Sunday, 29 April 2012

Ways of Seeing Two

Take a look at this photo again, what do you see?

If you are wondering about the "again", then it might be worth reading Ways of Seeing One first.

Hopefully, you've zoned in on the different habitats here; woods, water, waterside, meadow and pathway. In addition, you'll have noted the fringes and transitions which support their own set of species. This is the major zoning method associated with foraging and identifying diversity in a local area, so what's next?

There are many factors which affect biodiversity. From a global perspective, climate is a huge distinguishing factor, so much so that if you were in a food library, climate zones would each have their own sections with almost no crossover, apart from at the transitions, of course. Climate is a sort of super habitat which is itself subdivided into the habitat zones we have learnt previously, albeit with some climate zone specific habitats.

An additional global modifier is altitude. With altitude, comes changes in temperature, moisture and prevailing weather, all of which affect plant growth. Here in lies the beginning of a huge area of study which we will sidestep for two reasons. The first is that in a recreational or survival foraging perspective, you're likely to be stuck in one of these super zones and have no real opportunity to change that, the other is that no matter where you are, the ways of seeing still apply. With that in mind, we'll stay local, but keep hold of altitude, more specifically how local altitude changes.

When we look around, local altitude makes the world stand up in three dimensions. A few specific features of altitude can give us many clues about the plant life and natural resources available. Let's start with Slope. Firstly, the direction of slope will define the direction of water flow. Water flows down hill, be it above or below ground. So if need water, follow the slope down, simple.

Unlike the contours on a map, which define a locus of points of common altitude, we will be taking a slightly different approach to zoning altitude. Let's start with the most simple case. If we keep walking up hill, eventually, we'll come to the top. This might seem like an over clarification, but at the top of a hill, all directions lead down. At this point, we are exposed to the elements from all directions. We are unlikely to find rich vegetation here, and often no trees either. Sometimes we don't even find soil. If anything, other than grass, we're likely to find hardy plants such as heather or gorse. Of course, if we walk up, we might get to the top of a hillock which is not actually that exposed as it has neighbouring higher hills. This is a local maxima, in mathematical terms, and though it has important qualities from a water flow perspective, it may not from a weather viewpoint. From a zoning perspective, you may wish to ignore minor local maxima.

The opposite of a local maxima or a local minima. This point on the landscape is a place where every direction is up hill. Chances are, of you're stood at a local minima, your feet are wet. If you're not stood in a lake or tarn, it's almost certainly going to be boggy and if not, a bit of digging may bring water. Open your eyes a little more and chances are you'll see another general trend down hill, this will lead to another local minima, likely larger and ultimately, if taken to its extreme, the minima which is the sea; global minima. There are regions of land which are below sea level, but these are likely to be marsh, such as the Fens in the UK (4m below) or parts of much wider arid regions which present a much more interesting survival challenge.

Typical Snowdonia
Ridges and Local Minima
Assuming we are not at one of these extremes, there will be a general trend down hill and one of three configurations. If we have slopes up on both sides, then we are in a Valley. A valley represents the most likely route for rivers and even if the valley floor is dry, then digging will generally expose ground water. There is likely to be lush vegetation in valleys.

The deeper and steeper the valley, the more shaded it will be. This will make for cold mornings and evenings. Additionally, valleys afford protection from the elements, unless of course, the wind direction is up or down it, in which case the wind can funnel, dramatically increasing speed, brrr! There are some temperature considerations with valleys, but they get quite nerdy, what with temperature inversions and all and deserves an article of its own.

The opposite of a valley is a Ridge, which is where there is a general trend up or down hill which drops off on both sides. This area of high exposure is normally the easiest route from one local maxima to another. Visibility is good here, but as with maxima, plant life can be limited.

