Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The end of this line...kinda

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Here, then, is the last(ish) blog entry for my 'Lands on the Margin'.  I really like the idea, and it's tough to end it as a separate idea from my other blogs.  However, if you are interested in the concept, please note that I will be posting 'Lands' entries at my other blog, "Agrarianista." 

I've come to realize a couple of things over the past year with regards to my version of home agrarianism and urban homesteading:  It involves a strong, well-balanced connection to the local wild lands. 

Joel Salatin once noted to Michael Pollan that his farm wasn't just the "productive" acres, but needed the open, wild space where he didn't directly grow anything.  Watershed quality was one factor, and I believe the windbreak it provided was another. 

I'm no Joel Salatin, but I can parallel the concept, and especially in California.  I do some things on my little chunk of land pretty well (I've got duck eggs coming out my hoo-haa), but other things escape the capabilities of my soil (like squashes, interestingly enough). 

But, as in the tradition of thousands of years of humans living here (and I count myself abundantly lucky to be grafted to the tree of California history), I rely to a great deal on what the wild has to offer me.  In particular, I rely on the things I may forage throughout the year from the edgelands, from figs to river reed. 

So, I've moved my blog posts on this concept to my Agrarianista blog.  I've also moved my occasional series posts (edible plants, now edible and useful plants, and gear reviews) to stand-alone pages at Agrarianista. 

I will also keep the 'Lands on the Margin' blog name and space, just in case.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Quick trip to the bypass: Grapes

© 2010 Joshua Stark

My daughter and I took a quick walk onto the Sacramento Bypass, just to see how it looked.  Apart from the feral sauna we found (ever heard of craigslist, A-hole!?)...

we also came across some ripe wild grapes:

We ate a couple, and if I had the time right now, I'd be back out there picking for grape jelly. 

We also came upon these beautiful hooker's evening primrose:

Please excuse the light posting lately, I'm running on little sleep, and looking for work.  Tangentially, if you know of any work to be had, shoot me a line.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Welcome my boy!

© 2010 Joshua Stark

A quick post, asking you to welcome our new baby boy!  Ruben Antonio William Stark, born last Friday.  Both Mama and baby are fine, although none of us here have gotten much sleep.

We are now four in our family, and I am constantly amazed at the miracles I've been allowed, and frequently overwhelmed with emotion.  This has been one roller coaster of a year...

(note:  I don't post pictures of my kids because they are very young.  When they are old enough to consent to their photos, I'll do it.  Or, maybe if we get some nice portraits done at some point.)

Friday, September 24, 2010

Quick note on foraging

© 2010 Joshua Stark

If you haven't yet read it, Hank Shaw has a great post up on his musings about foraging vs. gardening.  Very interesting read.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Of doves, rabbits, and adventure!

© 2010 Joshua Stark

I must confess, I didn't hunt our dove opener on marginal lands this year.  And I paid the price.

Oh, I had ideas.  I'd get up before work, a couple of hours before shooting time, even, and head out to the best dove spot on the Sacramento Bypass, a small strip of land adjacent to the California Highway Patrol training facility.  I'd do this for two reasons:  The opening day shoot there is supposed to be great; and I'd take the good spot where, every year, a bunch of A-holes shoot up the place and leave a pile of shotgun shells.

I don't understand leaving shotgun shells.  I'm sure there's some macho territory-marking thing going on, or some macho, I-don't-clean-up-after-myself sort of thing.  All it does is make me want to slash tires.

Well, this year I'd be out there before the morons.  I'd have a good spot, and maybe a good story to go with it, and I'd be back in the office by startin' time.

Two things changed this year's plans, however.  First, I lost my job - so, no need to beat the rush.  Second, my cousin and a good friend invited me to hunt a property they paid for access.  It's a peach orchard, and they'd been told it's lousy with doves, rabbits, and barnie pigeons.  Heck, there'd even be peaches for the pickin'.

So instead of heading up to the bypass, when 4 am rolled around, I was in my cousin's truck heading 90 miles South.

The company was great, we had a wonderful time, and the friend used the word "epic" on at least three occasions.  Unfortunately, those occasions were:  Just how few doves show up at a place that charges money; the notoriety of my cousin's and my ability to create a 'no game' zone within a 20 mile radius of wherever we choose to hunt; and sadly, the amount of crack a 65-year old man decided to show on his way into the Perko's at breakfast-time.

Known for our hunts being titled, "that time..." (as in, "that time we almost shot those specks"), this became, "that time the a-hole guide stopped us to check our permission slips, and the only shootable dove dropped in over his truck", and also "that time we shot those peaches."  Epic is the right word. 

But, later in the week things would improve, and they would do so on some marginal lands.

The Department of Fish & Game manages a number of small wildlife areas throughout the state.  Often, these areas are little more than leftover parcels and patches jammed between industrial and agriculture centers.  I call many of these lands marginal (except the duck hunting spots, of course), even though they are outside city limits and urban centers, because they are on the margins of human activities that dramatically alter the landscape.  And what's more impactful, anyway, a thousand acres of sprayed wheat, harvested at nesting time, or a thousand acres of city with parks and trees and backyard bird feeders?  It's also not accurate to portray "urban" as ending at the arbitrary political boundary, when that city wouldn't exist without the ribbon of asphalt and those thousand acres of wheat, repeated to epic proportions, throughout the "country".  There is no real "urban". 

And so I found myself, again with my cousin, hunting up an edgeland.  We arrived over an hour late, a bad, bad thing when hunting rabbits with no dog in wild grape and blackberry country.  But right at the parking lot we jumped and lost a bunny, so our spirits were buoyed.  Walking the edge, we spied a flock of doves (the OED describes that as a, "holy crap!" of doves) on the ground.  My cousin put the sneak on 'em and got one.  Just over a hillock a rabbit fell to my gun.  Another couple hundred yards, and I noticed a little brown shape.

"Is that a..." as I speak, I realize it is a, "rabbit, right" BOOM! "there?"

After that, we paddled over a body of water to a spot a bit more difficult to access if not for the boat.  At 8:30 am, an hour after most people around here would have called it a day for rabbits, a cottontail skidded by in front of us.  We were so shocked to see a coney this late that we didn't get off a shot.

A great day.  I've got rabbits in the freezer, my cousin has a dove to add to his pile, and we have that time we got those two rabbits and a dove.

I should've trusted the marginal lands to provide when I needed them.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Edible Plants of California's Edgelands: A giant ficus on the Margin

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Summer in Central California brings some amazing things.  Of course, we get the heat - a typical Summer here gives us 22 days over 100 degrees, which means that half of our years have more than 22 days over 100.  But, we also get fruit, vegetables, berries, and flowers.  For foraging the wild marginal lands, Summer offers up serious bounties of very valuable products - fennel seeds and pollen, and various berries ripened by the heat and fed by generous river systems.  This weather also makes for a great place for common figs to grow.

That brighter green thicket holds an overflowing bounty

The common fig (Ficus caricar) has a long and distinguished past with people.  Among the first plants cultivated by humans, figs have been found in neolithic sites dating back to 9,000 BC, even before evidence of wheat cultivation.  Today, hundreds of varieties are grown throughout the warmer parts of the world.

In California, the most commonly met wild fig is a variety called 'mission' or 'black mission'.  It is medium-sized, as figs go, and when ripe (Summertime!), turns a beautiful, dark purple and droops down.  It's name comes from its origin to the state, as Spanish missions brought the fruit as early as the late 1700's.

 The black mission fig in all its glory

Figs are that type of food everything gorges on while it's ripe.  Birds, woodland critters, and people all take part in great fig feasts, because very soon, we know they will be withered and gone for a whole year.

Figs are also the type of food that really changes dramatically with preparation.  When eaten raw, they are sweet, but not overpoweringly so.  When preserved, their sweetness is still there, but there is a stronger presence of other flavors, and an almost smoky quality.

Because they are so loved by creatures great and small, and because they've been cultivated for thousands of years, figs are prolific, and picking can be easy.  However, this means that the tree you are eyeballing along the trail has been eyeballed by more than a couple of people, and other species, to boot.  And the tree has one problem associated with picking:  It's sap can be a terrible irritant, causing sticking, itching, and burning, and on some people, it can even scar.  If you are heading out to pick, please wear long-sleeved shirts, pants, and if you are particularly sensitive, even gloves. 

If you can just reach a little further...
Technical-ish description:

Common fig, Ficus caricar
Large, deciduous shrub or small tree of riparian habitats, growing to 30 feet high, almost always in thickets of multiple plants.
Leaves are large, palmate, and deeply lobed with 3-7 lobes.  Fruit is a synconium.

Preserved figs
Half as much sugar as figs
One lemon per 60 figs or so, sliced thin
60 figs will make about four pint jars

Pour just enough water to cover the bottom of your pan (really, just a little water), and dump in figs, whole.  Cover with sugar.
Set fire on med-med. high, stirring frequently, until it starts to boil.  Lower heat some, and simmer, uncovered, 1.5-2 hours, until liquid starts to thicken, stirring occasionally to keep the foam down (it's harder to skim the foam with whole figs in the pot).  If the pot is seriously foaming, turn down the heat a bit. 

Pour into prepared jars, making sure to get a couple of lemon slices in each jar, and process in boiling water bath (I believe the standard is fifteen minutes, but you'll need to double-check that with a canning expert).

