Endangered Skill #6: Foraging

Foraging generally means finding food that is growing wild. In an emergency situation, being aware of what grows wild where you live, and how those things can be used for food and first aid could be a matter of life and death.  Even in everyday circumstances, that same knowledge can save you money on groceries. Usually you can find food growing wild your yard. You probably call it weeds.

My dad hates “greens” of any kind, because (he says) they had to eat so much of it when he was a kid. He grew up poor and his family ate wild greens a lot. He particularly detests dandelion greens. Yes, I have picked and eaten raw dandelion greens. To me, they don’t really taste any different than other greens that you might buy in the grocery store. I’ve also fried dandelion blossoms. Chicken Girl wasn’t impressed, but Ed and I liked them.  One note about wild greens: if you’re picking them to eat raw, the best time is early springs when the leaves are small and tender.

I think I may have told you this before, but several years ago, when we still lived in Independence, I had the opportunity to attend a Wild Edibles workshop at the Burr Oak Conservation Center. The ladies running the workshop called themselves the “Wild Ones”. I think the youngest of those ladies was probably in her 50’s, but the oldest was somewhere around 80 years old. Her name was Frances Matthews, and there is a great article in the Missouri Conservationist about her, the Wild Ones and wild edibles. You can read it here. The day I attended the workshop, they taught us about different kinds of wild edible plants, and we got to taste some things like dandelion jelly, wood sorrel tea and stuffed yucca  and daylily blossoms.  (Chicken Girl really likes daylilly blossoms. Be sure to remove the stamen, pistils etc, from the center of any blossom before eating.)

Since then, I feel like I’ve learned quite a bit about plants that grow in the wild, especially the ones that most of us call “weeds”, but I know that I still have a lot to learn. When I started working on this post, I remembered I had written a few other posts about foraging, so I decided to refresh my memory before I went any further. I’m glad I did. I had written more about it than I thought. If you want to see my other posts that have foraging info, find “Foraging” in the Categories list to your right. I have written about Goldenrod, Mallow, Mullein, Queen Anne’s Lace, Chicory, and my all time favorite, Plantain.

Over the last three years, I’ve learned about a few new plants found on our place. I showed you pictures of wild grapes a few weeks ago. Along the same fence row as the grape vines, we have wild roses. I noticed what looked like berries on the roses, did a little research and discovered rose hips.

Rose hips are the fruit of the rose plant. Most of the time we don’t see them because people dead head their roses. That means they pull off the spent blossoms, which encourages more flowers to grow. It also prevents hips from forming. From what I read, rose hips are harvested after the first frost of the fall, and then can be used either fresh or dried.

“Gather fruits (hips) as they ripen in autumn (after frost) or during winter, wash and remove dried persistent flower parts from top of hips, then split open and remove seeds. Eat pulpy portion fresh or in jellies or sauces. Dry whole or half cleaned fruits  for later use (soak overnight in warm water), or finely grate or grind dried hips to yeild a slightly fragrant powder rich in vitamin C and essential minerals. Sprinkle on hot cerials or use to make hot tea. Also wash young leaves, cut into small pieces and dry for hot rose tea. Flower petals can be used in candy, tea, and jellies, but fruits are more nutritious.” (“Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide to over 200 Natural Foods” by Thomas Elias and Peter A. Dykeman, pp 220-221)

They’re supposed to be good for inflammation too.*

In the spring we had Pineapple Weed growing down the center of our driveway. I just noticed the other day that it’s gone for the year and I never did get any of it. It is so named because, when you crush the leaves, they really do smell like pineapple.

The flowers and leaves are edible. You can get more details about Pineapple Weed and many other wild edibles at Wild Edible food.com.

There are so many wild growing plants that are edible and/or have medicinal value, we have just barely scratched the surface. We haven’t even talked about wild mushrooms and other edible fungus, mainly because I don’t know enough about it to share. It’s on my “to learn” list though.

To pick up this “endangered skill”, you need to learn about the wild edibles in your area. There are all kinds of online resources, like this one , but be sure to get a good hard copy field guide like the one cited above too.  That way you have something to carry with you for those times when the internet is not available. Also, make sure the areas from which you gather have not been sprayed with chemicals designed to kill weeds.

Happy wild edible hunting!

Connie

*Disclaimer: We are not medical professionals. All the information posted here is for educational purposes only and is not intended as, or to replace medical advice.

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Endangered Skills Number 5: Orienteering Part 2

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This is the map of our local area. The big city of Braymer, Missouri is the pinkish spot in the upper right (north east) quadrant.

