Monday, July 29, 2013

Native American Skills: Agave or Yucca Cordage

Remember in the old days before rope was made out of plastic? Back then (and sometimes even now), it was made from sisal. Sisal, Agave sisalana, is a type of agave. I saw it growing in Kenya during my visit. It's still used there to make rope.

Here in San Diego, we don't have sisal - but we do have plenty of agave. We've also got a few species of yucca, which are also in the Agave family (Agavaceae). So it's no surprise that the Native Americans here use both yucca and agave to make their cordage.

They also use a plant called Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum a.k.a. Indian hemp), which is related to Milkweed, and I prefer dogbane to agave or yucca. But dogbane is toxic to livestock, so once the Europeans arrived they did what they could to eliminate it. Today, you don't see too much dogbane around.

Over the past few weeks, I've learned to make cordage from agave. Once the cordage is made, Native Americans used it to make everything from nets and fishing poles to bags and shoes.

Yuccas and agaves are in the Agave family, as I noted earlier, but they used to be classified in the Lily family. Like lilies, they are monocots. (Monocots are flowering plants that have one cotyledon, no taproot, flowers with petals typically in multiples of threes, and parallel leaf veins. Grasses, palms, lilies, and irises are also monocots.)

I'm more familiar with our local yucca species than I am with the local agave. We've got Hesperoyucca whipplei, a.k.a. Our Lord's Candle or Chaparral Yucca, and we've got Mojave yucca. Both produce edible stalks and flowers, and the roots of the Mojave yucca can be used for soap. And, of course, both can be used for fiber.

H. whipplei

Mojave Yucca

From the two photos above, it's hard to tell the difference between H. whipplei and Mojave yucca. When they are flowering, it's easy to tell what's what, because H. whipplei has a tall stalk with flowers on top, and Mojave yucca flowers are on such a short stalk that they appear adjacent to the leaves. But the leaves are actually quite different. H. whipplei leaves are very thin, and it's easy to expose the fibers within them using a blunt tool like a rock. Mojave yucca leaves are thick and fleshy, with a thick skin and lots of flesh inside. You can scrape them with a rock all day and it won't do a thing to them.

One of my Native American instructors told me that H. whipplei fibers are easier to obtain, but Mojave yucca fibers are better. I'd heard that one way to obtain the fibers from these plants was via soaking, so I soaked a Mojave yucca leaf for weeks and weeks. It worked, once the outer parts of the leaf rotted away, but it smelled so bad that I'd never want to use that fiber for anything other than compost. I'd never bothered with agave before because I heard that it can irritate your skin (and it can).

In my tool-making class, I was eager to find out how we would go about obtaining fiber for cordage. The class would be using agave, not yucca. And to get the fiber from the leaves, we would burn them.

One common agave is the Century Plant (Agave americana) but it's non-native. There's a native coastal agave that's somewhat rare. For abundant, native agave, you need to head east into the desert. The instructor for my class, a Kumeyaay Indian, took a few students on a field trip out to the desert - nearly to the city of Borrego Springs, which is smack in the middle of Anza Borrego Desert State Park. There, they found Desert Agave (Agave deserti) and they brought a bunch of it back.

I was not present the day they burned the leaves, so I tried to ask a lot of questions to find out how they did it. The answer was simple: they tossed the leaves in the fire. Completely into the fire. And they let them burn. Not 100%, of course. But they were pretty charred up and burnt by the time they came out of the fire. Then they put them in a bucket of water to keep them moist until we would work with them.

I don't know if burning the agave solved the problem of skin irritation, but I never had any skin problems with using the agave aside from when I accidentally touched it to a scab on my skin. That didn't feel very good, but the irritation was pretty minor.

There are other methods besides burning one can use. I've heard boiling the leaves for hours can also work well. For the H. whipplei leaves, I've simply scraped them with a rock and that worked fine for me. I think the more elaborate processes are required for the fleshier species of yucca and agave.