If you can the figs while the liquid is still pretty thin, pour the liquid over the figs, and strain the remaining liquid through a sieve to get rid of the seeds.  You now have a small amount of fig syrup, with which you can make this:

Ginger, candied in fig & port wine

One finger of ginger, about one/1.5 in. long
3/4 to 1 Cup each of fig syrup and port wine

Simmer fig syrup on medium heat until it just starts to bubble around the edges, then quickly pour in the port wine.  Simmer down a bit, then toss in ginger, sliced wide and thin.  Simmer down by at least half.  Serve sauce over meats (it goes perfectly with salmon), topped with the ginger.  

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Living off the margins - edible plants of marginal lands

© 2010 Joshua Stark

I'm currently working on an additional page for this blog, titled, "Edible Plants of California's Edgelands".  Ideally, I'd like to provide a little primer on the most common plants, where/when to find them, a couple of recipes, and whatnot.

Are any of you interested?  Also, what might you like to know?

So far, here's my list:  Mallow, filaree, nettles, elders, dandelions, artichokes, fennel, berries, figs.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Marginal hunting seasons

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Another quick note.  Here in California, many are surprised at how early we start hunting deer.  Our archery seasons for much of the coast began in July, and our other regions' seasons are about to get started.

However, I thought I'd point out that more than just deer are available for folks with sticks and strings in our Golden State.  The archery season for tree squirrels began August 1st, and archery quail season starts this Sunday, August 15th!  Of course, rabbits have been open for hunting since July 1, and hares are open year-round.

Yes, these are marginal hunting opportunities, and many would scoff at the idea of trying to arrow any bird short of a turkey (which, by the way, is as easy to hunt with a bow as with a shotgun).  But, there are a number of fun and interesting hunting arrowheads specifically for prey such as quail.  The most common option is the Judo Point, a great head by Zwickey Archery, but they make a better bird point with the Kondor Point - a Judo Point with longer wires.

One can also hunt with Snaro points, which consist of metal cables looped forward, sticking out a few inches on either side.  These heads catch birds.

The good features of these heads include less arrow loss from slipping away, and a wider striking area, allowing for more room for error.  With these animals, you are aiming for something about the same size as the vitals on bigger game, and with the extra help from these fun points, your odds get even better - so try not to be so intimidated.  Also remember that you are out to fling arrows, see some beautiful country, and quietly scout for rifle and shotgun seasons, but if you EVER come home with a successful hunt, you will be the envy of your friends, and prouder'n a peacock, to boot! 

This year, I hope to get out once with my recurve and some small game points after birds and squirrels and rabbits.  Maybe I'll see you out there.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Working... buffering... stalling...

There is a lot going on now, and I'm on pause here for the moment.  While I do that, please enjoy this piece on archery over at the Suburban Bushwacker.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Non-food foraging

© 2010 Joshua Stark

...and I don't mean dumpster-diving, or continuing to click on the craigslist "free" category (I've already blogged about that one).  I'm talking about foraging for things that don't make food, but provide other benefits.

Here in the California Delta, we are cursed with Arundo donax, giant river reed.  This plant is highly invasive, and provides no habitat for our native fauna.  It also poisons the ground around it, making for a negative habitat space, in effect.  However, the gigantic reeds make for fine lattices and trellises.  In my tiny town along the river, I grew up next door to master filipino gardeners, who made amazing-looking trellises in the form of five to six-foot tall lean-tos: the cucumbers and beans would hang straight down off of the roofs, where one could easily walk underneath and pick them at eye level.

We also have wild roses, whose shoots can make beautiful and sturdy arrows, and willows, with which one may make a chair, or a concoction for getting clippings to take root.  And the abundant local tules and rushes had been used for centuries by native Californians for everything from houses to boats to duck decoys.  Soon, I hope to gather some up and try my hand at making decoys, just to see if all the hype in the duck-hunting industry has been overblown. 

The occasional walnut tree makes its presence, too, including one 65-foot monster in our back yard.  Now, as the squirrels rain down our beautiful walnuts too early to eat, I hope to gather them up and boil down a concoction into walnut stain to make just about anything dark brown - wood, but also pants, hands, our porch.  The stuff "works", that's for sure. 

Have you ever foraged for things other than food?  Often, our little out-of-the-way spots hold treasures that can save you some money, or contribute free loot to a new hobby.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Continuing ideas

© 2010 Joshua Stark

A couple weeks back, I asked if folks had any ideas for my new venture, and I received a couple (thanks, fellas!).  I'm working on more specific thoughts now, and I've found a gentleman who is going to help me work out the kinks and ideas as a person new to the scene, a potential client.  I wrote about where I found him at Ethics & the Environment.  After speaking with him, I got some good ideas I'd like to share here.
Here's my plan so far:  A six-week series of four-hour meetings once/week, to cover the basics of foraging in the regional wild lands, fishing (with basic paddling instructions), hunting (with firearms and archery safety and the chance to shoot), food prep and storage, and some visits to local farms and gardens to get tips and ideas on small-scale farming at home (including animals, of course).  The classes will come with some basic information in a three-ring binder, with pages on some local plants and animals, seasonality, links to better information, etc.  I also hope to provide classes on basic birdwatching, botany, field sketching, photography, things to do in the field with kids, first aid, etc.

I'm not saying I can do all of these things (I can do a few), but where I can't (like photography), I'd like to schedule folks to come in who can (like Holly or my amazing friend David Lamfrom).

What do y'all think?  How much should I charge for something like this?  I'm thinking that with a six-week series, folks can sign up for individual classes, or sign up for the whole series at a discount.

Let me know if I'm even barking up the right tree here.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

There is no Spoon - when 'Spoon' is 'Urban' - and sometimes that is very sad

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Yesterday, on my way home for lunch, a body on the side of the road made my blood run cold.  I hit the brakes and pulled off to the side, jumped out of the car, and walked over to it - my worst suspicions came to pass.

It was a dead badger.

Now, this might not sound like a big deal to many of you, especially those living in the Great Basin region.  But here, in California's Central Valley, badgers are very uncommon.  Also, American badgers are not the kind of animal that thrives on the edge-lands.  Badgers are Big Country animals.  So it came as a complete shock to me to find a dead one on a main thoroughfare in a city of over 40,000 (and part of a metropolitan area of over 1 million), across a bridge with heavy traffic.

To really understand my surprise, consider this:  I have never, in my entire life, seen a badger here.  By "here" I mean my homeland, I mean in my thirty-five years of stomping around the Delta.  Never.  Not once.

I still don't know what to make of finding this critter.  On the ground, I am heartbroken.  Here is a symbol of the wild wild, a real beast that would and should be snorting and hissing, clawing through the ground, being tough and scary, standing up to creatures many times its size with a legendary strength of will and muscle.  As a child, my cousin, friends and I used to play "animal", and inevitably one of us would call out that they were now a badger, and crawl around low, fighting everybody else.  But here lay this one, its huge claws uselessly tucked under its chin, it's beautiful fur matted by blood, its fierce green fire long gone from its eyes.

Of course, in the grander scheme of things, I see this beautiful creature's presence as yet another truth against the way we've tried to organize, separate, and catalog our lives.  As I've written at my Ethics & the Environment blog, there are no real distinctions between urban, rural, and wild, and a badger in the city is one more example, though it comes at great cost.

Where I am confused is in what this means for the area.  Are badgers back, and their numbers so large that now one shows up in town?  I'd like to think this is true.  Are they getting so much pressure that they are actually moving into marginal lands?  Maybe I just don't know badgers very well, and they are successful enough to survive on the margins while never being seen?  Perhaps, even, this one was somebody's pet - though I seriously doubt that one.

So I'm left befuddled, but with a real reason to poke around even deeper into my local marginal lands, looking for badger sign.  Hopefully, I'll find some, but with enough distance to not get torn to ribbons.  I'll keep you posted.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Gear on the Margin: Rifles for the Marginal Lands

© Joshua Stark

As with my archery and shotgun posts, I'm getting into some controversial stuff here.  So, before I explain, and before my caveats, I'll just flat-out say it:  For most North American hunting, and for the vast majority of the marginal lands, the 30-30 Winchester lever-action rifle is the best gun.

"What!?!" you probably say.  But, I'll say it again:  The 30-30 Winchester is the best gun.

Now, take a deep breath, and let me explain.

Today's gun market is awash in the latest and greatest, hottest and hardest hittin', flat-shootinest rounds, guns, and accessories EVER.  And I know I am, effectively, a thirty-year old 90-year-old man, a curmudgeonly sort.  But, I make no apologies about my love for the 30-30, for it's effectiveness, and for the good it can do to the deer-hunting world.

Usually, articles about the 30-30 Winchester spend the first couple of paragraphs talking about how maligned, out-of-date, and picked-on this 115 yr. old round is, and how its bad rap is unjustified. Then, they talk about how it is getting a 're-model' or some other such thing, in effect talking like it really is a bad round in desperate need of this latest makeover. They mention loading spitzer-type bullets, or the new LeveRevolution, both fine ideas, but the glaring omissions belie the authors' (and community's) belief that the 30-30 is a sub-par arm for hunting.