When I was promoted into the ranks of a Non-commissioned Officer in our United States Army these many years ago, this newly formed Buck Sergeant was taken aside and taught the first absolute of being a good Sergeant. A crusty Platoon Sergeant with a marked Spanish accent said, “Sergeant, you will NEVER let a 2d Lieutenant hold the map and the compass at the same time.”

Land Navigation, as the Military calls it, is a vital skill and it starts with understanding what you are dealing with. I am not going to have the time or the space to teach you how to navigate using a map and a compass, the best I can do is list the skills necessary to navigate with a map and a compass. Perhaps I can also highlight some common errors people make.

For more in-depth information I am going to refer you to Field Manual (FM) 3-25.26 Map Reading and Land Navigation.

Also, for good cheap or even free Topographical Maps I suggest you look up the United States Dept of the Interior Geological Survey. These are the kind of maps that, when I say “map” I am talking about.

1. A compass is a device that points to magnetic north. For the purpose of using a map there are THREE different norths:

a. Magnetic north is governed by the magnetic pull of the earth that draws your compass needle towards it. It is located generally around Hudson Bay but it moves.

b. True north is the actual point of north. The Top of the World if you will.

c. Grid north is where your map’s grid lines point to as north.

At the bottom of any good map there should be some kind of declination diagram or at least a pointer that points to true north. On short trips the difference between true north and magnetic north should not cause you much error. In Missouri the declination is 1degree 6 minutes east which I determined by visiting this site.  This means that, to adjust to true north I am going to have to subtract 1.6 from my compass heading.

Are we confused yet?

Let’s talk about compasses. I prefer the Lensatic Compass that is issued by the military, because it is accurate and designed for use in the worst kind of conditions. However, any decent magnetic compass will do as long as you know how to use it.

lensatic compass

U S Army Illustration

The compass on your watch band, in your fancy survival watch, the handle of your knife or the one you got out of a cereal box is probably OK for determining general direction, and it is better than nothing in a pinch, but I would not like to walk twenty-five miles using that type of compass to choose my direction.

2. Lets talk about maps for a minute. For my purposes, I am talking about a to scale two dimensional representation of a three dimensional surface of the earth. (I can remember that definition from twenty years ago but I cannot remember where I left my hat. Sigh)

That kind of map is a topographic map which shows elevations, vegetation, bodies of water, and man made objects. Anything less is going to give you problems choosing a good route.

So we have our map in our hands and our compass hanging by a lanyard around our neck. Lets talk about one of the major errors we all tend to make when trying to read a map. I named this error “The North Seeking Jeep”.

People have a tendency to believe that once they lay the map out, the top of the map (representing north) is oriented to the north. So people sitting in their jeeps (yes, I mean officers), have a tendency to believe whatever direction their jeep is facing is north. It probably isn’t.

To orient your map you can use your compass or you can use major linear terrain features you can see (roads, creeks, mountain ranges, power lines etc). The best way is with your compass. Factoring in your declination laying your compass along a north-south grid line and turn the map with the compass until the compass point to north. Until you know how your map relates to the cardinal directions, you better get used to long useless walks. By the way, Connie pointed out some people might not know what I mean by “cardinal directions”. Due North, South, East and West are your cardinal directions. Red birds have nothing to do with it.

There will be symbols and colors on your map. If you are using a Topographic Map from the Geological Survey folks, the symbols and colors are largely standard, but on any map they should be listed at the bottom of the map. Also you will find your contour intervals (the distance in elevation between contour lines) and your scale.

So we have our map. We have read it so we know what the different symbols and colors mean. We know the scale of the map and we have oriented it using our compass, after accounting for the declination, and we are ready to go.

Hold on a second. How far are you going to go, and how will you know how far you have gone? You can use the features on your map to estimate how far you have gone, but sometimes there is not that much difference in terrain features over an extended distance; deserts and plains for example. Now you need a method of measuring how far you have gone, and to do that you need to know your pace count.

In a military patrol two men are assigned to keep up with their pace. Generally they use a piece of para chord tied to their web gear in which they tie a knot every 100 meters. You may not need to use this technique where you are orienteering, but when you do need to use it, you need it badly.

So mark off a hundred meters over terrain, not down a flat highway, and find out your pace count. A true pace is a full two steps. If you step off with your left foot the second time your left foot hits the ground is one pace. My step is generally around 30 inches, and my pace count always came out to about 65 paces per 100 meters.

Oh, one last thing you will need to know. How to find places on your map using the grid system on the map and, in a pinch, the longitude and latitude system. I could try to explain it to you here, but I doubt either one of us have the patience for that. Get the FM I suggested or any other good orienteering\book. Get a map, get a good compass, and prepare to get lost.

