Monday, February 8, 2016

Whittling Wizards

Last Monday, I told our Homeschool Group that I was going to share with them the techniques to become knife Skill Wizards. Needless to say, they were excited. Who doesn't want to be a Wizard?

Knives are an essential tool in my toolkit. I carry one (or more) everyday. When I go through airport security, I always feel as though I have forgotten something essential, such as brushing my teeth, merely because I do not have a blade. In general, I carry three blades: a Mora Classic, which is my go-to utility blade, carving bowdrill kits, splitting kindling, skinning and processing animals; a generic folding knife, used for the daily tasks on a farm, which is occasionally sharp; and an Opinel with a carbon steel blade, for finer projects and also my food knife, for apples, sausage and cheese. I have been carrying a knife regularly since the age of seven, and have become somewhat infamous for my love of blades.

Why this passion for knives? From a bird's eye view, the knife is simply a cutting edge, a tool that has been a critical part of our cultural heritage for the past couple of million years. In the practice of primitive and traditional skills, it is in daily use. Fire, projectile weapons, gathering of plants, constructing traps, all rely on the knife.

Yet, for many, carrying a knife is not a daily habit, and many of our lives are not dependent on using a blade. For many of our students, we need to develop a relationship with the knife before we can put it to good, safe and efficient use.

Enter the Scandinavian woodcraft tradition. For some reason, in Scandinavia, ideal blade designs have been preserved (such as the incomparable Mora knives and Gransfors Bruks axes). Similarly, a comprehensive carving system is still maintained. Using a knife requires correct grips and cuts for specific outcomes. Understanding the behavior of a wood's grain is inherent in design. Working with both dry and green wood is understood.

A great way to practice whittling is to make a series of notches, points and end treatments on a stick. I used to call is a "wood doodling stick', and have spent hours creating fanciful designs with a knife. Exercising precision is necessary, and practicing repetition leads to mastery. Once confidence is reached with the doodling stick, spoons are the next point of departure, though complete spoon carving also includes the correct use of a hatchet and spoon knife, plus understanding of the much feared and misunderstood "carving towards oneself".

I am not a wood carver, humbly a passionate whittler. I revel in the shapes that the wood's grain dictates, the feel if a good blade, and the ability to craft useful and delightful objects from the surrounding landscape.


The "try stick" of notches

My trusty Mora

A reinforced grip

A power grip

Carving towards myself with a backhand grip

Using an anvil to support aggressive shearing strokes

Finely curled shavings

A gypsy flower

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Wildlife Tracking as Advanced Pattern Recognition

What is the role of tracking within Earth Skills, and what does it accomplish at Laughing Coyote? For our ancestors, tracking was an essential part of life. The ability to find animals to provide food was a central skill that was developed around the world. Today, few of us hunt for food, and with the weapons and technology available to us, the few that continue to hunt require very rudimentary tracking skills to be effective.

However, when this skill is developed, the world begins to unfold into a complex, beating web of life that swirls around us. The fields, forests, streams and mountains begin to reveal the inner lives of the secretive animals that live around us. Mysteries appear, and our inner detective revels in the opportunity to deduce clues from the landscape. After a full day of tracking, animals and their trails begin to populate our dreamscapes, showing us that we have opened every pore of our being to nature.

Tracking animals has frequently been likened to reading, that individual tracks make up letters and stories across the landscape. While this is somewhat true theoretically, no book continually changes the size and shape of its letters, adjusts based on weather conditions, slope, substrate and age. The letters rarely walk on top of each other, or disappear over hard sections of ground. In tracking, nothing is every repeated. Every track and trail is unique, yet together, over hours and days and years a story is fleshed out, and the earth begins to sing with stories.

Our world is increasingly monochromatic and flat. Children are raised with information appearing on screens, and our remarkable ability to gather mountains of information and subtle details is lost. Rather than a critique of our efficiently technological world, tracking gives us a counterpoint, a balance. After a mere matter of months, students look down in a field and say, “Check out this vole tunnel” or “Look at this rabbit latrine” or “Is that a woodrat nest?” On the fly, they differentiate between rabbit and squirrel tracks, or fox and coyote scat.

This is wildlife tracking as a tool of consciousness. Training our minds, eyes and imaginations to soak in stories, to broaden our perspectives and capacities for innovation and thought, to challenge our preconceived ideas of the world and bring us face to face with reality. And to acknowledge mystery and the unknown. Sometimes, despite all of our hard work, all of our experience, we cannot untangle the marks on the ground in front of us, and we learn to move on, to trust that the answers will appear. And we also find, when we are lost, angry or confused, in an environment we feel alien to, that the nest of a squirrel, or the hopping tracks of juncos bring us back in touch to the healing power of nature.

Developing the skills of the trackers brings us in touch with a blueprint, a mode of interacting with the world that was practiced by our ancestors since the dawn of time. This practice encourages the facilities needed for science, mathematics, storytelling and art. Finding the space where the inner and outer landscapes meet, and when mere marks in the ground begin to glow with meaning is what this is all about. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Wildlife Tracking Evaluation

Last weekend, Casey McFarland, of Wildlife Tracking Southwest and CyberTracker Conservation, came out to hold a wildlife tracking evaluation. Ten participants joined in, and we spent two days immersing ourselves in tracks, sign and animal behavior. At first, the "evaluation" aspect is daunting, and a little stressful, but we all found it to be the best tool to learn wildlife tracking. I was amazed at the diversity of sign we encountered: pigeon, deer, raccoon, mink, swallow, bear, dog, coyote, domestic cat, woodrat, wild turkey, beaver, downy woodpecker, sapsucker, cottontail, squirrel, prairie dog and deer mouse. It was a great experience, and I am grateful to all of the participants for the enthusiasm and friendships that developed over the course. In these evaluations, which are standardized internationally, it is possible to get a score based on your ability. In this evaluation, Levels One, Two or Three in Track and Sign were possible. We had two Level 1, four Level 2, and three Level 3. We plan to hold these events yearly, so we hope you can join us!

Looking close

Getting a better angle



My first mink tracks!

A raccoon latrine

Can you see the "thumb" on this left, front deer mouse track?

Casey finding questions to ask

The group

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Rabbitstick 2014

This year we attended Rabbitstick, a primitive skills gathering in Rexburg, Idaho. This is one of the oldest gatherings, and we had a fantastic time. Gelsey focused on fibers, learning backstrap loom weaving, starting a water-tight basket, and learning twining. I made ghillies (European-style moccasins), used a pole lathe, processed a duck for lunch, and made small split-willow deer. It was a camp full of friends, supporting one another in a quest to live simply, learn the ways of our ancestors, or follow some intangible call that led them to that moment. I would recommend attending one of these fine events! Rabbitstick and Winter Count are hosted by Backtracks,

A limber pine we passed in Utah

Our camp

The Gypsy-camper

Gypsy wagon

Two more gypsy wagons

The goats of the Winter Moon Tribe herd

A shelter in the woods

A herd of willow deer

Backstrap loom class

Our friend and co-conspirator Gone Feral's popular pack basket class

Duck ready for processing

Porcupine track by the river

Two skin on frame kayaks

Morning circle

Ghillies class

Completed ghillies, and a pair to be made

Pole lathe

Mick at his gypsy wagon

Working the pole lathe

The bowl taking shape

Twined basket

Completed twined basket, as an awl case

Crafts and skills learned and finished over the week