Stick with me reader, this does have a point, I assure you. Our third and final situation is that we are merely mid slope, neither at the top or bottom in any direction. Some might argue that there is "flat", but in reality, that's just a special case of one of the above where the gradient is small. Gradient represent how steep a slope is. Where gradient is very high (steep), even at low altitude, soil doesn't hold and rocks are exposed. This can be seen clearly in the above pictures. Maximum gradient is represented by a cliff, which is essentially vertical. "Flat" zones, be they large or some small localised area, are often moist, since there is little chance for ground water to run off. They universally make poor sites for shelter. Better to find a slight gradient.

I promised a point, and so here it is. We don't need to concern ourself with actual altitude when zoning our vista, rather, we should be looking at whether or not areas are maximally high, like the tops of hills or ridges or low, like valley floors and dips. A ridge presents pretty much the same habitat factors at 100m as it does at 300m. It's not a matter of actual altitude, it's more about shape. Hill tops and ridges are exposed, valleys and dips are wet. In addition, we concern ourselves with gradient as this has an effect on soil. All of these factors have their own effect on vegetation.

Altitude Zones

Habitat and Altitude

We can now return to our original photo. I've zoned this area into high, middle, low, flood plain, waterside and basically, wet. This is because it's clearly visible, but at a distance, we might only see hight to low. We are not worried about the prevailing slope only that we can see the shapes of the area and understand what each feature presents. There are not many large areas of high gradient, but the meadow is really quite "flat".

Our original article allowed us to see the world in basic habitats. Now let's overlay a slightly improved version of that on our altitude zone map and see what we end up with.

Here you can see that altitude defines some habitat and the zones match, but elsewhere, the two form a patchwork across the landscape. Add in to this view the habitat fringes and transitions, together with extremes of steep and shallow gradient and you have a new way of looking at your environment.

In terms of recreational foraging or in a genuine survival situation, being able to make an assessment of the local environment is very important. Not only does it help us define what sort of plants might be available, but also sources of water, sites for shelter and routes to take, should be need to make a move. Basic Habitat and Altitude zones are two simple, visual dimensions which allow us to make assessments like "that meadow is going to be boggy", "there is likely to be a stream there and those trees very close are probably willow", "I bet there is rocks and pennywort over there", or "there's a section of land suitable for shelter building in those woods" all without taking a step.

Take time to notice the changes in trees and plants with respect to altitude shapes and see where water runs and settles. Combine all of this with the trees, plants and fungi we've covered on the course. A useful exercise is to take the knowledge you've learnt on your local patch and try to apply it to a brand new one. If you've made a concious effort to look and learn, your new environment will be much less unfamiliar.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Wild Food & Natural Resources Course - April - Set Two

Welcome back to the fourth set of plants, trees and fungi in what is turning out to be quite a popular course. If you've missed anything so far, take a look back through the archive and see what you can find. This set is a little bit late because my chosen fungi, the St George's Mushroom has decided to come out late and so I was unable to get a photo. Thankfully, fellow forager, Alan Smylie, was able to find some on his local site and has dropped me down a picture. So let's just get on with it, shall we.

Plant - Ramsoms (Wild Garlic)

Ramsoms (budding) and Nettles
Wild garlic has been out for a couple of weeks here, but has not flowered. It has distinctive leaves with a flat surface and unlike Lily of the Valley, with which it can be confused, it has no definite ribs. The petals are also pointy (not shown), as opposed to bell-like. The most distinctive distinguishing characteristic, however, is that is SMELLS LIKE GARLIC!

We can eat all of this plant raw or cooked from the leaves, stems, buds, flowers to the bulb. I personally prefer it to cultivated garlic as it has a fresher taste which does not linger.

As a bulb species, they can be found in patches and normally speaking, if you find one, you'll find hundreds. Favouring partial shade, they can be found at the edges of woodland. A good indicator species for Wild Garlic is Bluebells, which needs similar growing conditions. Bluebells are often more prolific, so you're likely to see them first, not only because of their distinct colouration. Like Bluebells and other bulb species they come and go quickly because the newly forming canopy of the woodland soon restricts the sunlight.

Tree - Silver Birch

Arguably the method of tree identification which applies all year is that of bark identification. Without buds or leaves, branch structure and bark are the only characteristics available to us. As with other trees and plants, over time we get used to the less distinct features, but in some cases, we don't have to, as they are quite distinct already. That is the case with the Birch.

