Monday, 28 August 2017

Grass!



Having recently returned form a holiday in Sorrento celebrating my wife and my 50th birthday I started separating the almost inevitable flora and fauna pictures that I'd taken during my time there. Also having worked my way through Paul Kirtley’s online tree and plant ID course last year I’ve grown my plant knowledge massively (which helped recently in Italy) but one area that occurred to me that I’ve never got on top of is grass identification.



Now when I say grass I mean grass and not grarse by the way and whilst I do know Marram grass, the sentinel of sand dunes, I don’t really know any others. I did however decide to start taking images of them whilst doing the said course and several things did occur.
   

 

    
There is an old adage to help separate the identification of rushes, grasses and sedges, it’s Rushes are round, sedges have edges and grasses have ‘knees’.



 

 

I was getting out and about during a paid work sabbatical at the same time as the course and found myself visiting many different locations and habitats and grass was in all of them, from salty lagoons to montane habitat, in nature reserves to field margins and indeed volcanic in Italy. And it wasn’t only the variety of habitats that was noticeable because within those areas the variety of the grass was interesting too.


  


 
 
It could be as thin as a pine needle and only a few inches high, right through to robust stems which grew the grass as high as an adult. Some had corn- like seed heads alluding to the origin of our modern day staples, some had seeds arranged much like a tree’s foliage and yet there were others that had a cigar shaped arrangement looking similar in shape to a Cat-tail. And finally the colour range was from deep green to a pastel purple colour.



Now my grass investigations didn’t get any deeper than this, however one interesting event occur whilst I was in the middle of a  forage with Carol Hunt in the earlier in the year and we spotted some grass that seemed to be shimmering. Upon closer inspection it was covered in small winged insects that were moving all over the heads. A little bit of investigation later and it turns out that they were male Common Furrow-Bees and that they were jostling for top spot in the mass to attract a female.



I also saw Will Lord for a flint knapping and atlatl day and whilst testing the projectile we found some good examples of grass infected with the ergot fungus. We also chanced upon a Grass Snake attempting to consume a Shrew but that's another story.
 

 

And grass of course does have its uses within a bushcraft context and the two uses that come foremost to my mind are the fact that it makes a brilliant and readily available tinder bundle (I was told by a wise old sage that flat bladed grass is the best for rolling which seems to be the case), and can be fashioned into supremely strong cordage-come-rope too.


 

I also noticed during the early stages of a holiday to the Swiss Alps, again last year, that weed filled grassy fields were being copiously watered and seemed to have no value to the casual observer. It was only further investigation that revealed that the grass was almost revered as a valuable crop for the goats, cattle and sheep that were brought down from the higher elevations during a mass transhumance in the cooler months.
 
 

On the face of it this has a tenuous bushcraft link but this traditional way of life also saw the fields full of wild flowers too. The other noticeable fact, whether by intent or luck, was that none of the wild flowers I saw were poisonous varieties and those that I saw ranged from Hogweed to Self Heal, Nettles to Common Mallow and it’s worth noting that Riccola, who produce plant based remedies have their growing area in the Alps were I saw grass growing at over 4,000 metres which is impressive.

Swiss hay barn

The cut grass and associated flora is then transferred to raised hay barns for safe storage, it's worth thinking of all this careful and traditional work when you next consume Swiss chocolate. So having had a Winnie-the-Pooh type ponder over whether will I start trying to identify grass at any stage in the near future? I think I’ll probably pass (that’s pass and not parse).






Monday, 7 August 2017

Fence Post Fire by Friction



I got a text a while ago from a Cub leader from my pack asking if I wanted any Cedar wood off cuts from some fence posts that he was putting in. Not so long ago I'd made a viable set out of some Silver Birch firewood so I said yes to see how the wood handles and if it gave me some bow drill sets then all well and good.

 I'd never used Cedar for fire by friction so there was no excuse not to right that. I also had some seasoned Lime that I was going to utilise but as I'd used it before the Cedar jumped the queue.



Well I say jumped the queue, the journey of discovery had to be put on ice for about three weeks due to the fact that I cracked a rib on a water slide during our traditional water night at cubs to end the Summer term, and as I was about to go on a special holiday I had to shelve it.