Once that's done, you remove everything but the fibers from the leaves. To start, you need a burnt agave leaf and a blunt knife, rock, or seashell.

Burnt, wet agave leaf and seashell

You need to scrape the leaf with the shell to remove everything except for the fibers. The inside has a consistency almost like aloe, and the outside is a skin that can almost peel off. Scrape the skin and the gel and try not to break the fibers as you go. After I've got most of it done with the shell, I find it's easiest to start pulling out small bundles of fibers and getting the goo off by hand.

Ultimately, you'll end up with a big, bunch of fibers that can become your cordage:

The fibers from one leaf

Now you're ready to actually make your cordage. Here's a ball of cordage I made from 5 agave leaves. It took me a week, working a little each day:

So how do you do that? There are many other details that I can share, but the main thing is this: You are individually twisting two groups of fibers in one direction, then you twist them together in the opposite direction.

A close-up shot

I am left handed, so I hold the two small bundles of fibers - maybe 5-10 fibers per bundle? - in my right hand between my thumb and my fingers. I have one group (let's call it A) on the top and one group (B) on the bottom. With my left hand, I twist the top group (A) of fibers away from me. Then I twist both groups toward me a half twist. Now the B group is on top. I twist the B group away from me, and I twist both groups together toward me. Just keep repeating that.

This way, each bundle of fibers will be twisted in one direction (away from you) individually, and in the opposite direction (toward you) together. I hold them together with my right hand to prevent them from untwisting, but you'll find that when you've done a little bit of this and you let go, it barely unravels.

The first problem you'll encounter is when you do a bit of twisting and you've got an inch or two of cordage - but the agave or yucca fibers you're working with are short and you've come to the end of them. How do you make a longer piece of cordage?

When you're a few inches from the end of the fibers you're working with, you add more and just twist them right in. Believe it or not, the cordage is so strong with all of your twisting, that the new fibers you've twisted in will stay put.

As noted above, the small ball made from five agave leaves took me a week. I didn't work on it full-time of course, just a little every day. If you do more than that, you'll chafe the skin on your fingers.

I am sorry that I don't have better photos or a better description of how to do this. I've found instructions on the internet here and I think it confused me more than it helped me. But they've got good diagrams so you might like to take a look at it. There are more details I can provide but I'm afraid that without decent pictures to go along with them, more details would just serve to make readers more confused. So instead, I'll just leave you with a cute picture of my cat:

Meg. She loves my cordage.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Foraging in the Desert: Mesquite

This time of year, the desert is home to a delicious, nutritious, and abundant food: mesquite. This time of year, the desert is also VERY HOT. Around San Diego, the attitude seems to be "don't go there in the summer unless you have to." And I'm the first to admit that the heat is highly unpleasant. But people live in Arizona, where it's equally miserable or worse every day. And there's plenty of mesquite to be had in Arizona. I decided to see if I could get some mesquite from our desert here.

It's a naturally sweet legume with an edible pod and it's healthy. Mesquite flour is stupid expensive too - about $13/lb. I might as well go get some for free!

A Tucson-based group called Desert Harvesters has a fantastic resource on mesquite that I highly recommend. They offer recipes, but even more important, they help foragers distinguish between what's OK to eat and what's not - and that's a bit more complex than you might guess. (Moldy pod = bad. Pod that a beetle hatched out of = totally OK.)

When people talk about the desert in San Diego, they often talk about Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Of course, you're not allowed to forage within the park. But at least the park is a starting point for finding me some desert, right?

The website has a link to the weather forecast. A few weeks ago, Anza Borrego had a "cool" day with a high of "only" 96F. That was my chance! If you're visiting the desert in the middle of the summer, you might as well take your days with double-digit temps when you can get them.

Before definitely deciding to go, I tried looking up what I could about the park, how to get there, how to avoid a wildfire that was burning, and how to find mesquite. The park is huge so I could take any number of different highways and enter at different points, some very far away from one another.