Silver Birch
Birch is that white one with the bark that comes off in horizontal strips. There are really no other trees in temperate woodland that look like it. At this time of year the leaves are either not showing or they are small and indistinct, however, even at a distance, this tree sticks out like someone has painted it white and can be seen clearly at a distance. You don't generally find these as a majority occupier of woodland, rather that they pop up here and there amongst other deciduous trees.

The sap, which rises in early Spring, is a source of fluids and sugars, can be extracted by tapping. There are a billion videos on youtube, but be warned, it's not the elixir people make it out to be. It's a lot of effort for slightly sugary water.

As a relatively hard wood, with a straight, limited branching structure, Birch is an excellent construction material as well as a good firewood.

In addition, the bark is steeped in oils which are superb for fire lighting and almost impervious to rain water and are hence a favourite amongst bushcrafters. When stripped or roughed, it takes a spark easily. Taking the bark is simple and does not need a knife. See the article Birch Bite for my moan about people killing Birch by cutting and peeling the bark aggressively. The oils within the bark can  be extracted as tar which has been used as an adhesive, waterproofing agent, tanning agent and disinfectant. As a useful resource, it's worth removing all of the bark from branches you intend to burn, not only because it burns with an annoying black smoke. If removed in large sheets, the bark can be used to make containers and if really quite big, a canoe or coracle.

Fungus - St. George's Mushroom

Still early season for mushrooms and other Fungi, the St George is the first of the really tasty ones. As a proper looking mushroom, however, it's time to get a but more strict on identification. Thankfully, this early in the season there are not many confusion species. St. George's only grows in Spring, around St George's Day, so if you think you've found on in October, you've not. It is absolutely imperative that you do not eat any fungi you can't 100% positively identify.

St. George's Mushroom
The many gills are on the underside of a rounded, mostly white/pale, mostly smooth cap which can measure between 5 and 15cm. The stem is largely smooth and widens towards the base. The spore print is white. That is to say it if you leave a cap on a black piece of paper for a few hours, it'll leave a print of white spore. It also smells of grain, or say leather or cucumber.

It is important when learning new fungi of this nature, that we follow all of the steps to identifying the mushroom. Only with constant repetition of this process will we gain confidence in identification.

St. George lives on the ground, in the grass forming rings, many feet wide. My foraging friend, who also supplied the photo, pointed out to me that the ring has another characteristic; it affects the grass, which appears darker green. As this mushrooms forms a symbiotic relationship with trees, it's is found exclusively close by to them; normally Ash, which we know from a previous article. Other indicator species are Ramsoms and Bluebells. This whole package makes finding them a lot easier than simply looking everywhere.

As Spring continues, there are other treats available. It would be folly for me to publish them all, as it would be as overloading as a book. Keep your eyes peeled and remember all that we've learned. Repetition and confirmation are the key.

Happy foraging and keep an eye out for complementarity articles.

REMEMBER: Do no pick or eat anything you can't positively identify as safe and legal.

NOTE: This article was written from a UK perspective and identification will almost certainly differ in other places around the world. Seek local advice to confirm positive identification.

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Monday, 16 April 2012

Wet & Dry

I pop on the forums quite a lot and there are many ideas about what should and should not be carried as trail food. Not normally a survival consideration, trail food is more of a preparation; and what do we concern ourself with when preparing for the trail? Weight! To this end, I see a lot of talk about carrying ration packs, dried meals, dry ingredients, partially dried or cured foods and this got me thinking. What sort of food should we pack for the trail? Well, tins and jars are out for a start.

One of the most influential factors in this area is that of provision of water and the most importantly whether or not there is water available at the point where cooking will happen. If no water is available, then you have no choice but to carry it, and that's where we'll begin.