Of course you are going to get lost. We all get lost. Orienteering is being lost, interspersed with occasional clarity as to where you are. Kind of like life.

Endangered Skills Number 5: Orienteering Part 1

The story goes that a young reporter found the great surveyor of virgin territory, Daniel Boone, in his retirement in Missouri and asked to interview him. Mr. Boone was never shy about talking about his past, so he agreed. One of the first questions the reporter asked was whether Mr. Boone had ever been lost.

Daniel was said to have considered the question and answered. “No, I ain’t never been lost, I have been confused for a month or two sometimes, but I ain’t never been lost.”

I guess it is all in how you look at it. In the military, where I learned Orienteering, the catch phrase was “miss-oriented”. We never got lost, we were only miss-oriented. Yeah, right.

Whatever name you want to call it, being lost is never any fun, and our ancestors had to deal with the possibility of it because, as Daniel Boone would testify, getting miss-oriented could lead to several months of confusion.

I was raised in the mountains, within walking distance of the Cherokee reservation and the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. It is still a part of the country where a boy could walk off in the woods and not be able to find his way back. My Grandfather taught my brother and I a simple truism that works very well in the eastern Appalachians, and has some application to all mountains.

If you find yourself lost, go down hill until you find water, and downstream until you find people.

With that simple formula, at the age of ten, I was not the least bit afraid to walk Little Mountain, Eagle’s Nest, all around the Balsam Gap, Plott Creek, the Little Pigeon river, and points all around there. I probably took a year or two off my poor grandmother’s life but it was fun for me.

I am going to divide this post into two parts:

Orienteering using maps and compasses.

Orienteering using nature. How our ancestors found their way around before cartography and compasses became common, or in places where maps were simply not yet made.

Lets first look at some not so true truisms:

The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Unless you are on the equator, NO. For us folks in the northern hemisphere, the sun rises in the SOUTH EAST and sets in the SOUTH WEST. If you are trying to arrive at a point Due East or West of you, then the problem with navigating by the sun should be obvious. There are ways to adjust for that and we will look at a couple shortly.

Moss grows on the south side of the tree. NO. Moss grows on the most protected side of the tree. Remember, I am a mountain boy. Most time moss grows on the up hill side of the tree in the mountains, and that is normally east or west. While moss growth can be a good indicator of direction, it is not completely accurate.

Water flows south. NO Water flows down hill. Whether that is north, south, east or west is another question.

For basic survival skills in the woods, I recommend to you FM 21-76 U.S. Army Survival Manual. Chapter 11 or 18 (depending on your version,) discusses Field Expedient methods of direction finding. I intend to talk about three of these methods, two using shadows and one using the stars.

For simplicity sake, I am going to stick to how this works in the NORTHERN temperate zone. (between 23.4 degrees and 66.6 degrees north). That would be where most of us live. If you are in the southern hemisphere either seek information elsewhere or contact me and I will get it for you.

The situation: You are lost and you have no idea where the cardinal directions are.

The first method I will discuss, is refereed to as the Shadow Tip Method. It is relatively quick and extremely accurate.

1. Find a spot clear of brush where the sun is shinning and a stick approximately a meter (a yard) long.

2. Drive the stick into the ground and mark the end of the first shadow with a stone. This point is ALWAYS the west end of the line you are going to create.

3. Wait fifteen or twenty minutes. If you are really lost, relax for awhile. Running your body dry on adrenaline is not helpful. When the time has passed, the shadow should have moved a short distance. Mark this movement and then draw a line from the first mark through the second mark, extending the line for some distance.

4. Stand with your left foot on your first mark and your right foot on your second. If you are above the equator you are facing in a northerly direction you left is west, your right is east and south is behind you.

shadow tip

FM 21-76

The second method I will discuss is the watch method. This method requires an analog watch. A very good reason to carry my pocket watch to the woods with me. It also uses shadow so we are going to start in a clear place where the sun is shinning and we, again, are going to place or stick in the ground.

1. Place a small stick in the ground that cast a definitive shadow.

2. Place your watch on the ground with the hour hand along the shadow.

3. Find the midway point between 12 O’clock and the hour hand and draw a line through this point. This line is the north-south line with north being in the direction the line is going through the watch. The other directions will be just as we said before. I have used this method while on the move, just to determine if I am going in the right general direction. Just point your hour hand at the sun and look at a point half way between that and 12 going clockwise. That will be generally north.

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FM 22-76

Lets talk about the stars now. Again I am staying with the Northern Hemisphere. South of the equator you would be looking for the southern cross but where most of us live navigating by the stars is done by the north star. The rest of the stars in the northern heavens revolve around the North Star.

