Thursday, January 26, 2017

Smell the Flowers, Pick the Fruit, Watch the Animals

On my worst days, I feel as if humans are a scourge on the Planet Earth. On other bad days, I lapse into thinking that we are not to be blamed for destroying our Home because we are just doing what we naturally do. On my best days, I see clearly that industrial civilization is not what we are, and that humans have a role to play in this world. That role is a stewardship role, and the vast majority of us are not doing our duty. Myself included.

To play this important role, we must interact with all parts of the ecosystem. We cannot be stewards through our purchases. We cannot be stewards by recycling. We must smell the flowers, pick the fruit, watch the animals, feel the heat and the cold, be comfortable in our own skin: know ourselves thoroughly. We must be able to feel discomfort and not immediately recoil. There was a time when all humans did this and more, so it is definitely possible. The challenge is reaching beyond our comfort zones and abandoning the belief that the only way to go is the way we are going, toward ‘progress.’

If we are to be stewards, we must think beyond our immediate needs, as many of us who are damaging our Home have the luxury of being able to do. We have to be less selfish, in a sense. We have to do what’s best for other species and parts of the ecosystem, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because in the post-fossil fuel age we will need functioning ecosystems to live. Feel what it's like to know that when you eat food from far away, drive a car, turn the air conditioning on full blast, etc., you are causing harm to something else that is nearly irreversible. You are contributing to a planet that is less habitable to your family and friends. To feel this way is uncomfortable, but the truth should not be obscured. Occasional discomfort can push us to change our behavior.

My soft, wannabe steward hands

Despite what I perceive as a somewhat common, unstated belief, our elected officials cannot make us stewards. They will not perform magic that negates our need to be stewards. Why? Let’s consider an example (for areas of the world that have freezing temperatures). Supreme Leader A cares about us being stewards. S/he orders us to keep the heat in our homes and offices set at a temperature no higher than 45 degrees Fahrenheit, just to keep the pipes from bursting and give us a bit of warmth. Most would find these temperatures to be quite uncomfortable. Many would be angry that the government is telling them what to do. But, in fact, Supreme Leader A is confronting energy depletion, climate change, and environmental degradation head on. S/he is not talking about these issues, but actually pushing us to be stewards.

Supreme Leader A is, of course, a fictional character in our industrial society. Austerity and sacrifice are not sexy, whether you’re on the Red team or Blue team in the United States. We should not expect a leader to tell us to do anything we don’t already do in some form, or that they don’t do themselves. We need to lead with our actions. Only then will Supreme Leader A pat her/himself on the back by claiming credit for what we’re already doing. Elected officials only do what earns them praise. How can we expect them to be stewards, or ask us to be stewards, if we are not stewards ourselves?


There is nothing left but to simply do. Walk outside; spend a weekend outside. Bring a friend if you like, but spend some time alone. Look at what is around you. Feel, observe, be. Start to tinker (responsibly) with what you find; seek guidance from others. How do you feel? You may be uncomfortable, mentally, physically, or emotionally: that’s OK, stewards are not always comfortable. The comfort comes when you dive in and through. There is no substitute for walking away from the human-built environment and being in the awesome presence of all-there-is. This is where we came from and where stewards must return to. Only by being out there does it become clear what we must do. That which extends beyond human reach has much to teach us, and we are wise to listen and learn.

I’m on my way out the door for a couple days to continue my practice.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Something Primal Keeping Me Going

I hesitated as I considered the task in my parked car, finally gathering up my courage and wits. I had passed a dead deer a few miles back on the edge of the road. Cause of death was clearly humans, who may have otherwise left the body to rot or put it to some dishonorable use under some bureaucratic name. My decision to pick the deer up led to a weekend of manual labor and a weekend of incredible reward. I was happy to lessen the tragedy of this deer dying unnecessarily and prevent it from being obscured in society’s cloud of waste.

