Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Survival Resources 5: Winter Tree ID

In late November, a friend and I went on an expedition to learn some foraging and other outdoor skills. She asked me how well I could identify trees. I said that was easy; I could tell a maple from an oak and...

Then I realized how I could tell the two trees apart was by their leaves--but at this point in the season, the trees didn't have any leaves. That's when she began to teach me winter tree identification.

The first thing she taught me was 'MAD Cap Horse'--this is a mnemonic to help remember which trees and shrubs have opposite leaves and branches: Maple, Ash, Dogwood, Caprifoliaceae, and Horse chestnuts. (Caprifoliaceae is a group of plants that include honeysuckle and elderberries.)

After that we began looking at buds which are pretty interesting unto themselves. Beech buds are long and pointed, maple buds often look like little three fingered mitts, oaks have clusters that are really complex looking, dogwood have buds that look like tiny sculptures of onions, and magnolia have soft, fuzzy buds.

I am just beginning learning this process, but I think it will prove useful in many ways--including how to identify tree that have an edible inner bark. (See my last post on Foraging.) But I also think this is part of recovering our basic ecological literacy.

A useful resource for learning winter skills (at least in Central and Eastern US and Canada) is the Winter Finders Set from Nature Study Guild Publishers. This includes a Winter Tree Finder, a Winter Weed Finder, and a Track Finder--all of which have a useful format to help you identify what you are looking at. (Each of these little booklets can be purchased separately.)

Quote of the Day: "Have you explored the miracle of buds? Observing eyes quickly find them, large and small, on bushes and trees in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. To identify buds it is important to notice their arrangement on the twig. ...
"A few inches from the tip of your twig you an discover several lines or rings close together. These growth rings were left when the bud scales of last year's terminal bud fell off. They show last year's growth or how much the twig grew in one year. Now look for the next ring further down. That marked the end of the twig two years ago. Starting at the tip of the twig, count the growth rings to get the age of the twig." - Marjorie Smith

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Survival Resources 4: Foraging

The way most people know to get food is by shopping. A step more basic, and one that certainly will help with survival, is to grow food yourself. But, even more basic than that, and more useful in a crisis, is the ability to find edible plants in the wild--or even on your own lawn.

Ironically, it turns out that many of the weeds we dig out of our gardens are not only edible, but very nutritious. Dandelions, lamb's quarters, and purslane, for example, have a higher nutrition content than many of the garden vegetables.

If food becomes scarce, knowing how to forage could be lifesaving. Other useful plants to know include burdock root, groundnuts (apparently groundnuts kept the Pilgrims alive through their first winter in North America--although I've also heard that this wasn't through foraging; they may have stolen a supply the natives had harvested), watercress, chickweed, and curled/curly dock. Cattails and bulrushes, found in swamps, have edible parts. Most seaweed (for those who live near the ocean) is also edible. A lot of unusual things are also edible--the shoots of Japanese knotweed, the leaves of linden trees, and even parts of Stinging Nettle (but be careful while harvesting!).

Some useful books on foraging (at least if you live in North America):

Roger Tory Peterson and Lee Peterson, Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants: Eastern and Central North America

Gregory Tilford, Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West

Thomas Elias and Peter Dykeman, Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide

Steve Brill with Evelyn Dean, Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places

Sam Thayer, A Forager's Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting and Preparing Edible Wild Plants

and, of course, the Euell Gibbons books, starting with Stalking the Wild Asparagus

Your local library may have many of these books. I also want to single out two very local Boston area/New England books that I have found useful: Russ Cohen, Wild Plants I Have Known... and Eaten, and David Craft, Urban Foraging.

Matthew Stein, When Technology Fails (see my post, SR2: When Technology Fails, 12/13/10), has a couple of nice little sections on foraging. (It was also my source for many of the books listed above.) And Toby Hemenway, Gaia's Garden (featured in my post on Gardens, 11/19/09), has a bit of information on edible weeds.

But now it's winter, here in New England. This is a challenge--what can you forage now? A friend of mine called Russ Cohen with this question and his basic answer was, not much. His big recommendation was cattails--the sprouts near the base of the stalk are available all year round and the roots pack quite a bit of starch in them during the winter. Matthew Stein advises pine needles (which have a lot of vitamin C) and the inner bark of trees--especially aspens, birch, willows, slippery elm, tamarack, maples, spruces, pines, and hemlocks.

Okay, so here's a question. It's the middle of a snowy New England winter, and you want to find a maple to check out the inner bark. How do you know which tree is a maple?

That's what I'll look at in my next post.

Quote of the Day: "Foraging will greatly sharpen your observational skills as you begin to take note of factors that influence when and where the wild edibles can be found. You will learn to keep closer track of the seasons of the year, weather forecasts and patterns, and plants that share similar habitats. After a while, you may develop a sort of 'sixth sense' for foraging. One day, while walking a trail, you will pick up clues that an edible plant you are looking for is likely to be nearby. You'll go around a bend in the trail and, sure enough, there it is." - Russ Cohen

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Survival Resources 3: Back to Nature

Our greatest resource for survival is the earth itself. When times get hard, when technology fails (see my post, When Technology Fails, 12/13/20), we need to look to the earth, to nature, to the land that surrounds us, for what we need to survive.