Baloney! As commonly stated, the 30-30 has probably taken more deer than any other round in North America. It is often touted as a person's first gun, due as much to the availability of ammunition and rifles, its excellent cost-to-quality ratio, as to the light recoil. I'd be willing to bet that the majority of folks got a 30-30 as their first rifle because it was either already in the house, or it was the one they could afford after Summer work, and that, for their hard-earned dollars, it was the best deer rifle.

The titles of most of these articles also have the words "close-quarter", "close range", "quick-action brush gun", or some other comment about the idea that this gun won't kill a deer outside of 100 yds. I won't tell you here that you can tap a dik-dik at 400 yds. on a breezy day with it. What I will say is that probably nine in ten shots taken at deer in this country are inside 100 yds., and one in twenty hunters has any business trying to shoot a deer outside 100 yds, anyway.

An 80-yard shot is not a "close-quarters" "brush" shot, it is a good distance to get to for a good, solid shot.  Selling a gun by convincing the buyer that they need to consider 300+ yards is unethical without knowing the person's capabilities.

My opinion? If you are worried about power, first get the tag and the guide lined up for that Alberta moose hunt or trip to Kodiak Island for the bear of a lifetime, then buy the .375 H&H magnum, although you won't want to shoot it.  If you are worried about distance, practice stalking. Hunters still take spooky game in open country with real bows, like these folks.

But, if you want a good, solid deer gun that will regularly hit what you aim at without inflicting about the same amount of damage in both directions, and if you want a gun that is fun to carry in the field and not fussy, then just reach under your bed or into your closet and grab your 30-30, and hunt.

You all have read about my preference for American made products, and the 30-30 lever gun had become a temporary casualty of outsourcing.  Thankfully, this is no longer the case:  A few years ago, Mossberg bought the designs for the Winchester, made some modifications, and manufactures a beautiful gun with the same lines as the old Model 94 (and Ranger, like mine).

When I was 15 and looking for a gun, I wasn't really looking. I wanted a Winchester lever-action 30-30. After 15-plus years owning this gun, I'm more glad than ever that I bought it.

As for it's abilities on marginal lands, the 30-30 beats any competition for the same reason I prefer a double-barreled shotgun on marginal lands - versatility.  The 30-30's lower power and weight benefit the hunter who may chance across rabbits to deer.  .22's are great guns, as are 30-06's, but really only a couple of calibers overlap between small and large game (anybody still shooting .243's?).  And, with the glaring exception of non-lead rounds (which are available, but not readily so), one can find 30-30 ammo just about anywhere.

Its lines are classic. Its feel, balance, and shootability are unmatched, regardless of price. It handles light without being whippy. Its action never fails. It is the prettiest gun I own. I did have my choice of rifles when I decided on the Ranger model, and I picked it because its magazine tube was shorter than the Model 94, and its wood was darker and nicer, both cosmetic choices, but my taste in rifles hasn't changed over time.

Do I hunt with other rifles?  Absolutely.  I take a .270 Savage model 110E out after pigs, and I love that tack-driving gun, but I don't practice with it enough to justify a shot outside of 150 yards right now with it, either.  And the 30-30 is prettier than any bolt gun, but especially that broom-handle stocked beast.

I will not apologize for taking my 30-30 lever gun after blacktails or mulies, and neither should you. It is the best marginal lands gun ever built.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Into the Great Wide Open

© 2010 Joshua Stark

When Hank and Holly accept a foraging invite from me, the only guarantee is a good time.

Some of you may recall the last big trip I suckered... er, invited Holly and Hank into taking with me, to the nearly utterly lifeless and barren Pacific Ocean.  Or, at least that's what one would have thought, had their first experience of it been a fishing/foraging trip with me.
This time, I convinced the dynamic duo that we may be able to find gooseberries.  I was supremely confident in their location, as I'd stumbled upon the remains of gooseberries last September while hunting the wily mounain quail (Oreortyx pictus).  If you've never seen mountain quail, they are simply the most amazing upland game bird species in California.  Hunters, think chukar with bramble and thick fir forest cover.   Nonhunters, imagine a bird, a slate-gray breast, with brown and white bands along its sides, about 1/3rd bigger than valley quail, and with a perfect metaphor for its behavior atop its head:  Instead of the apostrophe worn by valley quail, mountain quail wear an exclamation mark at a jaunty angle.

My hunting trip last year, fruitless as per usual, had me stomping through some spiny shrubbery - new growth from a fire few years back.  As I poked around, I noticed red, spikey berry hulls on the ground, and dessicated berries attached to small, ground-hugging plants growing among the thorny bushes.  Back home, the book identified them as sierra gooseberries (Ribes roezlii).

Later in the year, I mentioned in passing to a couple of foraging fiends, Hank and Kari (at Erratic Sewer & Crafter), that I'd found a good stand of gooseberries.  They both had the same reaction - giddy excitement.  Next year, they said, we'd like to have a look-see at your gooseberry spot.

This spot is in a National Forest in the Sierra Nevada (if you want more specifics, keep wantin'), which begs the question:  Is this a marginal land?  Well, yes and no.  You see, we often treat National Forest lands like a cross between a National Park and BLM land, probably because BLM lands are often scrubby partial plots with non-native weeds and the like, whereas our National Forests are, well, forests.

However, National Forest lands are managed by the USDA, whereas BLM lands, like National Park units, are within the Dept. of Interior.  Being agricultural lands, national forests are often logged and grazed.  The Forest Service's mission, "to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations", makes plain the management goals of these lands.

I'm not going to get into the arguments here (maybe at Ethics and the Environment I will) over private profiting on public lands, fuels reduction, etc.  I will note that the particular patch of land I was taking Hank and Holly had been ravaged by catastrophic wildfire a few years back.  These reasons make me feel like this is a marginal land.

"Catastrophic" is an important distinction, too.  California habitats need fire to thrive.  Fires clean out dead and diseased plants, revitalize soils, change the effects of sunlight and water in places, and are even needed to open some seed pods. Native California grasses evolved with fires and moving herds of browsers, and many have developed tight structures above their roots, slower growth, a perennial nature, and less prolific seeding. A fire passing through native California habitat usually burns slowly and with low intensity, as it comes up against those tight, green bunch-grasses.  It burns up forest duff (dead leaves and branches), leaving open patches of soil with light layers of ash, while leaving the upper canopies untouched and the mature trees alive.  Soon after, seedlings sprout in the rich soil.

Catastrophic fires alter the landscape in far different, unnatural ways.

A catastrophic wildfire is driven by non-native invasive plants, grasses in particular.  Non-native grasses, introduced with the Spaniards and others, evolved with farmed animals that live sedentary, local lives.  European grasses live fast and die young, seeding quickly and browning.  Oftentimes, they grow tall, too.  Fires burning through these grasses find thick fuels that reach into the soil.  Coupled with an effective 150 years of fire suppression, fires today in the Sierra Nevada find feet of duff, branches and entire dead trees extending up into the canopies, and dead native grasses through the open stretches.  They burn super-hot, they burn deep into the soil, and they burn into the crowns of trees.  When they finally burn out, they leave soils with no microbial activity, no living mature trees to cover the ground from rains and soak up water with roots.  Quickly, erosion rips away soil and ash, and non-native seeds infiltrate, especially along logging roads where car tires and clearing operations bring them in.

Along our stretch of forest, where mountain springs feed little gulleys and crevices, some trees survived.  Under these remaining canopies we found our bounties.  Though not yet finished flowering, the gooseberries and currants are thick.  The elderberries, too, have taken up some of the open spaces, though they've yet to even leaf-out.

And Hank found morels.

We picked maybe a pound of the delicious mushrooms, whose aroma out of the ground reminded me of the freshest trout.  Hank also picked some fir tips for a crazy syrup experiment.  Later, on some other marginal lands down the Hill, we also found wild mint, and a cloud of so many ladybugs that a couple of them mistook me and Holly for aphids.  Being bitten by a ladybug is about as bad as it sounds, but it was shocking.

The mountains and foothills we covered were iconic for their landscapes:  Big Country, with 10,000 ft. snow-capped peaks in the background, and a raging, blown-out river in Spring thaw far down the canyon.  Many songbirds had arrived, though the squirrels were still silent and the raptors (save for a lone prairie falcon) and band-tailed pigeons must have still been in the lowlands.  We didn't hit up any streams for trout, nor drop a crawdad trap in a reservoir, nor (of course) hunt anything this time.  Heck, we barely scratched the surface. 

We will definitely be back.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ideas, anyone?

© 2010 Joshua Stark

I'm trying to get a couple of ventures off the ground, one in particular.

A few years ago, I tried my hand at professionally guiding.  I ran a guide service for a few months, and though I did get a lot of interest, and a few clients, I couldn't get it going quickly enough, and had to get back into the 'real' world. 

Since then, I've only come to realize more clearly that I need to work more outdoors.  I love my current job, but it's only part-time (I'm currently one of those "underemployed"s you keep hearing about), and so I am left with somewhat of an opportunity to get a guide service going again.  Related to this service, I hope to offer some Twitter-feed on local outdoors goings-on, as well as try my hand at getting some outdoor articles published.  I'm nowhere near the professional talent of Chad Love or Holly Heyser, but I think I can find a niche posting about the local drama and beauty of our wild margins.  I'm looking to be the go-to guy for locals who want to know where and how they can catch a glimpse of river otters, or hear an owl.