A chap walks for a day on a trail which is not scorching, but has no sources of water available. He takes a couple of litres for drinking, a couple of snack bars, some beef jerky, some rice, two packet soups, a bread roll (acquired from the breakfast buffet at the B&B) and some instant coffee. Like me, he has his coffee black, so no worries about milk or other nasty alternatives. The plan is to much a bit of jerky and the snack bars on the trail, soup & bread for lunch, and a bit of jerky soup with rice for tea.

Jerky is dried and salted and needs extra water to digest, so has some dehydrating qualities, though a little salt intake after sweating is a good thing. Some snack bars are really quite dry also. If we were good trekkers, we would counter this with some extra liquid and so this begs the question, why are we bothering carrying dried stuff at all? Why not carry a nice moist chicken breast and half a malt loaf, I wonder? I know, I know, you can't really have malt loaf without real butter.

Instant soups are super simple because they don't need cooking. A simple introduction to boiling water and you're all done. Hardly any washing up too, just a simple wipe around with the bread roll and it's a very efficient meal indeed. That is, if the roll survives the walk and doesn't become a pancake.

The last meal is rather cunning. Rice and pasta, when cooked from dry need more water to cook than then consume in the hydration, that is, unless you're into pilafs and can get the quantities perfect and not burn it over a fire. Good luck with that. So instantly, we need extra water. The trick with this meal is that the extra water is then not only used to hydrate a bit of jerky, but make a thick soup too. Voilà, dinner. Not much washing up again. Wash out with a splash of water, make a brew and you're set. How could we possibly improve on that?

There is something very simple going on here. If someone took some water out of the food we're carrying, then we're going to have to put the same about back in to eat it. We can't take this out of our drinking ration, since that'll dehydrate us, so we have to carry it as extra. Generally speaking, cooking and washing up needs more water, so the whole business of carrying dried food on trips where there's no water is really a bit of a waste of time. Better to just carry wet food and have done with it. Here's some I prepared earlier.

This is me, particularly late, having dinner in the dark. This often happens on courses in the winter. Note the use of the kettle as the reheating vessel. This is for good reason; I wanted a brew, and as the food was nicely contained, there was no danger of it mingling with my coffee. Two birds with one stone, no plates and no washing up. Decent! Yeah, the portions can sometimes be small, but if you supplement with a precooked rice pouch, then that's a meal right there.

Yes, there was water on site, and so I could have had one of those dehydrated pasta meals, but frankly, they taste awful! I've tried supermarket ones, trekker branded ones (which taste just as bad but cost twice as much), ration packs (no comment) as well as dehydrated veg and stock. Some come with a "make in the packet" option, avoiding washing up, but really, they're pants.

My friend who finds herself all over the world has an interesting diet. What she does is preprepare her own meals and take them with her. She seals them all in boilable bags using one of these units.

As another instructor, she too finds herself eating at odd times in short time periods. She too has tried many options and has found this is the best way of making gluten free, lactose free, other stuff free food and cooking it conveniently.

I'm so getting one!

Anyway, I digress. I'm sure you can see that the benefits of dried or partially dehydrated foods are a bit of a fallacy when water is very short on the trail and this leaves us with one of two conclusions. The first is simply that you might as well take wet food, certainly if it comes in boiler bags and the second is ... why the hell are you not planning your route around water?

So remember, water is a major consideration when carrying food and provision of such is very important from a planning perspective. Ultimately, if you're somewhere where there is no water to be had, you might as well take a nice juicy steak over a dehydrated version, since you're going to have to balance it out with water anyway.

This has got me thinking about trail food in general and I'm presently compiling some research in order to determine the best types of food to be taking should we be able to acquire water en route. Keep an eye out for follow-ups.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Hard as Nails

I posed a question on Natural Bushcraft recently on the possible uses of a nail. The original forum post can be found here. It raised some interesting results, so I thought it worth presenting them. Take a moment to think of a few yourself before reading on.