Doe, a deer

My sister in the ecosystem met an untimely death. As I took apart her body, it was clear that she was healthy and had been eating well. White-tailed deer in cold climates eat as much as they can in Fall to build their bodies up for the Winter, not knowing when their next substantial meal will come. The amount of hard, white fat I found indicated that she would have made it through Winter. The cold winds whisk away the warmth from an animal, and those fat sources burn to keep the body warm. I now think of my own body as a heater when I’m out there on those cold days, burning my own fuel to keep warm.

Well, she and I spent a lot of time together. A late night, sorting out the battered, gory tissue from the still edible meat, all while watching Youtube to make sure I was correctly remembering the processing technique from my class at Charm City Farms over a year ago. Though I hadn’t eaten for quite a while, and had gotten up well before dawn, I was completely engrossed in the process, something primal keeping me going. By 4 AM, I had the deer quartered, and was ready for bed. The night hearkened back to my days as a grad student in the science lab, running experiments into the wee hours of morning.

I was exhausted when I woke up a few hours later, but had planned days before to have some friends over for breakfast. We enjoyed some splendid sourdough pancakes, made with the last of my sourdough starter. I then had some tidying up and planning to do, but was mostly just tired with a dull headache. I talked with my friend Kevin who invited me to come out to process the hide and prepare it for preservation at Overlook Community Farm. The hours just flew by as I was thinking about all of the deer parts and how to honor each one - a true challenge when you are living in a sea of concrete and neighbors all stacked in a concentrated housing operation. I couldn’t help but yearn for my next stage, living somewhere more wild.

The next day was probably the most wonderful of all. Joseph and I did the final butchering, with assistance from our new Youtube friend Richard Smith, who was there with me and the deer the whole time. Joseph and I were both amazed at the ease with which we were able to use a knife each and make some pretty nice cuts, all in a few hours work. Processing is quite intuitive; it has been made mystical only by disconnection from our food. 60+ pounds of meat, with no money needed; just our time, and a few sharp knives.

I stuck Joseph with most of the clean up and hopped in the car to head out to Kevin and McNeill’s for hide processing. The peace and green of the farm were a welcome respite from the busyness and grey of the city. Kevin lent his expertise, and all of the tools, to help me remove the fat and meat from the underside of the hide. We then salted the hide for preservation and further processing in Spring. Kevin and McNeill prepared a wonderful dinner for us, we talked and laughed, and I then bid them adieu. I went back out to the barn in the pitch black, tidied up, and rolled up the salted hide. I bashed my shin on a wheelbarrow in the dark. I didn’t mind. I thought of it as a reminder to slow down; there was no rush. The dark was peaceful and in no way threatening, a comforting glimpse into my future. I felt at ease.

Salted hide

I headed back to the city, hide in the back of the rugged Prius, with the bits that had come off the hide left behind in Kevin and McNeill’s compost. It was comforting to know that those parts of the deer would be incorporated back into the soil. In contrast, it was a bit deflating to come back to the city after being at the peaceful farm, now having to worry about locked doors and someone possibly busting my car window to steal anything that had the slightest suggestion of being valuable. I did laugh at the possibility of them rummaging through my stuff and coming up with a deer hide!

I ended this amazing day at Joseph and Katya’s, had some of the delicious odds and ends that were left from the butchering, which they had cooked up in bone broth. I sipped some tea that the couple found in a free box out in front of someone’s house, another score from the vast urban 'waste' stream. We reveled in all of the meat we had the pleasure of being fully present in obtaining, and the bright future of being able to acquire the necessities of life without the need for riches. It truly is the taste of freedom. The simple act of picking up this deer brought me into a new connection with my ecosystem, including tightening my bonds with other people. What a weekend it was - I’ll never forget it!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Sticks over Bics