What I would like from you all, dear reader(s?), is advice on what else I might be able to offer, both here at Lands on the Margin, and also in a potential new guide service.  Just remember, I'm a sucker, so any good ideas will obviously get you free trips (airfare, hotel, and food accommodations not included).

So send me your ideas and notions.  What would you like, information-wise, on our local outdoor scene?  What could you take away from knowing about our marginal lands?

I will also continue to post on some bigger issues that impact marginal lands here, as well as posting on Environmental Ethics and Agrarianista.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Some marginal lands get their due

© 2010 Joshua Stark

A quick note that High Country News has an article on the vital ecological importance of some of our marginal lands, like the Hanford Nuclear Waste Site.

Normally, I wouldn't link to a site that only gives you a snippet, and then requires submission.  But High Country News deserves to be read, and it deserves to get paid for its work.  It offers some of the best commentary and news on the Western U.S. you will find anywhere.  And they don't pay me a dime, nor offer me a subscription to say it.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Can we start fishing yet?

© 2010 Joshua Stark

For those of you not living in Northern California, we've had an El NiƱo year, which means a lot of precipitation.  In the Sacramento region, that almost always means rain, which we've had off-and-on (mostly on) for months now.  Last week, though, it hailed a couple of inches.  For the Sierra Nevada, it means snow (hence the name "Sierra Nevada"), and remarkably low elevations for it, too.

Late April in sunny California...
For fishermen, then, it means more waiting.  Here it is May, and we are getting breezy to windy (40mph gusts) conditions, snow at 4,500 ft., and another storm slated for Monday.

I just want to catch some crappies, man.

My local marginal lands, the Barge Canal in West Sacramento, has some great spots for crappies and bluegills, two of the best-tasting species around, as well as striper runs.  In the next few weeks, too, the shad are supposed to start pouring into the Sacramento River.  And if the Sierra ever starts its runoff, the trout will become fishable.

But right now, everything is still sluggish.  Sheesh.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Gear for the Marginal Lands: Archery on the Margin

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Before writing this, I must first warn the reader that I am a very biased source when it comes to archery equipment.  I have loosed an arrow since I was 13 years old, and I've loved it every time.

For years, I shot a little 50 lb. Browning wheel bow with a draw length shorter than my own.  I still own it, and it still shoots just fine - in fact, I'm so attuned to that little bow, it's practically a part of me. 

But, I don't shoot it so much anymore.  It's draw length comes up about two inches short for my gibbon-like arms, which I have remedied with a trigger mechanism (by holding it funny).  I also have a sight on it, and an arrow rest.

I bring these points up because it was the plethora of gadgets that brought me to where I am now.

Archery, for all the primitiveness and simplicity that archers would have you believe they seek, is the most gadget-laden industry in hunting.  In fact, I'd argue that the only other outdoor sport to equal today's archer in the number of doo-dads one could be sold is bass fishing.

And I'll admit, that 12-year old inside me really loves gadgets.  I love how pieces fit together to work, and I love it when something goes right after all the pieces have been tuned.

But, around the time I turned thirty, I realized that I really did need the simplicity and the strive for excellence demanded of archery, and I realized that all those thingamajigs were really, seriously cluttering that process.

One day, then, while perusing an archery store with my wife, we came upon a little recurve bow.  Out of the blue, Agnes (my wife) said to me, "You should just get it."  It was a little expensive, but not as bows go ($150), so I bought it.

It's a smallish (58") Korean number, with a 55 lb. draw weight and I have some not-so-kind things to say about it.  For one, it pinches (an archery term meaning that the string gets quite an angle in it at full draw).  In fact, my bow pinches so much, I switched to a three-finger-under draw because it was affecting my arrow flight.

The bow also stacks like a monster.  Stacking is another archery term, which means that, close to full-draw (when you have pulled the bowstring all the way to your face), the amount of power it takes to draw one additional inch grows a great deal.

But, even with its faults, I love my bow.  I even named it - Stark Versorger - which is something I'd never previously done with anything but my Suzuki Samurai (whose name is Tomoe).

Why do I love it, if it is a pain to draw and use?  Because it taught me so much about both archery and hunting.  With this bow, I knew I'd have to set a real limit to my range, and I would have to be honest about that limit, learn to know it, and then learn how to get in range of animals I'd hope to take with it.

I learned that there can be a simplicity of materials in hunting, and that organic materials take on a life and deserve a respect that is lost to plastic doohickeys.  I learned that I could, actually, make my own equipment to fit me, specifically.  I learned that arrows kill by being accurate and sharp and heavy and fast, not just fast.

I also re-remembered just how much I love to draw a bow and fling an arrow.

 What is bad technique?  That wrist, for one...

I actually really like the three-finger-under draw now, too, because it puts my eye much closer to the arrow, which is a good benefit at the ranges I can ethically shoot (when I'm up in practice, that range is thirty paces).

The amazing thing about archery is that one can grab a quiver, glove, guard and bow, set out into the woods, and with the same equipment, take any game animal in North America.

Now, for my gear recommendations.  First, I do recommend recurves, self-bows, or longbows (traditional gear) over compound bows for hunting the marginal lands.  This is because when a person is looking to hunt these places, they often want simplicity - to just grab your gear and go.  A compound really requires a whole lot of fiddling around, and even an occasional tune-up at a shop.  Also, when hunting these great places, shots of different species often present themselves, and traditional gear is better at the quicker shots - the sideways shots, the spin-and-loose shots - that one would use when hunting squirrels or rabbits.  Compounds, with their sights, usually require the bow be completely vertical, and held the same way each time, whereas traditional gear only requires you intimately know your equipment, and feel comfortable with the shot.

If you have never shot archery, I highly recommend buying a bow with a 25-30lb. draw first.  If you have never shot a recurve, but shoot a compound bow and are looking to switch, I recommend you seriously consider a recurve about ten to twenty pounds under your current bow's draw weight.  Pride and the addiction to arrow speed can blind a person into buying a bow that is just too heavy.  When that happens, the bow winds up leaning against the wall, gathering dust, because it hurts to even think about shooting it.

Now, for newbies, that 25-30lb. recurve will not hunt, but, that isn't its purpose.  Its purpose is to teach you how to shoot - how to have proper form, how to breathe right, how to judge distance and arrow flight.  It is also supposed to teach you how to love drawing a bow, while building the unique set of muscles required for archery.  If you start with too much bow, you will develop bad form, bad breathing, you won't learn about arrow flight, you definitely won't love drawing it, and you just might hurt yourself. Once you are comfortable and in love with archery, go out and buy a nice bow in a weight you are comfortable shooting, from 45 lbs. and up.

I've heard good things about the BowFit exercise tool, and I think it could be helpful in getting a person from the 25 lb. bow up to the 50 lb. bow, but I've never used it, myself.  I also don't think it's a good idea to get a BowFit in place of a smaller weight bow.  There are form issues to be worked out by loosing an arrow, and these form issues involve muscle memory very specific to the person and the shot. 

For finger protection, I highly recommend leather, and though my preference is for gloves, my recommendation is for you to shoot with both tabs and gloves, and find which style suits you.  As for arm guards, I have a vented one for Summer and a full one for Winter, and I recommend them both.  Do not ever shoot without an arm guard - I've seen feathers get buried in forearms, and it's nasty.

Quivers are also personal, but I absolutely love my Cat quiver.  For years I hated it, but when I started wearing it without the waist strap, it became a much better quiver for me.  Also, it has lasted twenty years in great shape.

For arrows, I recommend carbon if you can afford it, but with feather fletching, not plastic, and make sure you weigh those arrows down!  I recommend arrowheads no lighter than 125 grain, and 150 or 175 are even better.  You want your arrow to fly like a badminton birdie - heavy in the front, stabilized by the feathers.  Why feathers?  Feathers are waterproof, they flex (required when shooting without an arrow rest) and they self-repair.  Plus, they are way prettier, and if you goose or turkey hunt, you will feel very proud to fletch your own.  I usually shoot wooden arrows because they are cheaper and heavier, but they do break.  Aluminum is also a fine material, and nigh-indestructible, so probably better for marginal lands hunting.  Try not to skimp on the number of arrows you buy, but make sure you like them, first.

What about my recommendations for sights, arrow rests, rangefinders, triggers, &etc.?  No sights, no arrow rest (well, you can buy some felt at OSH, or some hair rest or leather at an archery shop to tape to your shelf or fold over your knuckle), no trigger.  As for rangefinders, I have a pointed comment:  If you cannot eyeball that it is comfortably in range, then it isn't comfortably in range.  If you can't judge yards very well (Lord knows I can't), then switch to judging your own paces, and practice with them at the range.   Remember that you will always be about 10% off in your judgment, and remember that 10% of 40 yards is twelve feet, six feet bigger than 10% of twenty yards.  Being off by twelve feet, when the arrow is already at 40 yards, can place it a few inches up or down of your aim, which, itself, may not have been perfect.  At twenty yards, though, the arrow is still moving quickly, and so six feet one way or the other offers a much more comfortable range for error.

You see, archery is about being comfortable through knowledge.  It's about knowing your gear, your prey, your environs, the wind, and most definitely the shot.