  1. nail something to something
  2. make a blade out of it
  3. use it as a fire steel
  4. use it as a hook for hanging things on
  5. make an arrow head
  6. make a hook for baiting
  7. use as a fishing lure
  8. make a compass from it
  9. use it as a bradawl or punch
  10. use as the head of an ice or glass breaker
  11. fashion into a large needle
  12. as an electrical conductor (as opposed to a fuse)
  13. use to play "bang the nails into the log" on your own
  14. throwing knife toy
  15. sap tap hole maker
  16. plumb-bob
  17. marlin spike
  18. scribe, marking gauge or scratchy pen
  19. clapper for a metal or glass bell
  20. manicure tool
  21. snail and winkle extractor
A lot of uses, I'm sure you'll agree. A humble nail, providing us with many possible tools, a fire lighter, fishing & hunting potential, navigation, a component or utility piece, entertainment as well as giving us the ability to nail things together.
As I mentioned in my article on compact survival kits Things in Tins, it is important to have equipment that has multiple uses. It is also important to view all resources, natural and manufactured with wide eyes and an open imagination. Our nail is simple, but has much potential. How about the following items, what could we do with them?
  • bottle of water
  • tin of beans
  • paper cup
  • bin liner
  • packet of Wotsits
  • mince pie
I remember an episode of Survivorman, where Les Stroud developed a scenario where he had become isolated due to a failure with his mountain bike. As a good survivor, he carried a multi-tool, but more importantly, he viewed his now defuncted bicycle as series of new connected resources, each with numerous uses. He proceeded to take detach parts which he deemed useful, leaving the bulk behind. There was no good reason to take it all, as it's quite large and heavy. Trying to take the whole thing would have been a bad investment of energy.

As you may recall from my article on basic decision making All Things Being Inequal, we have to view our actions in terms of energy use, and water too, of that's in short supply. With this in mind, when deciding what to carry, we have to take into account how much it weighs, since every step will cost us extra energy.

So, what sort of thing do we take? My view on this related to how easy it might be to replace that we're taking with resources from nature. Food is a bit of a no brainer. Also, we can boil water in a knot hole with hot rocks, but it's so much easier in a metal container. Yes, we can make cordage from bark, roots and plants, but it takes time and energy. Conversely, gallon of diesel, a laptop, a truck tyre or a copy of the the Oxford English Dictionary might better be left behind, at least in their entirety. A bit of oil, rubber and a few pages might be quite useful. The laptop might contain some useful bits too, but I'll bet there's something better in that truck.

Remember that it's always a good idea to stay where you are of you can, but if you have to go, resources are all around us and their use is only limited by our skill and imagination. Keep an open mind and think about weight, convenience and how difficult or otherwise it would be to replace from nature that which you're about to put in your bag and if do bump into something on your travels, give some thought to other uses beyond it's primary function. 

Friday, 13 April 2012

Wild Food & Natural Resources Course - April - Set One

I trust you have enjoyed your first month of gently getting into plant recognition and can remember the useful and edible parts. If you're not keeping up, then just stick to one set a month. Remember, it's better to remember few than to forget many. I imagine some of you have looked up a few extra plants or a few more facts about the ones we've covered so far. Hopefully you've found most of them and that some of you lucky ones have been able to locate some morels.

If you've come in half way through, then please do take a read through the archives to see what you've missed.

As the month has progressed, the Nettles will have grown and it's now worth remembering that as they grow chemicals build up in the lower leaves that can cause stomach upsets, so we stick to the top couple of sets of leaves. The Beech trees may have started producing leaves which at this stage can be eaten raw, having a nutty taste. Most of the Jew's Ears will now be dry, but remember, they can be rehydrated. Navel wort will be abundant where established and the new growth will be consistently preferable to the old. Ash buds will likely be exploding into quite distinctive plumes which can be seen from quite a distance. The Morels will still be hiding.

Remember not forget these species, giving yourself a constant reminder and you pass them day to day. Relay the facts in your mind or out loud and try to spot them from a distance. You should continue to analyse habitat and by doing so, you'll begin notice companion plants.

And so to the first set for April. Again a tree, plant and fungus. This time there is not a lot to eat, but these plants build on what we've learnt so far and start to tell us more about our environment and how plants can give us clues.

