, with my head in this project there was no way to pass by these rocks, ignoring them as I usually would. Two of them are quartz-like, and I've managed to break off a couple nice, fairly sharp shards by banging them end-to-end. The grain of the crystal is not as smooth as I'd like, but they will do for the time being as my starter knives

1357 With my new knives in hand, I move down off the edge and to the bottom of the draw. It's slow-going because there are dangerous, iced-over drifts. Eventually though, I make it to the bottom, where there's a line of chokecherry brush extending to the river. I'm looking toward the wood for anything useful, I'm thinking rabbit stick at the very least. But most of the chokecherry here appears to be long dead. It's black in color, but not charred. I wonder if maybe it got strangled out at some point by a major plague of black knot. There are still some live bushes, but they're small. I eat several winter-dried berries off them. While I'm snacking, a small bird lands on the snow nearby. I'm not sure what it is, could be a redpoll. It quickly darts around pecking something off the top of the snow, then flits away. Just as it leaves, a magpie lands in the chokecherry brush beside me. This has to be one of the birds who visits our house each day. It's really close to me, which I interpret as familiarity. I don't recognize it as any of our most familiars, but there are still several regulars I've lost track of as individuals since they got their full winter plumage

1409 In one of the chokecherry bushes, I come across an interesting cocoon. It is a bundle if silk, almost as big as my fist, coiled around a branch, and shelled with chokecherry leaves that had been individually glued on. I opened it up, but there's no current resident. My mind started considering uses for such silk, and then immediately turned to the possibility of using bird nests as make-shift containers. The deer mice use them to hold their caches, so why not? I wonder how strong the big mud bowls in magpie nests are? I also wonder whether the clay cliff-swallow nests could be fire-hardened?

1505 Having made my way eventually to the river, I tried out my knives and cut a bundle of young rabbit-willow stems to begin experimenting with at home for basket-weaving. I'm now hiking downstream to the next draw, and I'll climb that to make my way home. The most efficient way to travel this time of year is on the frozen river. I wouldn't trust the ice yet to cross to the opposite shore, but I can walk very safely parallel to my shore. The coyotes know about this efficient trail too, the evidence of their using it is considerable

1522 As soon as I start climbing out, and get low up on the ridge over the downstream draw, I'm hit with a really strong, cold wind. I hadn't realized how low I've been on energy until now, and I'm finding the ascent a real struggle. Makes me think though... if I were living out here in this season, climbing up and down the coulee slopes means considerable energy expense. Too much, I think. There are different resources in the floodplain than up on the rim, but I think overall the river-bottom is the most profitable and weather-shielding. Best to just stay down there, unless one had lots of food back at camp to replace the energy lost in climbing

1619 The wind kicked my ass climbing back up out of the coulee. I swear it hardened into a cold, flowing spear, threw itself directly into my right ear, and half-froze my brain