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.