When I eventually started prepping the wood it was surprisingly easy to split and was a bit Lime like in density, but did have a habit of running off to one side and perhaps it was just me but cutting it seemed to create more than the odd potential splinter.

 

I wouldn't say that I'm the world's greatest carver of wood but I was pleased with my efforts on rounding a rectangular second of Cedar to form the drill which again had a handsome grain.


Whilst I knew the scent would be nice in my garage I have to report that the grain exceeded expectations. It was a good job that it was nice to look at as I felt a slight twinge in my dodgy rib so again I shelved it for a second time.



I had a session of applying pounded Comfrey to my rib and I was then able to get to the business stage of the bow drill set. The set smoked fairly quickly which was encouraging but it didn't go that dark in colour during the bedding in session and I needed to get the drill tip engaged too.


With the light depression colour and the softness of the wood I decided to do a slow and low session of bowing to warm it up. To my surprise the set started chunking out copious amounts of light coloured dust to the point where the notch seemed clogged up and I wondered if it was going to inhibit the ember development. The set really smoked and I was pleased to have a sustaining ember. Note the excess dust around the depression circumference and the light and dark colour of the original and ember material. The smell of the charred drill end was a curious one as it reminded me of somewhere between Christmas and curry powder!


I left the ember to develop and it coalesced into a sturdy one that eventually welded itself to the ember pan. When I create a new ember to record on my labour of love bow drill blog I drop it to see if it is still viable to use after doing so and it was-twice. The first time was on purpose and the wind took it a second time and whilst reduced in size it was still good to go. You can see that the depression did eventually darken.


When I carve a notch in a set to receive the charred dust I flare the bottom edge to make more space, this also helps protect an ember in inclement weather. Well I decided to go for a second attempt and with the dust production I carved the angles a little larger than usual.


As per the first ember it smoked a lot and produced a lot of dust which again is evident around the depression, and goes from chestnut to almost black in and around the ember. The afore mentioned wind was blowing on this coal and you can just see a little smoke ring!.The set queaked during the second attempt which I put down to a slightly smooth drill from the first go so I had to stop to rough up the two surfaces.


I mentioned earlier that the wood felt a bit like Lime in it's consistency, well with the two part attempt on the second ember you can clearly see just how much wear there is  and it goes some way to explaining the amount of dust, so a slow and low start is prudent. Note the splinter sticking up to the left of the set as mentioned before.

Suggested reading:-














Sunday, 6 August 2017

Knitbone and Cracked Ribs


As an Assistant Cub leader I do look forward to our last evening of the Summer term as we have a water evening that involves super soakers, a fire engine (really really) and an impressive water slide.

The only downer this year is that propelling myself down a length of soapy builder's membrane resulted in my then having a rather painful cracked rib and for a few days any movement was painfully hard.


It was only after I finished work on the Friday that I had the light bulb moment of gathering some Comfrey (Symphytum uplandicum) leaves to aid my recuperation. It's old English name is Knitbone as it was widely used to help heal breaks.


Comfrey is a plant that is often mistaken for Foxglove when there are no flowers present and as you can see from the above picture it is a very hairy leaf and stem.

 

The stem is also quite thick and the leaf leathery so I decided to remove as much of the stem as possible and then roughly rip the leaf before using a mortar and pestle to pound it into a dark green poultice. I also added in a little Plantain (Plantago lanceolata and Plantago major) to the initial batches as it is noted for reducing swelling and I've used it on a wasp sting on my son to good effect.


I added a few drops of water and then just applied it to the area on my rib cage. The cool feel of this poultice alone was quite soothing but with the it being a rough leaf with lots of hairs it does need a good pounding or it feels a bit coarse on the skin.


I noticed that the initial Comfrey/ Plantain poultices issued a dark brown liquid which I was worried would stain anything it came into contact with. I was wondering which leaf did this or if it was a result of their union. Eventually I came to the conclusion that it was mud from the low growing plantain.

During the application of the poultices my rib improved significantly but the following apply to this statement:-

I was keen for it to work and I am well aware that there could be a bit of a placebo effect going on.

