Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Bamboo Tools

Bamboo Joy

I had the great fortune ( at least I think so now)  to live in the Far East for over 9 years. Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Viet Nam ( not so great). I even spent some quality military type time in Laos, China and a few civilian trips into Burma. One thing all those countries has in common is Bamboo. Lots of it. And -the native people make good use of it. You can find just about everything and anything made out of bamboo in the Orient.

My first experience at actually making and using tools and utensils out of bamboo was while attending Jungle Survival training in the Philippines. There I was taught to make steam cookers, vessels to carry water and eat and drink from,  carve simple spoons and knives and to make shelters. To my surprise, although giant bamboo is very hard, it’s very easy to work with - if you have the proper tools. You’d be hard pressed to cut down a single stick of bamboo with just a pocket knife, although it can be done. Machetes and parangs are the preferred blades of the locals and they yield them with precision and authority.

Lately I’ve sort of re-discovered the craft. My wife and I managed to get dibs on a large stand of giant bamboo a few weeks ago and took down six or so large plants that ranged from 2 inches in diameter to a couple that were over 6 inches. We cut these into 8 foot lengths so they would fit in the back of my pick-up and hauled them home. Our first thought was to use them to build an arbor in the back yard but after some thought, and considering the difficulty required for that arbor,  I ended up just throwing the pile of overgrown sticks in the garage.

Anyway, to make a long story short, remembering some of the things I’d seen made out of bamboo while overseas, I decided to whip out something useful – like - utensils and tools. I started with a couple of simple bowls. These are very quick and easy to make and with that little spark of interest and success I just continued cutting and carving. Next I made a spoon, then I got really ambitious and next thing I knew – wham-o, I’d made a soup ladle.

After taking stock of what I’d completed in just a short afternoon my wife described a water bottle, or canteen, that the men folk in her village carried water in when they went to the rice fields or on hunting trips. In very short order I had one of those made. Maybe not exactly as she’d drawn out, but it certainly turned out very functional and practical. As a matter of fact, I like this thing so much that I’ll be carrying it next time I’m in the bush. In my humble and sometimes convoluted opinion - it just looks totally abo. So as to not modernize my new prize I even went so far as to twine a carrying strap from cat tail leaves. No Para-cord or leather straps for this baby – aboriginal all the way.

My next project is to make a couple of musical instruments. I’m thinking maybe a bamboo flute is first in order. Native Americans used river cane of course, and I’ll probably have to go that route myself. The bamboo I have on hand is a little to large for a flute. What I do have is some two inch inside diameter bamboo that I’m considering using to make a Didgeridoo. For those of you that have never heard one of these played you are missing one of the truly great aboriginal sounds. Type in Didgeridoo on YouTube and have a listen.

I’m quite sure I can make a Didgeridoo easily enough. The actually construction using bamboo is about as simple as it can get. Playing one is another matter. I tried blowing a tune on one a few weeks ago at the Earth Skills Rendezvous and although I did manage to get some sounds out of it – it was way short of sounding anything like the Didge masters can play. Frankly – I love the sound. It’s as primitive and primal as a wolf’s howl.

So folks, round yourself up a couple of sticks of bamboo, muster up some ambition, stir up your creative juices and see what you can come up with.  I’m thinking with Christmas not that far away I may start cranking out these things by the dozens for use as gifts. I’ll tell everyone it’s not because I’m a tightwad, it’s in the spirit of going green.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Earth Skills

Earth Skills Rendezvous

For anyone that would like to expand their knowledge base and really immerse themselves in primitive skills for several days at a time I highly recommend the Earth Skills Rendezvous that are held twice a year near La Fayette, GA. I just returned from the last rendezvous and can attest to the skills and dedication of the staff and instructors of Earth Skills Inc. These guys and gals know their stuff. You name it – there’s an expert available to share their knowledge and skills.

I’ve wanted to make an Atlatl for a while now, and sure enough, there was a class available. Not only did I get a chance to make my own using tools and materials that were furnished for free, I was taught some of the rich and varied history of the Atlatl going back to the prehistory age of the Aztecs and up into almost modern times of the American Indian. Heck – prior to the class I was even pronouncing the word wrong. The proper way is = attle attle. Say it like battle battle,  just leave off the B.

Our instructor – Denton – had us start by making a down and dirty, quick version. One that can be shaped out of a small branch with just a pocket knife or- a stone blade if one were so inclined. In maybe 15 minutes flat we were hurling a primitive spear through the air at what I would say was a very accelerated speed. With practice these things are very accurate and at some rendezvous they hold competitions.

After we’d absorbed and understood the basic function of the ancient tool/weapon by watching what the simple version could do we then went on to build a much better and more functional example. Denton had already split some very nice Osage Orange wood splints for us to use so it was just a matter of shaping and smoothing each piece to it’s final form. I copied my instructor’s design as I really liked the clean lines and it’s artistic form. Beside that – I knew it would work flawlessly.

After we’d carved, scraped and sanded our Osage into it’s final shape the next step was to first carve and then add the point or spear hook to the throwing end. Denton also provided these pieces, carefully carved from a deer bone. ( I think).  The addition of a hand loop completed the weapon. A simple, effective and deadly weapon.

The list of other skills taught at the Rendezvous would fill a page. Blow Guns, flint knapping, baskets, bullroarers, canning, foraging, tracking, tanning hides, cordage, flutes, snares and dead falls – and the list goes on. Although I was only able to spend 2 days I managed to cram in at least a half dozen workshops. All these workshops were for skills that I’ve read about, maybe even tried on my own or had some limited experience with in a earlier survival class but – I’d never really felt that comfortable with. You know – I just knew that I had a lot more to learn. Those workshops really put me at ease with those particular skills.

Another old time skill I’d never actually done myself – but knew I could probably do it on my own, and I’ve even played around with a few times, was collecting, processing and then making a meal out of Oak Acorns. Our instructor this time was a young and very knowledgable lady named Natalie. We did a short hike out into the hills and collected a sack of Chestnut Oak acorns. Now these aren’t small acorns as acorns go. These guys are the giants of the acorn world and it didn’t take long to pick up enough for a meal. We lugged these back to camp, cracked and removed the outer hulls then sliced and diced the meat into very small pieces. We then threw these into a pot of water, boiled them for ten minutes at a time, switching water at least 3 times until the water was clear and with that - they were done. The acorns can be eat  as soon as the tannin is boiled out but a taste test proved them to be very bland. Not bad – the taste is hard to describe – but it would be a very dull meal. To spice things up Natalie added a couple pounds of butter to the pot them a couple of apples sliced up about as thin as potato chips. After letting that brew on medium heat until the apples were sort of mushy we served them up and chowed down. Big difference. A very tasty dish this time. You survivalists’ out there should know that properly prepared acorns are very nutritious and well worth the time and effort required to make them palatable. I brought a bunch home to process and I plan on taking a stab at making some acorn flour. Pancakes anyone?

Again – I can’t say enough about the staff at Earth Skills. For the most part the instructor’s are volunteers – folks that are there both to teach and to learn. It was very common to see instructor’s taking part in other classes and oftentimes sharing their skills and knowledge with other instructors. A few were hard core survival and backwoods types but most were just everyday folks – Mom’s, Dad’s, Grand Parents, Doctor’s, Engineer’s etc. The one thing they all had in common was the love of the simple life and preserving and practicing old time skills.

The next Rendezvous is in April. Their website and information is at this link for anyone that’s interested.

I hope to see you there.