And so my biggest single recommendation when using archery on the marginal lands is to shoot, shoot, shoot.  As you are walking along, shoot at pine cones on the ground, to judge distance and sharpen accuracy.  Shoot sitting, kneeling, bent over - all the different ways you may wish you'd practiced when presented with that once-in-a-lifetime shot.  The beauty of archery is that you don't spook much in the forest when you practice, unlike guns.

Archery provides a level of versatility that only gets better when you replace stuff with practice and time afield.  If you have fewer things to tinker with, you tinker less, and shoot more.  And that's the fun of it.  So get out and loose (and lose) some arrows.

Monday, April 5, 2010

I only do Epic

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Two weekends back, I invited Hank and Holly (of Hunter Angler Gardener Cook and NorCalCazadora, respectively) to drive me out to Bodega Bay for a day of ocean food acquisition.  The Plan:  arrive at daybreak to catch the rising, perfect tide for surfperch.  After limiting out, drive down coast to the harbor, to throw crab snares off the jetty for dungeness, rock, and red crabs.  After filling our crab buckets, and with the tide moving out, we'd mosey onto the flats and dig for horseneck clams, as I had done in my youth.  With twenty clams, we'd have to call it quits, but the perfect low tide would have exposed the tidepools upcoast a bit, where we would find sea lettuce, laver, mussels, limpets, and everything else we'd need for an amazing dinner that Hank would (of course) provide the next day.  It's a good thing I convinced Hank that he'd thought of cooking dinner for us, too.

Now, some of you (as in, anybody who has ever hunted, fished, or foraged with me) may be saying to yourselves, "but Josh!  What about your reputation!  You have your honour to consider!"  I know, I know, I'd be putting my reputation on the line with such a diversity of opportunities.  Alas, I didn't disappoint.

The night prior to the trip, I couldn't sleep.  The folks would be arriving at 4:45 am, but at 11:30 I was up cooking biscuits for the trip.  Then, I lay on the couch (loosely defined, as it more closely resembles a conglomeration of wooden bumps) and thought of surfperch, and the newfangled gizmo - a crab "snare" - with which we'd limit on dungeness.  I finally fell asleep around 2:30; it felt like I was sixteen again.

At 4:15, it was brutally clear that I was not sixteen.  I think the word "fuzz" most aptly describes that feeling of being shocked awake before 5 am...

Stumbling around, I made my coffee and threw my equipment out the front door.  4:30 came, and then 4:45... after a couple of minutes, I peaked out the window next to the door - no sign of Hank, no sign of Holly. I stepped away from the window.

Knock! Knock!  

Scrambling back into my skin (it's awkward enough answering the door with no clothes on), I grabbed the door handle and swung it open to find a particularly chipper Hank (if this were a sit-com, that's where the applause would have happened, because Hank is becoming quite the star lately).  Uh-oh.  Chipper.  He might have accidentally packed the one item in a fisherman's chest that can cause nothing but pain when fishing with me - hope.

With my best impersonation of an awake person, I stepped out the door, grabbed my things, and hauled them to the car.  Holly waited at the wheel, less chipper, thankfully (it was 4:45, and we weren't hunting), but still nice, as always.

I jumped into the car, and Hank actually started talking about tomorrow's seafood dinner, made with all the catch we were to acquire this Bounteous Day.

I thought, have these people never been out with me before?!?  I started to sweat... his attitude just might ruin my reputation...  but I played along.

After a forty-five minute drive of 200 miles through winding and twisting, undulating Coast Range Mountains - did I mention my motion sickness? - Holly finally used the brakes, and we pulled into a gas station at Bodega Bay.  Peeling myself from the window, I wobbled out of the car.

"Well, Holly, you sure know how to get somewhere" I said, but she didn't hear me; my voice is muffled when my head is between my legs.

But the sea air has a wonderful curative effect, and the clear skies and rising Sun added to the amazement of the place.  Bodega Bay is a small bay by California standards, and much of it is harbor, and lays out before you at the gas station.  The tide was coming in, and it was a good flood.  With the tide, my anticipation and ominously, my hopes, also began to rise.

"Yep", I said, pulling my belt up and sniffing hard into one nostril, "we'll head up-coast till we find a nice, dumping surf, and look for holes."  I was sure to impress them with my surfperch know-how.

A couple of terrifying miles later, a beautiful little secluded stretch of sand lay before us.  "Portuguese Beach" the sign read, with smaller writing underneath warning of sleeper waves, rogue waves, and waves that would just as soon kill you as give you the time of day.  Among the warnings were the admonition not to turn your back on the ocean, nor to stare directly at it, but to maintain a respectful demeanor with eyes averted.  This was one mean stretch of beach.

And perfect surfperch habitat.  The V-breaking waves against the sand pulled open holes where sand-crabs and worms would find themselves drawn out into open water, creating the perfect natural chumming effect we'd been looking for.  The incoming tide compounded this effect, pulling tons of sand, and the occasional small child, out into the churning waters.

Yup, everything was perfect.  Perfect.

After an hour-and-a-half futilely flinging lead and bait into the washtub-surf that was Portuguese Beach, we slogged back to the car in disgust.  Stupid hope.

 Hank with a face-full of hope... it's like he doesn't even know me
(Photo by Holly Heyser)

But the harbor has a fishing pier, a wonderful stretch of concrete lovingly cradling the marina, where surfperch reside, as well as crabs - big, tasty dungeness crabs.  As we walked out, we saw brants, ducks, and a beautiful loon catching perch after perch right in front of us.  We tossed out our lines, and waited.

And waited.

Holly read a book and complained, ironically, about the prologue being too long.  Our day's prologue was extending quite a ways, itself.

The tide at full-flood, an Islander-type (Jamaica or Trinidad) just down the pier was catching crabs, but we had no bait, so I walked the twelve miles around the marina for five frozen mackerel at a buck a pop.  Back to the pier, we baited our new crab snares.  These snares reminded me of two lines:  One from anonymous, "Some lures catch fish, and some catch fishermen"; and one from The Ghost and the Darkness, "...""but I am convinced that the theory is sound."

Still nothing.

After about another half-hour of watching that hideous loon immorally gorging itself on surfperch that were too small, anyway, we decided to hit the jetty off of Doran Beach.  It was hopping with folks, but there was some space.  Hank, recovering from his torn Achilles (something which Achilles didn't even survive), gingerly walked out on the rocks, and we settled in.  A very nice man was poke-poling for monkey-faced pricklebacks (that look and act like eels), an endeavour that I sorely hope to try one day.  He was jovial, especially when he pulled a fish about as long as my arm out from three inches of water right in front of us.

Hank quickly lost his snare, and I played out a little line for another half-hour, until I grew bored of teasing three underage crabs with a box of mackerel heads.  Meanwhile, that chipper A-hole with the poke-pole kept happily prodding the rocks, occasionally uttering, "Aw!  I just missed 'im!"

But the tide had moved out a bit, exposing the clam-ful flats of Bodega Bay, and so we lit out with shovels and a bucket, Hank and I, while Holly discovered the better part of valor and went for beer.  I must note that when Holly decides it's time for beer, just follow her.

Hank and I found a few holes with water seeping out, and dug and dug and dug.  And dug.  After apologizing for hitting a Chinese guy on the toe, and only finding three cockles and two sand shrimp, we hung up this chance.  Holly had come back after a beer, and took some nice pictures.  Unfortunately, the white of my legs broke her camera (she was kind and said that it had been making a noise, but we both know what happened).

It's those shining twin beacons that helped Holly find her way to us.
(Photo by Holly Heyser)
Walking back, we got to the edge of the mud-flat, and Hank yells out, "Sea beans!"  I felt a pang of guilt, that this once salty-tonged man from Jersey had been so deflated and defeated by our day that he couldn't even utter an appropriate epithet, much less a real one.  Actually, though, Hank had found a plant that he loved to eat (thank God for something!).  He picked a peck, and we headed to the car.

We tried back up-coast for the tidepools, but Hank's leg still needed mending, so he and Holly stayed on the ridge line while I managed a rope-less rappel (read: free-fall) down the sheer cliff-edge to go match wits with mussels and limpets.  An uneven match, I know.  And yes, they won - I came back with exactly eight mussels.

It being opening day of turkey season, and we with no guns, of course we saw a huge strutting tom near a bustling corner-cafe' on the way home.  Well, I think it was a turkey - it went by pretty fast.

At least my reputation remains unblemished.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My other blogs

© 2010 Joshua Stark

A quick note for those of you who may not know it - I write two other blogs.  Soon, I hope to combine these three blogs into one site, with additional materials and options for readers.

My other two blogs are better developed as far as layout is concerned (though not by much).  My most-posted blog is Ethics and the Environment, which delves into the good, bad, and ugly of human-habitat interactions.  My other blog is more a list of home gardening and duck-raising ideas, notes, and questions.

Please feel free to hop on over and comment at either site.  You are always welcome.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Gear for the Marginal Lands: Pants on the Margin

© 2010 Joshua Stark

I've gone through many different styles of pants, and many different materials, and I always come back to the same thing: I like jeans.

Maybe it's because they were invented in California for California conditions, or maybe it's because I've worn them all my life and my leg-hairs are rubbed off where they should be, but either way, I find jeans the most comfortable, longest-lasting pants for my kind of outside stuff.