The North Star (Polaris) is the tail end star in the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor) but that is often hard to find. Look for the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) and on the dipper end you will find two stars that act as pointers. Draw an imaginary line out from these stars and you will find another constellation called Cassiopeia or the Lazy W. Between the two the most prominent stars, you will see is the North Star.

finding north star

FM 21-76

 

In this day and age of GPS, and even the simpler compass and map, it is hard to believe that our ancestors crossed this country with no better guide than the North Star isn’t it? In the old wagon trains, the lead wagon was always set with its wagon tongue facing the North Star so that the next morning there would be no doubt which way they were to go.

Most times, in those cases where we are lost, it is better to conserve your energy, seek some shelter if necessary and wait for help. But while you are waiting you might want to orient yourself, because sometimes it is going to be necessary to walk out.

When that happens, you are going to need to know something about getting yourself oriented to your environment, so you can make reasonable decisions about where and how to go. What I have shown you here is introductory. It is a sampling of ways to find your direction that have been used for years.

Mint, Mint, and More Mint

Ed is working on the next installment of our Endangered Skills series and probably a rant about law mowers. I thought I would talk about the one thing I planted that will go on and on without me: Mint.

Yes, mint is invasive.

I’m ok with that.

I think I told you a few years ago, that I really wanted to turn the front yard into a garden, not only for the benefits of having a garden, but also because we wouldn’t have to mow it. Well, we have Maple trees, a very small witch hazel sapling, a few day lilies and we have mint….we also have thistles, but I would rather they go somewhere else. I’ve planted other things, especially down near the road hoping they would grow up hill. Not only have they not grown up hill, they haven’t grown at all. I can’t even find where they were planted.

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Little witch hazel

Yes, I got a new camera. It’s an updated version of my old one and lets me use wifi to upload the pictures.

The two or three little mint plants I put out there two years ago, have expanded to about 15 square feet. That’s 15 square feet we don’t have to mow.

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The mint bed, with a few weeds in the front. The tallest plants that are just starting to flower are almost waist high for me, so they are about 3 feet tall.

I haven’t even tried to harvest any this year. To be honest, I don’t use much of it. For me, the smell can be overpowering, particularly spearmint. That probably has something to do with family road trips when I was a kid. I had a tendency to get back seat carsickness, and somebody was always passing out Wrigley’s Spearmint gum. The two are irrevocably connected in my mind and so the smell of spearmint can make me nauseous. It’s strange because mint is used to treat nausea.

Peppermint is another matter. Its the smell of candy canes and Starlight Mints. Peppermint essential oil is fantastic for stopping headaches.

We have both kinds of mint growing and fortunately, they are easy to tell apart. Spearmint leaves have a rough texture and are a light shade of green. Peppermint is slightly darker, and has much smoother leaves. I used to have some chocolate mint too. Yes, it smells just like Thin Mints.

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Spearmint on the left and peppermint on the right.

The mint family of plants is huge. I read somewhere there are 3200 varieties. You can learn more about them here. One of my favorite members is lemon balm. I had a pretty good stand of it when we lived in Independence, and planned to bring cuttings with me, but my accident during our move stopped all that. I started some lemon balm seed summer before last, but it didn’t make it. Catnip is also a member of the mint family. Our cats are divided on it. Captain and Bookworm could take it or leave it. Adora likes it, but Marshmellow was the catnip junkie.

There is so much you can do with mint, and there is plenty of information out there in blog land to prove it. This is a good post that links to several other good posts. I may have to try the mint infused honey. I could do one of the salves too. I think I have everything I need. I let you know how it turns out.

Anybody want some mint?

Connie

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Endangered Skill #4: Reading the Weather

“I smell rain.”

I don’t know how old I was when I heard my grandma say those words, but I know I was immediately fascinated. It wasn’t raining. To my young eyes, it didn’t look like it was going to rain. What did she mean? I sniffed the air. I smelled something different, something I still can’t describe. I call it “rain”, and it usually means we’re going to get wet.

I probably would have smelled it this week, if I had spent any significant time outside. In two days, we got about five inches of rain.

Weather is important to everyone. These days most of us can get weather information from TV, radio, and the internet. We can watch the radar and get instant information about what is happening right now, and what we might expect next.

That being said, have you ever noticed how often the predictions are off a little? How about dead wrong? Did you ever hear about the lady who called the local weather man to ask him why she was sweeping six inches of “partly cloudy” off her front porch?

Have you ever been some place where it was raining on one side of the street and dry on the other? People on both sides of the street listened to the same weather forecast. One side will say the forecast was right, the other will say it was wrong. The Economist has an interesting post about the subject of weather forecasting accuracy.