Surrounded by a 'man-made' world (buildings and streets and vehicles and 'infrastructure'--all of which is pretty fragile) we have lost contact with the ecosystem that we still (buried behind this facade) rely on for our day to day survival.

If we are going to make it through the rough times ahead, we are going to make it by learning to get what we need directly from the earth. If we are going to create 'a world that works for everyone', we are going to create it by working with nature. (This is part of what Bill Mollison and Reny Mia Slay call the basic philosophy of permaculture : "...working with, rather than against nature.")

The first step is that we need to develop a realization that the earth will provide, because the earth always does. And if the earth ever does stop providing, we won't last long no matter what we do.

All of which means that the next step is that we need to learn how nature works. We need a practical 'ecological literacy'. We need to know what the earth provides--and when and where.

My next few posts will address this.

Quote of the Day: "We need to foster a bosom friendship with land and water and air. ... I remember the telling words of Chief Luther Standing Bear of the Oglala Sioux:
We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and winding streams with tangled growth, as 'wild'. Only to the white man was nature a 'wilderness' and only to him was the land 'infested' with 'wild' animals and 'savage' people. ... Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery." - Kathleen Meyer

Monday, January 3, 2011

Beyond Civilization

Now that we are into the new year, I want to head back to my Survival Resources thread, but first, I want to ask: why are we interested in surviving? As in, what are we working toward? What are we surviving for?

Beyond Civilization by Daniel Quinn is a fascinating, thought-provoking, infuriating book. I agree with the basic thrust of what the author is saying and disagree with many parts. It is definitely worth reading, particularly if you are thinking about where to go beyond this capitalist, hierarchical, industrial society. Quinn subtitles his book, 'Humanity's Next Great Adventure'.

He is particularly taken with Richard Dawkin's book, The Selfish Gene, and his idea of memes. A meme is a concept or belief which is a social/cultural building block that has a life of its own. Daniel Quinn believes that what keeps civilization going is a bunch of memes, which include "Civilization must continue at ANY cost and must not be abandoned under ANY circumstance.", "Ours is the one RIGHT way for people to live and everyone should live like us.", and "Civilization is humanity's ULTIMATE invention and can never be surpassed." To counter these, he proposes a different meme, "Something BETTER than civilization is waiting for us." (I like this--it reminds me of "Another world is possible.")

Although Quinn says clearly "There is no one right way for people to live", he also clearly advocates living tribally, saying that this is the way that human beings haved lived for millions of years and that this works better than our current 'civilization'. He claims that the Maya, the Olmec, the Hohokam, and the Anasazi all tried some version of civilization and then abandoned it. He sees tribalism as a 'social organization' which functions without hierarchy--which is something that I find very appealing. He also sees most circuses (especially the small ones) as an example of a tribal organization. His definition of a tribe is "A tribe is a coalition of people working together as equals to make a living." (I think this definition might surprise some hunter-gatherers who might not think that 'making a living' was their reason for working together--or living together.)

I like Daniel Quinn's unorthodox approach to homelessness: instead of rousting the homeless out of makeshift refuges and into 'shelters' that don't work for most of them, we should 'Let them house themselves'. (A great line: "Don't try to drive the homeless into places we find suitable. Help them survive in places they find suitable.") Quinn also sees allowing the homeless to flourish in an environment of their choosing as "the first great movement of people to that social and economic no man's land I call 'beyond civilization'."

One of the things that makes this book both easy to read and more than a bit disconcerting is the fact that it is divided into page long little sections, a lot of which gradually unfold ideas, a bit at a time and rather chaotically. But, as it unfolds, there is a lot of useful stuff in this book.

On the other hand, Daniel Quinn seems to have an antipathy for 'communes' (which is, as anyone who has read a bunch of this blog would know, a particular passion of mine). He claims that "Yes, a commune can definitely be a tribe; it's just a problematic way to begin." This is because Quinn's definition of 'a tribe' is about making a living. Using this definition he says "it will be luck rather than design if they actually have some occupational interests and skills in common." He also rejects the idea of the Amish as a tribe because "If you apply for membership, they'll be much more interested in your religious beliefs and your moral character than in your agricultural ambitions." It's not that I don't think that there can be tribal businesses such as circuses (I think that Mr. Quinn is on target there) but I don't think that's the only way to build a tribe, anymore than there's one right way to live.

Still, for those who want to build something new, 'a World that Works for Everyone', this is an important read. Now back to Survival Resources.

Quote of the Day: "Daniel Quinn teaches that no single person is going to save the world. Rather (if it's saved at all), it will be saved by millions (and ultimately billions) of us living a new way." - Daniel Quinn