Of course, there are specialty pants for particular conditions - waders, in particular, are the only way to go when you are hunting flooded marshes in Winter. But for the vast majority of my outdoors activities, jeans fit the bill.

So I was happy to find a jeans manufacturer in the U.S. who makes hunting pants. Pointer Brand jeans offers a few options, one of which are brush chaps in woodland camo, so I bought a pair to see how they work.

I've always been partial to Wrangler jeans, but unfortunately, they moved their manufacturing to Mexico. Levi's moved recently, too, from San Francisco to China, I believe (though I could be wrong on that). Pointer Brand is made in Bristol, Tennessee, and has been since 1913.

Their jeans fit well, and they have ample pocket space (one of my weird jeans criteria). The zipper is good, but the button on top was not sewn on perfectly well, and had to be touched up. The jeans material is already broken-in feeling, and the cordura chaps provide ample protection from everything up to star thistles. My only problem with cordura during hunting is the constant zip! zip! sound as they rub together.

I do wish Wrangler had stayed in the U.S., because they are very comfortable. But, I can't in good conscience support on this blog a company who will move just a few hundred miles south because it knows the labor is treated worse there and cannot legally move to better conditions. Free trade isn't free if labor cannot freely move, and if governments are not freely elected.

However, there are a number of manufacturers who still make jeans in the U.S. If you are interested, check out this website for a good listing:

Interestingly, many U.S. manufacturers offer prices competitive with the big, imported name brands.

What pants do you swear by?

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Mallard of Discontent with a marginal fishing technique

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Any doubts folks had that the Mallard of Discontent is in Oklahoma can be put to bed.

I only wish I'd thought of it...

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Suburban Bushwacker fishing the margins of the Thames

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Check out the Suburban Bushwacker's post on fishing "where the Ravensbourne meets the Thames". Make sure to note the photos.

It is a great 'marginal lands' post - just the sort of experience I love, but haven't lately had the time to enjoy.

I am particularly fond of both the tricycle and the flounder fly.

Nettle Pesto rocks!

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Last night I tried a variation (due to lack of resources) of Langdon Cook's nettle pesto, and it was a big hit! Great stuff - I'm glad I have access to acres and acres of nettles right now.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Gear for the Marginal Lands: Footwear on the Margin

© 2010 Joshua Stark

I am a big fan of buying American made products when I can. In the case of double-barrel shotguns, as seen by my recent post, I couldn't quite get there - and besides, I haven't seen a double trigger double-barrel side-by-side from our side of the pond in quite a while - but, in many other cases, I really look for American made.

When it comes to footwear, that means biting the bullet and paying a bit extra, but it also means guaranteeing quality. Many of the remaining American footwear manufacturers cater to specialty groups, in particular safety and military personnel, who often either require or highly recommend American products in their uniforms.

For years, I wore Hi-Tech brand boots, because they were cheap and pretty comfortable. However, a few years back, I slipped on a particularly wet step at work, and slammed my back on a wooden staircase. It was quite painful, but thankfully there were no broken bones or punctured organs.

At that point, I swore off cheap footwear, and began looking for something with a good sole, waterproof, and comfortable. For me, comfortable means well-balanced first, then lightweight. Other factors, like warmth and insole support, are usually so personal that I recommend tweaking them with aftermarket products (socks and inserts).

Believe me, before I settled on my boots, I tried on a ton of shoes. I also did a lot of research. It's silly, I know, but I have a hard time letting go of that much money without making sure it's a good decision. After a month or so of reading and fitting, I found the boot for me: Danner Acadias. Not only are they pretty, they are super comfortable, and nearly indestructible. They are lightweight, and only take a couple of days to settle in. My Danners came with hard inserts that were fairly comfortable, but squeaked when I walked, so I chucked them and bought some insoles (I'm still looking for good insoles, by the way). They are completely waterproof. I love them.

But boots aren't the be-all and end-all of footwear for the outdoors.

When I met my wife, I got a number of great and wonderful surprises, not the least of which is the fact that she is a kayak instructor. At the shop where she worked, she introduced me to Chaco sandals, and changed how I wade fish and hike most Summers.

I have a couple pair of waders, one breathable and one neoprene, and for years I'd pulled them on when fishing the Sierra Nevada streams during the Summer. No longer. I've worn Chacos for years now, and fish in either shorts or pants, and just get wet.

I was going to go into the great features of these sandals, but sadly, I've found out while writing this post that Chacos are no longer made in the U.S.A., nor are they even an independent company, having been purchased by Wolverine last year. If it's one thing I cannot stand, it is a company saying that it must move it's production overseas for costs, and then not lower the price of the product on the market. Chacos made in China are not worth $95, so I officially remove my endorsement.

My advice for footwear: Take the time to find a pair that fit your criteria and will last. And save up for quality, this one time. Six miles after a hike through the Sierra or desert, you won't even remember what you are wearing if you bought the right pair, and that would be great.

What do you all wear? Are you happy?

Monday, February 22, 2010

An ominous season, too

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Shortly after posting about dandelions and weeds, and especially after Hank Shaw's great post (Eat Your Lawn), I noticed that something else happens this time of year.

This time of year, masked men in white Tyvek suits slowly drive ATV's and tractors along the edges of roads, fields, and ditches...

This time of year, when things are at their most green in Northern California, our marginal lands are visited by the sprayers.

So please, as you take to the fields to pick all those great greens, make sure you know your land and place, including the spray regimes. Also, keep an eye out for the signs that the place you may pick has been sprayed. For example, here are two pics of some local mallow:

The second shot is healthy, unsprayed mallow. The first shot, however, is mallow that had been sprayed maybe just two or three days ago. Note the leaves are drooping, and the stalks can't keep the leaves up, either.

A very important part of foraging, and a wonderful benefit to it, is getting to intimately know a place. This includes knowing what sprouts and blooms, and how it behaves and should behave. It also includes knowing how you and others impact it, and hopefully, with time, learn how to impact it more positively. I do not subscribe to the "leave no trace" philosophy (although it has been great at getting people to tread more lightly and litter less), because we are physical creatures. Also, because we are physical, natural creatures, our impacts are not all bad. However, some are, and the beauty of foraging and other interactive outdoors activities (like fishing and hunting) is that we come face-to-face with our impacts, and we get to grow in a place as a part of a place.

I highly encourage folks to get out and pick good things from the margins, but please be careful. Also, if you've found a particularly good spot, perhaps it's time to notify the local authorities about their Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs, and encourage them to use techniques other than spraying pesticides.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

You've got to crawl before you can walk

©2010 Joshua Stark

I haven't tied flies in a long time.

I have a great setup: a perfectly functional kitchen spice desk, a good vice, enough materials for what I need, and enough hooks. Heck, my wife even let me put it all in the living room (don't you wish your girlfriend was swass like her?). But, until this week, I hadn't tied a fly in over two years, maybe even three.

Sometimes, life gets you going on other things, and the things you'd once felt so important doing get put aside. For me, tying was the victim of moving, getting laid off, family loss, but also new happy things like raising my (now) three-year-old, raising ducks for the first time, hunting ducks a lot more, and blogging.

But, as any fly fisherman who has trimmed every Chrismas tree and willow along their favorite stream knows, at some point you open your fly box and grimace. All that remains are those flies you bought because the guy at the shop said they were all hitting that new flashy fly that more closely resembles an 80's girl's lip gloss than any living thing, and flies you tied, spent maybe an hour on, and didn't have the heart to just cut all that lumpy, fluffy crap off and start over.

I'm not original when I say that every cast in fly fishing is like a prayer, and do you really want to pray with profanity? So, you beg flies from your pal on the river that day (usually my wife), and you make a mental note that you need to tie more flies (especially because you supply your pal, and you don't want to ruin your own fishing).

Also, I enjoy tying flies, and hunting and raising ducks have provided me with some great, beautiful feathers. But, having been out of practice so long, I was concerned with what I would come up with, and so I didn't start with a cinnamon teal-and-snipe salmon fly, but instead broke out my book, and went back to basics. I'm glad I did, not because I was so bad, but because it provided a refresher for the techniques and routines.

I'm also happy to report that I still enjoy it. It's a good, simple, calm hobby that lets me still interact with family, and when it's done right, we get to eat fish.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Marginal markets: Craigslist 'free' posts!

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Is "free" a market activity? I ask this question after rushing my child and myself off to an empty parking lot to pick through wooden frames offered on the Craigslist free site in Sacramento.

I am very excited about these boxes, because I've been A) looking for a good box to make worm bins, and B) dreading having to build boxes for drying. These boxes will perfectly provide for both endeavors.

Really, this post could go at my "Agrarianista" blog, which will probabaly pick up soon, since Spring is threatening here in California. However, I think the free site at Craigslist represents a sort of marginal lands concept. People have things that they don't want, but that other people can use, and nobody gets to be stigmatized by getting caught dumpster-diving. It's a win-win.

And yes, of course it's a market activity, and it would make for some good behavioral economics research.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Picking dandelions, & what is a weed, anyway?