I’ve been hooked on the outdoors since the day my father first took me trout fishing as a child. I grew up and spent most of my early life near the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. I took it somewhat for granted that I could get in the car, drive thirty minutes to a trailhead, walk a few miles, and have an entire lake to myself. A few years ago, after finishing graduate school, I moved to Washington, DC for work. That’s when it hit me hard- those forests and lakes I had taken for granted were out of reach. I struggled to make sense of the blaring sirens, honking horns, bad suits, and never-ending concrete. But not all hope was lost. For a forest person, DC’s greatest gift is Rock Creek Park, where old-growth Tulip Poplars stand supreme and barred owls keep watch in the canopy. Rock Creek Park became my sanctuary. If anything, the relative lack of wilderness in metro DC reinforced for me how truly important wild nature is, both for my own sanity and the health of the planet. I became inspired to connect more deeply with Nature and learn forgotten or snuffed out skills that our ancestors used to thrive in a time when there was less of a distinction between humanity and Nature.

For years I have been intrigued by friction fire. My concept of friction fire was entirely shaped by Hollywood. While circumstances vary from film to film, the general premise is that someone gets lost in the wilderness. They gather a few sticks and start rubbing them together. After a couple of failed attempts and a little sweat, they succeed and celebrate in triumph. I never bought that it was that easy. Quite the opposite. I thought of friction fire as a nearly impossible enterprise, linked more closely to magic than physics. So I started watching every YouTube clip on friction fire I could find. In some respects, YouTube made it look even easier than Hollywood. Everyone seemed to succeed. Encouraged, I went off into the woods with a knife and some paracord to try my hand. In my particular case there were about forty failed attempts, a lot of sweat, the tiniest amount of smoke, but no fire. Defeated, I conceded that friction fire skills were reserved for a select class of super humans, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t one of them.

Then one day my friend Matt asked me if I would be interested in attending a class on friction fire at Earth Village Education. Naturally I said yes. If there was any chance of becoming one of those super humans, that was it. Matt and I left DC and headed out to Marshall, Virginia. I had no idea what to expect. We arrived at the farm house on a chilly April morning and were greeted first by two dogs, and then by the instructors- Tom, Lisa, Kevin, and McNeill. After some hellos, we were off to the forest classroom. Yes, it was going to be a good day indeed.

I admit I was anxious to get right to it. I wanted to start rubbing those sticks together. But the lead instructor Tom Brown III had other ideas. He devoted the first hour of the class to expounding upon the physics of fire and instructing us on knife safety. “When you are using knives, make sure to stay out of each other’s blood bubbles- the area around your body out to two arm lengths”, Tom said. Then he walked us around the forest showing us how to gather kindling to build a fire structure. “First gather pencil lead diameter twigs, then pencil diameter and so on”, he said. We returned to the forest classroom and gathered around a fire pit. Tom built a tepee-like structure with the kindling, explaining that a good structure is the basis for a good fire. He took out a matchbook, and with a single match, lit the tinder bundle he had placed at the base. Within ten seconds I was staring at a legitimate jet engine of a fire that towered well above my 6 foot 2 frame. Amazing.

Matt warming himself by a proper fire.

Finally, (I said I was anxious) we got to the friction fire lesson. The instructors gave us red cedar logs and Tom demonstrated how to carve the components necessary for a bow drill friction set- a fire board, spindle, and bearing block. For an hour I carved away at the fragrant cedar. I shaped my components with great care, and I was damn proud of my work. Then we moved on to the bow. I scoured the forest for a slightly curved stick, and having found one, strung it with paracord (in times past, animal sinew, hides, or cordage made from plant fibers were used). Finally, I was about to make fire by friction. And that’s when Tom called a time out.

He took us back to the lecture area where he imparted his philosophies on friction fire and ancestral knowledge. He told us that friction fire isn’t about brute strength and ego. He explained that friction fire is about connecting deeply with our environment and our ancestral roots. It’s about respect and gratitude for the environment that sustains and nourishes us. It’s about crafting your friction fire set with great care. It’s about understanding and reacting to the unique materials you’re using in the unique environment you are in. It’s about failures and learning from those failures. In fact, Tom told us that every time he prepares to make fire with friction, before he starts spinning a spindle, he takes a moment to give thanks to the tree that provided the raw materials, and to Nature for providing humans with everything we need.