So, if our professionals have trouble predicting the weather, what are the rest of us supposed to do? Further more, what did our ancestors do before there were professionals as we know them today?

Well, there are some things, like smelling rain, that seem to be at least as reliable as our local meteorologist. One of the reasons we listed reading the weather as an endangered skill is because it’s one of those things for which we rely so much on technology, we forget to use our own senses. We just need to get our heads out of our cell phones and pay attention.

The first volume of the Foxfire series, simply called “The Foxfire Book”, has a chapter called “Weather Signs”. At first glance, you might think you are reading a bunch of old wives tales, and some of them might be, but not all. Here are a few samples from page 208:

“Forecasting Winter By Animals
It will be a bad winter if:
squirrels begin gathering nuts early (middle or late September)
muskrat houses are built big.
beaver lodges have more logs.
the north side of a beaver dam is more covered with sticks than the south.
squirrels’ tails grow bushier.
fur and hair on animals such as horses, sheep, mules, cows and dogs is thicker than usual.
the fur on the bottom of a rabbits foot is thicker.
cows’ hooves break off earlier.”
And the list goes on for three pages, and includes methods for predicting other types of weather as well.

Chicken Girl’s dad grew up in a logging family in rural Kentucky. Once, when we lived there, I noticed the leaves on some of the trees had turned upside down, showing their undersides. I mentioned it to him, and he said the trees were expecting rain.  I’ve seen it bear out more often than not. You can notice it from a distance, because the underside of leaves are usually a different, more subdued color.

Dad has lived in Georgia since 1970, and he has told me many times, when the weather is coming straight across (meaning out of the west), it won’t be that bad, but if I comes up from the Gulf, (out of the southwest), “we’re going to get it.”

Dad also says to gauge what kind of winter you’re going to have, look at horses and cows. If the winter is going to be a bad one, they will “coat up”. That means their hair will get thick and woolly-looking. Sounds like one of those “signs” from The Foxfire Book, doesn’t it? I’ve actually noticed this looking at livestock while riding down the road, and on our own dogs, particularly Libby.

I’ll bet you’ve heard this before:

“Red sky at night, sailor delight.
Red sky at morning, sailor take warning.”

Dust and water vapor particles in the atmosphere indicate weather conditions. The amount of each also determine the colors we see at sunrise and sunset. For a further explanation of that and some other good information for understanding your local weather patterns, look at this post from How to Provide for Your Family. In it, the author mentions that leaves turn over when the wind is coming from an unusual direction. Could that also be an indicator of rain? I don’t know, but it might be interesting to find out.

The post also mentions that the high humidity/low pressure combination that signifies a cold front, and often precipitation, can produce bodily aches and pains, as well as “antisocial behavior”. Ed and I can both attest to the bodily aches and pains part. As for antisocial behavior, I do know that people seem to get testy when the weather is hot and humid.

Weather has always fascinated me, and I love thunderstorms, but I’ll be honest. My mind just will not grasp the science part of it. I don’t know why, and it’s a little irritating, because I have to keep researching the same information. To quote Chicken Girl, “It just doesn’t stick”.

In other homestead news:

My camera had an accident and is out of commission. If I can’t fix it, which I probably can’t since that is way beyond my skill set, I will have to get another one. In the meanwhile, I got the gorgeous pictures you see in this post from Unsplash.com.

Adora, our injured cat is still recovering. Last Saturday, she came running when she heard me open the back door. A few hours later, she left a dead bird on the front porch. Unfortunately, Wednesday morning, I noticed her left hip looked swollen and it was hot to the touch. I called the vet, and we made another trip to his office. He said it looked like it was an abscess, but it was going to need to come to a head before he could do anything with it. In the meanwhile, he gave us some liquid antibiotic to give her. Either that will make it go away completely, or help bring it to a head so that he can lance it. While we were there, I told them that Chicken Girl though she had found more bites on the back of her head, so they shaved it to get a better look. They confirmed the bite marks, but said they looked ok for now.

With all the rain,we renamed the holes the dogs dug in their pen “Lake Libby”. However, after rain stopped, and the water soaked into the  ground, we discovered most of the holes had filled in. Now they can dig them all out again.

Ed broke down and bought another push mower. He managed to get the front yard mowed before the deluge hit. That’s a start, anyway. We wont talk about the fifteen foot high ragweed that has buried the burn pile and our wheelbarrow.

Connie

Other posts in the Endangered Skills series:

Eight Endangered Skills
Endangered Skill #1: Shoe Repair
Endangered Skill #2: Black Smith
Endangered Skill #3: Small Appliance Repair