© 2010 Joshua Stark

There is a small patch of green things growing wild on my walk to work from the parking lot. Nobody has bothered it, and it has grown up fairly tall. In this nice, verdant fieldlet, I've ID'ed dandelions, wild oats and radishes, and mallow, and it's been nice watching them all reaching up, up. I'd guess the dandelion leaves are about 18 inches long, and I've watched them from tiny sprouts.
So it was nice to find a lady picking those dandelion leaves the other day, on my way home from work. She'd kicked out her kickstand, stooped down, and was pulling the leaves as I walked up, and I asked her, "picking dandelion leaves?", but with a knowing smile, and when she looked up, she knew I knew, too. She smiled.

"Yeah! My grandfather, from Italy, raised us on dandelion greens. I see people call these weeds all the time, and spray malathion and diazanone to kill them. And then they wonder why they are so fat! They should get off their butts, bike some and pick things that are good for them to eat!"

She introduced herself, and we talked a bit about how great green things are, and we went on our ways.

It's so nice to meet other folks who notice little places on the edge, who realize what treasures they hold.

In this light, then, it was unfortunate to read just how lightly the Sacramento News & Review took the notion of weeds a couple weeks back, only mentioning the coming war with weeds that the Ag. Department plans to pursue.

But they didn't answer the basic question: What is a weed? The best definition I've found is that a weed is a plant growing where it doesn't belong. That is an important, and deeper concept than it sounds, because it goes to the definition of belonging.

I've found more space in my heart for what others would call weeds, and non-natives in general, because I had to do some thinking about it during a previous profession. As a park interpreter at Seacliff State Beach outside of Santa Cruz, I heard about a number of folks fighting over these very issues. The two that stand out in my head are the feral cat problem on the Monterey Bay, and the fight over eucalyptus trees. Both species are non-native, and both do have impacts on the ecosystem.

In the case of feral cats, they eat wild birds and small reptiles and mammals. They also (through oocysts in their poop) help to kill sea otters. In the case of eucalyptus, they, at times, may shade out lower-canopy, native habitats, but they also provide winter habitat for native monarch butterflies and hummingbirds, because they flower in the winter.

Through these controversies, I developed a general paradigm for determining whether a non-native should stay or go. Basically, I do a simple cost-benefit analysis from the point of view of habitat, considering the habitat's current state: Does the non-natives provide any benefit to the habitat? Does it possibly take the place of or augment existing habitat? Does it crowd out or create "dead zones" for other species? &etc. I also ask whether the impacts in removing them will be more damaging than their presence. I determined, in Santa Cruz, that the cats have to go, and the eucalyptus can stay. However, my positions can always change, as new evidence comes to light.

In the case of many species of non-native 'weeds', I think we should let them stay. The impacts to removing them from many roadsides and vacant lots may be more harmful than keeping them, especially considering the skimpy funding that cities and counties provide for these endeavors. There are particular species that need to be removed (I'm thinking star thistle), but for the most part, it would be preferable to encourage communities to recognize the value of plants like chicory and dandelion, and encourage controlled picking instead of pesticide regimes.

Weeds, like most everything else, don't take well to being generalized. So next time you are outside, looking over your lawn or patch of earth, notice these little plants, take some time to learn about them, and maybe eat one or two. You may start down a strange road, but it may be for the better. And, you just might meet me next to an Italian lady, picking dandelions.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Gear for the Marginal Lands: Shotguns on the Margin

© 2010 Joshua Stark

I start my series on gear for the marginal lands with guns partly because I love guns, and partly because guns tend to be more controversial than, say, pants. I think this is because a gun purchase is expensive, regardless of your choice, and people just have a natural inclination to defend their purchase of hundreds or thousands of dollars.
(For those of you who do not hunt, don't despair. My series will include fishing gear, gear for foraging, boating, hiking, birdwatching, and the like. Just stay tuned. In the meantime, if you are curious as to the world of hunting and guns, read on!)

I have a decent gun collection, although "collection" is not the right word for it, as I use them all. Most guns automatically tend to be generalist, but with some major hemispheres in which each operate. For example, I can hunt just about any typical mammal in California with my 30-30 - although I'd be pushing it on the bigger hogs - but I can't legally hunt birds with it.

Many people like one of two guns for marginal lands: the 12 gauge or the .22. These are two extremes, in my opinion: The former, a great gauge, is usually too big and bulky for the kind of hunting I do; the latter is just about useless in my case (you can't hunt hardly anything with it).

This is because the lands I hunt are Northern California, the most varied terrain in the U.S. I can hunt subalpine country in the morning, and desert-plain in the afternoon. I can hunt white-fronted geese, band-tailed pigeons, and mule deer on the same day. Often, when hunting BLM or USFS lands, I can walk six miles in a day, and I have to be ready for a shot at a covey of quail or turkeys, a squirrel, a mallard, or even a chance to fill my deer tag. My gear needs to be lightweight and generalist.

Over the years, I've had a number of opportunities blown by the wrong shell in the chamber. On one particular trip, after having heard some quail in a blackberry bramble, I rounded a corner to find find 30 or so turkeys, their necks craned, staring straight at me at about 40 yards. I felt naked, standing there with my 12 gauge pump loaded with 8's.

That was the most stark example of my gun's inefficiency, but similarly frustrating scenes have happened a number of times.

So a couple of years ago, I began a serious quest for a new shotgun. I'd thought up an ingenious design: A gun with not one, but two barrels. Each barrel would have its own trigger, and I could therefore choose which barrel I would use as I was pointing the gun at my prey. I'd modestly hoped to make a little money off the patents, to found a non-profit, of course.

Alas, it seems somebody had beat me to it by a few hundred years.

In reality, all my life I'd wanted a double gun. I've always been preferable to the side-by-side, so I started a search for one with the following criteria: Inexpensive (under $800), new (if bought online), lightweight (under 7 lbs.), 20 gauge, double triggered, with an English stock.

I had eliminated all double guns due to my first and last criteria, and so I had to back down from one of them. Though I preferred to dump the first one, I grudgingly let go of English stocks (who knew it would cost so much to saw off a horn?).

"Lightweight" was another concern I had trouble matching up with chea... er, inexpensive. There are a few nice guns on the market for under $600 even, but all their 20 gauge models were built on their 12 gauge frames, so all of their guns were 8+ lbs. My 12 gauge pump gun already weighed as much.

For braver folks than I, one can purchase a used double gun online, but since this was going to be a major investment, I couldn't bring myself to trust that route.

Then I stumbled upon a great little gun. 20 gauge, double triggers, under 6.5 lbs., and new. So I bought it.

It's a Huglu, imported from Turkey through TR Imports.

I "researched" many gun sites on the web, and heard mixed reviews of them, but when I held one at a local gun shop, it fit me wonderfully, so I knew I'd love it. And I do.

It's just a good little gun, and it lets me get better. I won't write about all its wonderful features, because I've found the anecdote-couched-as-expertise a terrible medium for others trying to find a good gun, but I like it. It points well, it's comfortable, and it is the perfect size. Two barrels gives me great confidence; I love walking the woods in the fall with no. 6 steel in one barrel and a slug in the other.

But, for the bigger question: Why 20 gauge?

Simply put, the twenty, for me, is the most versatile gun for North America.

My claim is not meant to argue that every North American animal can be taken with it. I wouldn't try to hunt grizzlies, or elk, or a few others with it, because it doesn't have the power. (Besides, if I was ever blessed enough to get a bison hunt, I would acquire the appropriate gun for the occasion.)

However, for 90% of the hunting that folks do, and probably 99% of the hunting I do, a twenty gauge is more than adequate, and it comes with additional benefits that make it more versatile, even, than the venerable 12 gauge.

When shooting shot, a twenty throws pellets as fast as a twelve, it just throws fewer of them. So, what benefits, you ask, come with less shot? Most people who start shooting a twenty do a couple of things: They practice more, and they wait for their shots. In hunting situations, this means they are often more practical with their guns, and they usually have practiced stalking, calling, or decoying to a great extent. In addition, 20 gauge guns built on 20 gauge receivers are lighter, and so they walk better in the field. Take a Sierra hike with me, you with your 12 gauge pump, and me with my 20 gauge double, and after three miles, hold my gun. You'll swear I've been cheating, and you'll secretly want one, too.

The counter argument to the twenty is that it is not adequate for some bigger birds and mammals. To that I respond that I don't hunt waterfowl bigger than Canada geese, and I can take a Canada with a twenty - and I can surely take turkeys with it. As for mammals, I hunt mule deer and blacktails with my 20, because where I hunt, I won't take a shot longer than about 80 yards. Honestly, no gun built to hunt birds should be used much past that range, even a 12 gauge.

The only drawback I've found for my twenty gauge double is the lack of non-lead slugs for smoothbores.

The waves of the future have been to build up the 12 gauge platform to cover as much as it can. Rifled barrels, 3 1/2" shells, etc., have been ways to convince consumers that the 12 gauge is the consummate gauge, but in doing this, they have overspecialized the individual guns. To me, the 12 is a fine gun, but because of recent marketing trends, it's capabilities are oversold, an illusion built up that the typical Joe should be shooting ducks at 60 yards, and whitetail at 150. I think commercials give 12 gauge shooters a false sense of confidence in the field, letting them think that a 3 1/2" shell has enough pellets & power to justify sky-scraping and shooting cold, without practicing.

Meanwhile, the twenty gauge, like the 30-30, remains a consistent, reliable gauge with enough power, great weight, and versatility to do the jobs a hunter needs in the margins. Now, if only someone will come out with a smoothbore nonlead slug...