I was also taking regular pain killers to help with the discomfort and any inflammation.

I had four consecutive days off work.

I will therefore never know what effect it had in getting my rib settled but with a free resource that has been used for centuries on breaks available it would have been silly not to use it. Will this episode stop me using the water slide next July? I know where there's a decent patch of Comfrey near me...
















Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Dutch Arrows with the Cubs


Having made an atlatl and dart with Will Lord during my sabbatical I thought it was high time to sort out a evening for our Cub pack that not only features a bit of atlatl action but some Dutch (or Swiss) arrow production too, but more on the evening later.

I've detailed how to make an atlatl set and Dutch arrows on this blog page but as a quick resume I'll run through what I did. Although the making of them is fairly straightforward the prep actually lasted over several months...collecting feathers!

 

I used shop bought lengths of dowel, it's worth having a recce as the price and quality can vary. you can get four lengths for the Dutch arrows out of the average (12 mm dia x 2400 mm piece). Each shaft is therefore 60 cms long funnily enough.

It doesn't take long to process them once you've marked them up, as you can see above I leant on the lengths on a work bench and just cut them through.


I needed to have about 25 pieces so that meant cutting up seven dowel lengths to make sure and to deal with any breakages. I used a small fixed blade knife to tidy up any messy cuts but was careful not to make the ends too pointed.


After prepping and tidying I lined them all up as shown and put a pencil across them all at about 20 cms from one end.


The reason for the pencil mark is that each length needs a notch carving in it, which is used when made into a dart, to launch it.


The fletchings are going to be on the left hand side of this shaft and the shape shown is important. The dowel is fairly soft wood so carving them all won't take too long.


That's the most labour intensive part done, or is it? I wanted the cubs to make a Dutch arrow with feathers as their fletchings and it takes a long time to collect pigeon feathers, especially as the symmetrical ones are best. I'd hoped to score some at the Bushcraft Show this Summer but typically I didn't chance across a single pigeon prep demonstration. You can equally make some viable ones out of card or foam too if you don't want to collect avian cast-offs.

 

Order some paracord then cut and seal as many 100 cm lengths as you have young people. This is longer than the dart and perhaps a little on the generous side but you need it to be longer as some of it wraps around the thrower's hand. 


 

Purchase some Plasticine for the tip and some electrical tape for the fletchings and you've got all the kit you need to proceed. 

 

So we divided the cubs into four groups and explained what we were about to do both verbally and visually including the safety aspect of the evening i.e. not throwing projectiles unless told to.


I showed them a completed arrow and then talked a little about an atlatl launcher.


Then without further ado, it's out to the field to give them a demo.


A quick talk about the sets and a demonstration with a promise of them having a go if we have time. I didn't show them how to launch a Dutch arrow at this stage as it prevents them doing so without my say so.


So with them enthused it was to the production tables and all hands on deck to help secure the fletchings first, which aren't at ninety degrees to the shaft but are taped flat to the wood, by taping the topes and then quills in opposite positions.

MAKE SURE THE FEATHERS ARE SECURED AT THE NOTCH END.

 

It is better if either leaders help or the Cubs buddy up to get the feathers on as straight as possible. The darts will still fly if they aren't straight but the aesthetics are better. Symmetrical feathers are straighter than asymmetrical ones which helps too.


Depending on time they look really good with a little felt tip embellishment but even if time is short get them to scribe their name on their Dutch arrow at the very least. 


Add a small blob of pre-sized Plasticine to the tip and the dart is complete. Just for effect the one I demonstrated with was stained with fence protector and the Plasticine silvered up with Airfix model paint (I told them that I'd forged it that morning!). Hand out the paracord and get them to tie a stopper knot in one end.


We briefly stopped to spread them out for a picture on the HQ floor which looked rather good. 


The method of launching the darts is described in pictorial and video detail on this page (and the notch shape becomes clear) but suffice to say it is quite spectacular if you can get the cubs to launch in a fairly synchronised way. You will need several leaders as the Cubs mentally and indeed physically have trouble getting to grips with keeping the paracord taught.

We didn't have time to let them chuck the atlatl darts but they still had a great evening.