I decided to take the 8 to the 79 to the 78 (how's that for some Southern California-ese). The route went east from San Diego, up into the mountains, then continued north (still in the mountains, at about 4000 feet), and finally descended into the desert only at the very end of the trip. I did not realize from the map that this meant lots of winding roads with great scenery but slow speed limits. But I was more than happy to check out the pines and black oaks as I drove, and I loved the 75F weather.

I left in late afternoon, planning to enjoy cool mountain weather until the very, very end, when I would drop down into the desert at 6pm to put up with just a few hours of nasty hot temps as the sun went down. Then I'd have just 2 hours before sundown to get my mesquite and leave. I hoped to find a spot outside the borders of the park with some mesquite.

I had two clues about where within Anza Borrego to find mesquite. One was the Yaqui Wells trail, a short trail that takes just 30 minutes to hike. Mesquite likes to grow near water, and the hike takes you to a spot with water and mesquite. You're also supposed to find a bird called a Phainopepla that eats the berries of Desert Mistletoe. I wouldn't be allowed to harvest the mesquite at Yaqui Wells, but at least I could go there and see it to make sure I was identifying the plant properly.

My second clue was the Borrego Valley Sink, which I couldn't quite plot on the map. But it looked like it might be within this little island of "Not State Park" surrounding the city of Borrego Springs. It's this strange little island within the state park and it's not part of the park. Which means I could legally forage there, right? The Borrego Valley Sink is supposedly home to a Mesquite Bosque. A second map I looked at later makes it look more like the Borrego Valley Sink does fall within the park. I never actually found the Mesquite Bosque, so I couldn't tell you.

I packed the car with lots of water and a bit of emergency gear in case I had car trouble in the desert, food for dinner, and large containers to collect mesquite in. Then off I went.

In addition to mesquite, I also had my eye out for pine nuts. We've got several different kinds of pine trees within San Diego, and three of them produce edible pine nuts around this time of year. One, the Torrey Pine, has its needles in clusters of five, and you find that on the coast. Fat chance harvesting those nuts, since they are all protected. The other two, the Single-Leaf Pinyon Pine and the Four Leaf Pinyon, grow up in the mountains. I've found the Single Leaf in Joshua Tree at the Black Rock campsite. So where are the Four Leaf Pinyons?

As I headed north on the 79 toward Julian, I saw plenty of pines. And every single one had its needles in groups of three, not four. Some were Jeffrey pines, some were Coulter pines. None were Pinyon pines. Darn, darn, darn!

Fortunately, I did spot TONS of black oaks... and those produce the tastiest acorns in San Diego county. Maybe if I time it right, I can make one trip up there in the fall to pick apples and forage acorns :)

I was barely out of Julian, the mountain town famous around here for growing apples, when I spotted what looked like a mesquite tree:

There's not a lot you can confuse mesquite with. Compound pinnate (feather-like) leaves, large thorns, and bean-like pods. It must be a mesquite. I tasted a pod... and spat it out. Gross!! What the heck was that?? It didn't taste like a mesquite.

I stopped several times and tasted mesquite-looking-like pods several times... with the same result each time. (Note: the pods were all green, as in the photo above.)

There is one other leguminous tree that grows here, and that's a Cat's Claw Acacia. It can be used medicinally. And I know what it looks like, so I wouldn't mix it up with a mesquite. I found one and snapped a pic of it:

Cat's Claw Acacia

The cat's claw-shaped thorns for which it was named

Finally, I was truly out of the mountains and down on the desert floor. The view was stunning, although my cheap, lousy camera could not do it justice:

I was not officially in Anza Borrego yet, and there was plenty of mesquite on both sides of the highway. Only, it still didn't taste like mesquite. What was going on?

I decided to drive to the Yaqui Wells trail. It's a short, interpretive trail with signs identifying all of the plants. Including mesquite.