And then it was show time. We entered the forest and Tom demonstrated how to produce a coal with a bow drill. I watched in amazement. I had never been so close to one of those super humans before. First he burned the spindle into the fire board. The unmistakable smell of burning wood perfumed the air. Then he carved a pie-piece-shaped notch in the board. “You want to carve your notch to just below the center line of the burned-in hole, and it should be about 1/6 of the size of the hole”, he said. With the notch carved Tom set up and began bowing. Within just 30 seconds a coal sat smoldering on an oak leaf that he selected for a firepan. He carefully transferred the coal to his bird-nest tinder bundle, made from finely shredded inner bark of tulip poplar and cattail fluff. Slowly he blew life into the bundle. Smoke poured out, getting thicker with each focused breath. Finally, the bundle burst into flames. It was no joke. Friction fire really was possible.

And then it was my turn. I got into position. Tom and Kevin helped me with my stance. After a few fumbles I got the spindle loaded and set it in the fire board. I pushed down on the bearing block, took a breath, and started to turn. After ten seconds the spindle jumped out and landed next to me. Undeterred I re-loaded and got back into position. Again I bowed. The spindle stayed snug in the fire board and smoke began to rise. A hole began to form and the smell of burning wood crept into my nostrils. I had successfully “burned in”. Then I carved the notch. I loaded the spindle and began bowing again. Smoke started to rise and the notch began filling with dust. Excited, my form became erratic and the spindle popped loose. I was close. “Open your notch up a bit,” Kevin said. After shaving away some cedar and expanding the notch, I regrouped and gave some gratitude. I bowed slowly at first, then vigorously as the smoke intensified. Tom came over and encouraged me. “Your notch is filling. Release a little pressure and bow faster.” So I did. I focused with everything I had. After ten seconds of intense bowing Tom told me to stop. Panting, I stopped and slowly backed away. A tiny coal was sitting in the notch, smoldering on its own. I picked up the tinder bundle, arms trembling from exertion and anxiety. My hands wobbled as I transferred the coal into the bundle. Again I breathed deeply, trying to calm my body. I bunched the tinder around the coal and started to breathe into it gently, just as Tom had. As the smoke thickened I tightened the bundle around the coal and continued blowing rhythmically. And then it happened. Smoke gave way to flames. I had become one of those super humans.

Joseph blowing his tinder bundle into flame.

Since my experience at Earth Village Education I have spent many hours practicing friction fire. I’ve had success with several different locally-foraged materials, and even had success with the hand-drill method (mullein spindle on tulip poplar hearth board rocks!). For every success, I’ve had about fifty failures, and that’s ok. I learned something from every one of them. One day I hope to “bust a coal” using a bow strung with natural cordage and a rock knife to carve the components. It’s the holy grail for me. By taking a course on friction fire, I got so much more than just a day-long lesson. I acquired fundamental skills that will serve me for a lifetime. As an added bonus, friction fire has also strengthened my tree and plant identification skills. I view flora in a whole new light and my respect and appreciation for all things botanical has deepened immensely. When I look at a tulip poplar, I don’t see a tree, but a giver of light and life.