I know I may have riled some feathers here, because I know that guns are touchy subjects. Now, let me hear your thoughts: What is your best gun for the margins?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Doldrums, & Best Gear for the Marginal Lands

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Pat McManus wrote well about early Spring being the cruelest time of year for the outdoorsman. Here in my part of California, it rarely drops below 50 during the day, or 40 at night, but we do get all our rains from November through April, making for really big water in a short period of time, and locking people inside.
For me, this time of year is best described by the doldrums, the equatorial calms that trapped sailors in a vast expanse of quiet nothingness. In February almost all hunting seasons are over, and trout in the Sierra won't start for another three months. Some fishing is available, weather permitting, but most of it is catch-and-release, and there is no shad until well into May. And gardening is a gamble - it's okay to put in the garlic and maybe some peas and greens - but a gigantic storm can threaten any time, bringing high winds and dumping inches of rain in a day, and the likelihood of at least one more cold snap looms.

Right now, then, is when I harbor illusions of perfecting my gear and equipment. I imagine a day all to myself, taking turns breaking down my guns and giving them a real work-over, then putting on a pot of coffee, eating some slow-cooked oats, and tying a pile of flies after throwing the pants, gloves, and waders in the wash. Maybe I'd sew up that gun case I've planned out, or break out the shoe polish and shine up those Danners that have saved my life. Then, I'd mosey out to the shop and cut some forms for next season's duck and goose decoys, as I dream of hunting over my own, hand-made dekes.

But the workshop is a shambles, and it's tiny, too - plus, balsa and cork are exorbitantly expensive. Gun oil and solvent in the house make my wife very unhappy. The fly bench is strewn with papers and unorganized pieces and parts. It's really hard to sew a four-foot case without a machine. I have no idea where I put my shoe polish.

If this were the Fall or Summer, I'd look at all of these, get overwhelmed, and do my version of a Calgon commercial: grab my gun or fishing rod, and leave the chaos for some relaxing, quiet spot. But, it's February, and there are no winds to blow me out the door, so I'm writing, instead.

Granted, I've recently taken on another hobby that gets me out-of-doors, foraging, and this time of year is a good time for gathering greens here, but only when the weather hasn't completely waterlogged the countryside. That's the case this week, so far (well, that and work).

Since my mind is left wandering over my gear, I thought it best to consider what gear works best in the marginal lands.

Hunting, fishing, and foraging in the marginal lands is a place-based experience, so I don't expect my favorites to be everybody's. My places tend to be either watery or very dry, either verdant or very crunchy, but big, and full of varying opportunities with little warning.

In case you didn't know, California has quite a few climates, even in the same place.

My most typical haunts split their climate patterns between 5 months of Mediterranean Winters and Desert Summers. Temperatures range from 40's in the Winter to 110+ in the Summer, and with little humidity to speak of, the green hills of the California Milk commercials (which were filmed in New Zealand, but look surprisingly Californian) turn a golden brown very, very quickly.

Because of these characteristics, I need gear that is lightweight, waterproof or water-happy, able to layer (if clothing), able to multitask, and pretty tough. I also need it to be inexpensive, for the most part.

What works for me, I've found, has run the gamut of outdoorsman cliques, from "army surplus" to "upland gentleman", and I'd never make it on the cover of some magazine. However, I'm comfortable most times I'm out, and I rarely feel like I've left something behind.

Of course, I could always use something new, and I do have my wish list (fillet knife?), but nine times out of ten, I'm set for the types of activities I pursue on my marginal lands.

Over the next couple of weeks, I'll highlight the gear that has worked best for outdoors activities in the marginal lands. I hope to hear from you all about your best gear, and the trials and tribulations you've suffered to come to your conclusions. If this still interests you, stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The last day of the season, thoughts on respect and wonder and SCAIP!... dang, missed 'im!

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Last Sunday, I hunted the last day of California's seasons for waterfowl, snipe, quail, squirrels, and rabbits. My cousin met me at my parents' house down in the Delta, and we hit a friend's property looking, first, for geese. When that didn't pan out, we lit out for snipe.

Gallinago gallinago, the common snipe, is the only shorebird still legal to hunt in California, and it provides an experience unlike any other. A small, beautiful, wily bird, snipe make for a tough, but exciting hunt. Their environs - flat, open bogs, peat marsh, flooded harvested fields - prove deceptively difficult to traverse, and the open expanse of their habitat makes long shots the norm. Their mottled feathers provide perfect camouflage, and without their tell-tale scaip! sound upon flushing, they can be difficult to identify among other shorebirds.

However, it is snipe's ability to fly that makes this bird one of the most challenging prey in hunting.

Snipe can fly. Imagine hunting quail that flush at 30 yards, immediately flying as fast as an already-shot-at dove. Snipe lift off of the ground with a jump, zigzag down an invisible snowboard half-pipe about two to five feet off the ground, and then, suddenly, hit the afterburners and push straight up, like an F-15 on a short runway. Once into the sky, they circle for a few minutes, then attempt to alight as far from you as possible, but often still in the same field or bog.

Typically, snipe flush in singles - if more than one jumps at the same time, it is usually a coincidence. If the field has more than a few snipe, once they are airborne, they tend to group up into small flocks or pairs, circle a while, swing down at just less than the speed of sound, and drop into a landing at such a velocity, that one half-expects to see a small flock of snipe legs sticking out of the ground, their beaks buried into the mud.

Add to their aerobatics the fact that snipe are native to my home and are effectively a marginal prey species - most people don't believe they exist, much less actually try to identify and hunt them - snipe are just about my favorite game.

Two weekends back, after frightening a good number of geese with my impersonation of a speck with whooping cough, I decided to wonder over where I'd heard a snipe flush earlier that morning. As I stepped out into the field, I saw two shorebird species take off in two large flocks. One flock was killdeer, an easily recognizable plover. The other looked like a brownish bird, and I knew a couple of snipe were in there with them; I'd heard 'em call out. I watched that flock, trying to pick out the snipe, but they all looked so similar... they banked in, low and fast, and passed me at about 25 yards... they actually all looked like snipe... but in a flock of perhaps 60 birds?

I watched them land in the far end of the field. As I started towards them, they kicked up, and you could have knocked me over with a feather. They were all snipe! I hunted that field for about 45 minutes, trying to figure out how to hunt so many birds. I took two before heading home for a baby shower (that's right).

So Sunday looked like we'd at least get some shooting in this field. As we walked out, we were met by dozens and dozens of birds. In this 10-acre check, maybe 200 snipe flushed, and the shooting quickly started. Most of the birds were passing by Kevin, but I took a couple of shots, and got one bird.

When you shoot a snipe, you have to completely block out all other snipe flying, look straight at the spot it landed, and get there fast. Their camouflage is near-perfect, their boggy habitats are only illusions of flatness, and the muck and water can swallow up a small bird. Once in hand, I looked up, and here came a big flock, passing left-to-right. Kevin had shot at these birds, and so they were really ripping, but I raised, and with a lucky shot, got my first Scotch double (two birds in one shot). My heart jumped from elation to despair, ack! Which bird do I follow?!? I screwed up big-time, and split the difference.

I found one bird, but the second was lost forever.

While looking for it, I noticed a man walking up with a yellow lab. This being private property, and a friend's, I immediately walked over to him. He called out, "Do you have permission to hunt on here?" I said yes, named the owner, and mentioned that I'd hunted here my whole life.

He asked what all the shooting was about, and I said snipe. He repeated it to himself, with an "ah", and then told me he'd gotten permission to hunt, and he had a goose setup a few hundred yards away. I told him I was sorry to have been so close (it was foggy), and that we'd bug out in a couple of minutes.

I felt bad; I'd always had permission to hunt this property, but this guy set up a big rig of decoys, and it was the last day. Kevin walked up to me, and I explained the situation. My cousin was disappointed, and understandably so: He is a refuge hunter, where you need to elbow your way in, and he saw no reason to leave when we were clearly 300 yards away. I told him that folks out here, hunting on friends' lands, have an expectation that it won't be like a refuge hunt.

So we hit another spot, found a few snipe, but the big news about this spot was a beautiful, fat greenwing teal drake that refused to leave a patch of water on the flooded field. Kevin flushed it to me, and I (of course) missed, and it headed back around to Kevin, who dispatched it with a great shot. So all was not lost. In all, we brought home three snipe and that teal, and made for a great morning to the season's close.

That afternoon, I drove back out to the fellow's goose spread, and when I saw him picking up his decoys for the day, I headed out to him, introduced myself and apologized again. He was gracious, and said it hadn't been a good late-season hunt anywhere this year, anyway. We talked for awhile, and he invited me out to goose hunt next year, on property across on another island. From this gaffe, I now have another friend and hunter.

There is a gentlemanly graciousness that goes into hunting, a romanticized ideal that attracted me to the endeavor almost as much as the stalking and shooting and being outside, and I love to play that role whenever I get a chance. Sometimes, it even gets me another hunt.

If you ever find yourself out in a flooded field or bog next year, and you jump a snipe, give it a try. Grab some steel 6's, and walk straight out right where that bird jumped, and you'll probably get a couple of shots. Folks tend to ignore them, but snipe make for a fine hunt, arguably better than sitting in a blind on a blue-bird, windless day.