Only I passed it. I realized my error when I hit Yaqui Pass Rd, which leads you into Borrego Springs. Well, I thought, maybe I'll go there. I can get a bite to eat, use a bathroom, ask around about the mesquite... maybe even get a tip on where to find that mesquite bosque.

As I drove into Borrego Springs, I saw nothing on both sides of me except desert plants like cholla and ocotillo. No mesquite. No restaurants either. Or bathrooms. I saw houses and a medical center but nothing that looked like a town. I kept driving farther, thinking I would come to a main street or something, but no. And the sun was setting.

I checked the directions to Yaqui Wells trail once again, turned around, and then sped toward it. It's near the Tamarisk Campground, which I had passed on the way in. I drove back there and looked for the trail. No trail. The campground was closed for the summer. Finally, I spotted another trail across the street. I checked my map, and used that as a reference point to find the trail I sought.

I parked the car, now a bit flustered that time was running out, and started the short hike. I picked up an interpretive brochure and walked to the first stop on the trail:

I looked up #3 in the brochure while thinking "Please don't be mesquite." Because this is the same plant I'd been tasting for the last hour, and none of the ones I'd tasted were any good. Or anything like the mesquite taste I was familiar with.

But #3 was mesquite. Honey mesquite. The brochure told how it was an important food source for the Kumeyaay Indians. This plant had the telltale long thorns... but no pods. Or, wait! One pod. I tasted it. It tasted bad.

Mesquite thorns

One sad mesquite pod

Nearby, I found more mesquite with tons of pods on the ground. I tasted one of those too. It did not taste good either.

Oh what was wrong with me, and why did I decide to shlep out to the desert in July??

Finally, as I drove back out of the park, I found a huge tree down in a canyon that was FULL of mesquite pods. Well, no matter how it tasted, I was determined to collect some. Maybe it'd taste better later after it dried?

I climbed down to it and - strangely - I actually saw a cattail down there. There really is some water in the desert, I guess. Then I tasted a pod. And it tasted GOOD! It tasted like mesquite!

So I filled up my whole laundry basket:

Then I got back in my car and left. And, while I was harvesting, I did see that bird you're supposed to see in this part of the desert, the Phainopepla. And I heard a Great Horned Owl, which put a smile on my face.

Back home, I checked the Desert Harvesters website. Apparently, each mesquite tree tastes a bit different, so you do need to taste before you harvest in order to find a good one. It appears that before they dry, the pods taste terrible across the board too. That's why the green ones I found first were so bad.

Pods might look perfect, or they can have any one of three blemishes or problems. If they have any mold on them, toss them out. If they have holes in them or if some of the outside has been stripped off by a bird, that's OK.

There's a bug that hatches inside the mesquite pod and then makes a hole in the pod to exit it. When you find the pods with holes, the bugs are already gone. But it's a good bet that there are more bugs yet to hatch and escape. You can either lay the pods out to let the bugs leave of their own accord, or you can take action to kill the bugs (like heating the pods in the oven).

Once I got them home, I laid my pods out on a blanket. I was hoping to sort out the dry ones and toast them in the oven to kill the remaining bugs. I tried that twice and burnt a few mesquite pods each time. Guess I won't try that again.

My next step was figuring out how to grind the mesquite into powder. The Indians grind them by hand using rocks and that's a lot of work. In Tucson, Desert Harvesters has a mill that will do it for you very quickly. My first idea was using a friend's Vitamix. They were very kind to let me try. It was a total failure.

Even the pods that seemed dry weren't dry enough to grind. I put them in a pan on my friend's stove and stirred them around more as they roasted and dried. Then I put them back in the Vitamix. I tried grinding them for maybe an hour. It just wasn't working. The outside of the pods will grind. The beans on the inside - if you can get to them - will grind. But in between, there's this hard casing on each of the beans that does not want to grind.