I now have a lifelong pastime that fills me with joy and a deep sense of accomplishment. Now that I am one of those “super humans”, I realize that I was thinking about things the wrong way. Primitive skills aren’t in the realm of the super human. Quite the opposite- primitive skills are quintessentially human. They typify the resourcefulness, athleticism, and ingenuity of our forbearers who learned how to flourish in wild and unforgiving environments. Primitive skills give me a purer, rawer sense of my humanity, and make me question the notion of “human progress”. They remind me that our modern human society is anomalous- a freakish blip in the epoch of human experience. And while I know that friction fire is much more complicated than rubbing two sticks together, for the sake of the rhyme, sticks over Bics is my new battle cry.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Simple Pleasures of Grammels

Katherina Colombo, my Grandma, was born in 1929 in Olaszfalu, Hungary, when the world population was 2 billion. Olaszfalu had a population of about 1500. Grandma grew up without electricity and all of the things that come with it. Wood and kerosene (for lamps) were the only fuels, muscle and sun the only other means to do work. Nothing was wasted on her family's farm. How could it be, when they knew, firsthand, the hard work required to provide everything they needed? As I try to figure out what I want my life to look like, or when I try to picture what life might be like for humans in the future, I often talk to Grandma. She is the strongest and most resourceful person I know. At the age of 87, she’s more capable and aware than most.

About a month ago, my friends Kevin and McNeill gave me two gallon bags of pig fat from last year’s pigs. They kindly offered their advice on rendering the fat into lard for use in cooking. When I told Grandma that I had the fat, she immediately said, “Bring it home, I know what to do wit it!”* By home, she meant back to New Jersey, when I was visiting for the holidays. I was happy to have some personalized instruction.

On Christmas morning, when my family was opening gifts, Grandma called and asked for the pig fat. We had planned to do the rendering the next day, but I heard her say to my Dad that it can’t all be done in one morning. I think she was just eager to get started! She drove down to pick it up. That night, when I got to her house, that familiar house with the familiar sights and smells, there were already 3 containers of lard on the old, but impeccable, yellow counter top. And, of course, there was a bag of the associated “Grammels” - a new word that I learned. More on that below!

Heating and mixing

The next morning, I woke up late in Grandma’s guest bed, where I used to sleep as a child. I mostly still fit in the top mattress of the trundle bed; the roll out mattress on the bottom is a bit small for my frame these days. When I entered the kitchen, the cubed fat for the second batch was already in the pot. “You have to use a tick medal pot, odderwise it will burn. We used to have bick pots (she drew a three foot diameter circle with her hands). Stirred dem wit a bick stick like ah, how you call it, oar.” Any freezer burned edges or otherwise undesirable pieces were put in a separate bag. “No waste,” she said. These pieces would have been used to make soap, but Grandma said she would feed them to the birds over the next few weeks.

Then, there are the Grammels - the bits of crunchy food that are left over once the rendering is done. Grandma hand pressed these; I removed them from the press and put them in a bowl. “I like dem wit a liddle bit of salt.” She popped one after the other, recounting stories of her relatives and how much they loved Grammels. “When you mek eggs, cut these up and put dem in there, you doan even need oil.” I could see that the Grammels were bringing back memories!

Pressing oil from the Grammels

Grammels! (and the yellow counter top)

It turns out, rendering is mostly a matter of heating fat without burning it. Though fat has been rendered for eons and will continue to be, it’s possible that no one will be doing it as Grandma does. Now I know her way, and continuing the tradition is one of the many ways I will always remember her.

Grandma and I sat at the kitchen table and talked, just like we always do, about how crazy the world is, how engrossed people are in their electronics, how extravagant the holidays can be. We discuss the merits of eating pig fat, and how her father used to eat handfuls of Grammels and always stayed lean and healthy. Grandma and I were very much on the defensive the whole weekend when we told relatives that we were going to render and cook with pig fat. Surely, our arteries would be instantly clogged! I love hearing Grandma’s stories of the old country ways that fly in the face of modern wisdom. She asks how work is going, and I express my usual frustrations that the environment is degrading while I sit in a cubicle. I can’t help but think that the world would be a much better place if more people could make and enjoy the simple pleasures of Grammels.

The lard

*I must give credit to my sister, Brianne, a far better writer than I, who came up with these spellings to capture Grandma’s accent in a piece she wrote about Grandma’s life up until about the age of 25.