Tree - Sallow (Pussy Willow or Goat Willow)

Male Sallow Catkins
The leaves are starting to come out and though they are a good identifier, some are very similar. One of the easiest, albeit short lived, identifiers for trees is their catkins which are clusters of small flowers which ultimately turn to seed at which point they become a rather good natural tinder.

Male Sallow catkins form early in the year and are spray yellow all over the leafless branches. The females are more sedately green, but larger. Pollen is distributed by wind, insects and birds and seeds ultimately by wind, so you can often find many Willows, both male and female in one area. With no leaves, it's now time to start taking note of structure and bark.

Female Sallow Catkins
Habitat is generally moist earth, be it river banks, reed beds or even ditches. As an indicator of wet ground, they represent somewhere you do not particularly want to camp. Note also that fallen willow can often have taken on some of this moisture.

All of the willows have a good for making baskets, hurdles and flexible enough to be used as a form of wire. Willow bark is also quite tough and good for binding and also contains salicin, the precursor to asprin. Not being very hard, it's a fast burner and often crackles whilst throwing out plenty of sparks. It's actually grown as a biomass fuel. Additionally it's good for making charcoal, and cricket bats.

As time progresses, note the developing leaves which are consistent between males and females and somewhat rounder than other willow species.

Plant - Gorse

Gorse Flowers
Gorse flowers early and as a shrub it is quite obvious. Get up close and you'll find Gorse is very spiky indeed. It's hardy and can stand the weather, this is why it can be found extensively along the coast, along with Heather. It does, however, need plenty of sunlight. With this in mind, one might like to consider its location as exposed and not ideal for shelter (pun intended).

When picked in direct sunlight, Gorse flowers taste of coconut, other than that, they have a inoffensive sweet grass taste. They can be eaten raw or made into a tea, or wine, for that matter.

As an evergreen, they can be a source of food for local fauna and may be a good place to start winter tracking exercises. When dead, the thin branches make an excellent natural tinder.

Fungus - Cramp Balls (King Alfred's Cakes)

Cramp Balls
One of the many tinder fungi, this one is a Bushcraft favourite. It can be used straight from the tree. I generally break it in half to ensure it's brittle, since a moist tinder is pretty useless. You will generally find that those with broken shells have got a bit squishy inside and are no good. 

Cramp balls can be found on dead wood,  generally Ash, but also live Ash. Since we've already been taking note of Ash, we can start using it as for an indicator for Cramp Balls, as well as Cramp Balls as an indicator for Ash. 

Be careful how you store these, since they have a tendency to spore black everywhere.

Pop quiz ... are the Cramp Balls in the photo on dead Ash or something else?

So there you have a new set of things to look for, but once again, don't forget the others. As I'm sure you can see, the choices I've made might not be the most obvious, but hopefully encourage you to start taking more notice of habitat as well as companion and indicator species.

This month is rife with plants flowering and many of the leaves will start to show on trees. Identification will start to take a different tack. Thankfully, there are some tasty treats on offer from some absolutely unmissable. 

Happy foraging and keep an eye out for complementarity articles.

REMEMBER: Do no pick or eat anything you can't positively identify as safe and legal.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Harder, but not that hard

Had a smashing time at the Cornwall RV. I gave a couple of talks on Shelter and Wild Food and as I had no kids with me this year, decided to take on a bit of a blacksmithing project. Tristan Kessell helped me produce this traditional fire steel from a straightened section of an old spring. I am rather pleased with it.

There are a couple of nerdy features about it, of course. The first is the the handle section, like many traditional iron and steel items, is lightly coated with bees wax when warm, which seeps into the metal and helps prevent rust.  It's not on the striking edge as it has an adverse effect on the sparks.

The second is that the striking section is hardened. In experiments, it was shown that the harder it was, the better quality sparks it produced. Too hard, however, and it breaks when you hit it against the flint. It was taken to a light orange before quenching in water. 

We even made some char cloth with bits and bobs around around the forge. It worked rather well.