You end up with a partially ground pod that looks like this:

Finally, I gave up, cleaned my friend's Vitamix, and came home. Then I got to work with my coffee grinder. It was a ridiculously stupid amount of work, to grind it in small batches, then sift it, then grind again, then sift. But eventually, I got a cup and a half of flour.

I mixed it with two eggs (and nothing else):

And attempted to bake it into cookies in the oven. When that didn't really seem to do the trick, I finished them off on the stove top. They looked like little falafels:

All in all, I made 10 cookies. I ate about 4 that first day. And I learned a few lessons. First, for flavor and texture, I recommend adding a few other ingredients to your mesquite cookies. Mesquite alone has too strong a flavor. It's naturally sweet, but it would be nice to tone down the flavor by mixing it with wheat flour. Next time I'll do 3/4 c. whole wheat per 1/4 c. mesquite. If you'd like to make something besides cookies, check the Desert Harvesters website for recipes and a cookbook they sell called Eat Mesquite.

That night, I learned another lesson. My gut flora held a big party and produced some of the nastiest smelling gas I have ever, EVER smelled. Unfortunately, I was with my friend Kathleen when the first one came out and it was so bad she commented. She told me it got about an 8.5 out of 10, with 10 being so bad it burns your nose hair off. Thankfully, we finished our hike and parted ways so that I was alone to suffer through the rest of it. So let my experience be a lesson to you: don't eat four mesquite cookies in one day!

I've still got plenty of mesquite pods left, still drying on my living room floor. My next attempt to deal with them will involve a grain mill. The only other option I can envision involves sending them to the kind folks of Desert Harvesters in Tucson so they can mill them.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Our Native American Village

For the past several weeks, I've participated in building a model Native American village. The local tribe - the Kumeyaay - purchased a property with a lake, not far from the Sycuan reservation (and, yes, casino). There, we've almost completed four traditional houses, 'ewaa, and we've started to build two granaries. Next up are boats. I'm campaigning to have a campout in the houses we've built. Pictures below.

You can see the earlier post on this, here, in which I break down step by step how to build an 'ewaa.

Our first 'ewaa

Each 'ewaa requires a startling amount of materials. All of the wood is willow, the thatch is cattail (called tamu in Kumeyaay), and the cordage (tonap) is made from agave. Thank god they didn't make us make the twine ourselves. We used an awful lot of it.

Each 'ewaa has a willow frame, covered by cattail thatch, covered by yet another willow frame. All tied with agave twine. We first completed one 'ewaa before starting on the other three. Then we sort of broke into two teams, the strongest, tallest folks who put together the initial pieces of the house frames, and the rest of us, who trimmed the twigs off willow trunks, tied the willow frames together, and thatched.

After building our first 'ewaa, we constructed frames for the other three. You can see two here, behind the beginning of a platform for a granary:

'Ewaa frames behind what will be a granary

Initially, we were thatching with fresh cattails, and we folded them over the willow frame as we want. You can see an example of that in the 'ewaa on the right:

But after the already harvested cattails spent a few weeks drying in the sun, they were too brittle to fold. So we began thatching them as-is, like in the photo below:

On Monday, I took the twine and did all of the tying for thatching one of the 'ewaa. Others brought me cattails and held them in place as I tied them to the 'ewaa. I did all of the thatching on the 'ewaa in the center of the photo above. Here is my handiwork shown from the inside of the house:

Of course, as nice as that looks, the house still has no roof. So the next step, which someone else did while standing on a bale of hay, was tying on yet another round of cattails a few feet above the first one:

Looks a little messy, but I bet it's snug from the inside. Then, we secured the thatch from the outside with more willow:

As we thatched, others were building the granary platforms. The Kumeyaay traditionally stored a year's worth of acorns in large willow granary baskets set on platforms. The platforms were a deterrent from rodents, and the willow deterred the bugs. Here is the start of a platform:

Here it is completed:

And here's proof that Kumeyaay fishing methods really work - and the lake has fish!

The granary platform with a few fish

Here's our village - it's almost done!