Friday, 29 April 2011

"Pioneers all we are bound/To root-hog or die on the Sound"

I had a lot of fun building this structure, which is about a foot and a half long by a little less wide. It encloses an electrical riser at the zendo. Any Old Settler will instantly know it for a split shack, also known as a slab (or slap) shack, or shotgun shack. It's what we lived in before there were trailers.

At its most elemental, the split shack is pole-framed, eight feet by ten, and sided in "splits," rough cedar boards froed directly off the log without benefit of saw. These were free for the taking, especially if you lived on the bay. Where nails were scarce you could knock it up with whittled pegs and an auger, or notch the splits and sew it together with rope, First Nations style. (This is basically just a hillbilly longhouse, anyway.)

Because splits come away thicker at the bottom than the top they impose slightly asymmetrical lines on the whole, for a touch of whimsy, as if brownies lived inside, or maybe hobbits.

Cabins of this lineage also usually had at least one window, in front, opposite the front door. If there was no glass, it was "glazed" with greased rawhide or paper and protected by a wooden shutter. If there was, it was as likely to be bottle bottoms as plate.

I believe the various names originally referred to different cabins, though they're used interchangeably now. The derivation of "split shack" is obvious, but "slabs" were the round sides of logs, ripped off by the head saw when they were squared for milling. As a waste product, slabs were cheap or free; in my day, it was common for families to order up a truckload from the local mill and make one of the kids (I'll call him "Robin") saw them up for firewood. I'd bet even money that a "slab shack" was originally sided with those instead of splits, and that the term "slap shack," as in something just "slapped up", is just a mutation. As for "shotgun shack," I know why it's called that (because the front and back door are sited in such a way that you can fire a shotgun straight through without hitting anything), but I have no idea why it's a selling point. Seems an even better plan would be not to shoot at the house in the first place.

By the way, the gravel "beach" on which this enclosure is bedded actually came from the very beach I grew up on. By purest coincidence, there was a bucketful in the house, left over from a large philodendron my grandparents brought with them from the bay. This finally died during the years the house was locked up, and when I liquidated the remains, I kept the gravel the pot was lined with, just in case. The decision to put the two together made itself.

And it really wants a stove pipe. The oversight just glares. But the thing's supposed to be unobtrusive, and not attract attention to itself, so I didn't put one in. It still took all my determination not to.

Because it isn't home until it has one.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Hermitcraft: Fiddleheads

It's springtime, the annual Woodstock of foragers, so I'm going to post another wild edibles tip while the news is hot. And it's good news.

Fiddleheads are an iconic wild edible, one of those that, like wild asparagus and dandelion, are widely known even to respectable folk. Notwithstanding, few have actually eaten one. I guess that leaves more for me, but it's not in my nature to keep a good thing to myself, so buckle up.

Fiddleheads are the young shoots of various species of fern. On the North Coast, it's lady ferns (Athyrium). When I lived in Québec, we habitants ate fougères à l'autruche, (Matteuccia/Onoclea), called ostrich fern on the far bank. In all cases they're curled round and tight at the end, like a bishop's crosier or an old-time lacrosse racket. ("Fiddlehead" probably comes from the shoots of bracken fern [Pteridium], which look just like the head of a violin, but the term is commonly applied to all edible ferns.) They're only available for a week or so each year, which is to say, right now in planetary north. They're also a gastronomical delight, so time's a-wastin'.

These little delicacies grow in moist, shady places like low forests, riverbanks, and my yard. They can be anticipated where a wealth of last year's dead fern straw is lying around. Fiddleheads snap easily if grasped near the earth, or you can use a pair of scissors, like I do when I'm prepared, or a pocket knife, which is what I really do. They come in many shapes and sizes, owing to special and environmental variation, but only ones that are still fully round should be eaten; once they unwind and begin to leaf out, they're said to be toxic. Overripe sprouts haven't killed me yet, but they're stringy and acrid, so don't bother.

Most fiddleheads have a tenderness and subtle, earthy flavour that's hard to describe. Some folks suggest asparagus (another edible fern that comes on about now), though I find them much more understated than that. The exception is Pteridium, whose shoots are stout, hairy, vaguely chewy, and leafless, and pack a pronounced bitter-almond bite. Experts in the 1970s claimed they also cause cancer, based on studies done in Japan where bracken shoots are much prized. I tend to take such reports with a grain of salt (ever notice how the "carcinogenic" foods are always something obscure, that just a few [primarily weird] people eat?), but frankly, I don't much relish the taste of Pteridium. You may feel differently.

But all the others I ingest with great gusto. They can be served raw in salad with a nice vinaigrette, but I like them best lightly steamed, with a little butter, lemon, and cracked pepper, or with shredded bacon and some of its grease. You can also drop your shoots in a good soup, at the very end, or lay them on rice before reheating it in the Replicator. In any case, the trick is always to cook them as little as possible. When in doubt, undercook. (If that's even technically possible.)

No matter how you eat them, there's nothing like fresh fiddleheads, so good that even city people sometimes eat them, as long as they come from a market and cost a hundred dollars. (As I've seen them in Québec.) But be brave and cut yours free-range. Out where nobody asked them to be, where they are therefore uncool, illegitimate, even seditious.

Livin' that hermit life.

Cereal box prize:
Judd Grossman

Judd is one of the few musicians I've encountered who shares my take on country music. If I'm a little chagrined to find I can't claim sole ownership of the territory, I'm happier to find someone who does it better. Better yet, you can listen to hours of Judd's music at this link, absolutely free. Some are demo excerpts, but most are full-length songs, performed live. Some are Judd's own voice and guitar, some are just Judd's guitar, and some are Judd in duet with others, and they're all great. Fine musicianship, fine arrangements, fine all around.

Even if you don't like country, drop by. His style is pretty universal, his covers come from every genre of popular music, and his original compositions are excellent.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Fair Warning to Parents

I was out to the zendo a few weeks back, doing some grounds work on a beautiful spring day with no-one else around but the warm sun and the cold wind. The place was alive with waking wildlife, and when I'd finished my task, I took a stroll in the woods. Near an old stump I watched a knot of electric-blue garter snakes, shiny-clean and freshly painted, untangle like a film run backwards and glide off in all directions.

By the time I got back from the truck with my camera they'd melted to untraceable rustlings, but as I searched, this groggy girl fell from a cedar and onto the trail at my feet.

Meet Pseudacris regilla, the Pacific tree frog. At an inch and change, this one is about as big as they get. In this instance she was cedar green, but her race possess the ability to shift shades, and even whole colours, so she may be avocado or vibrant beryl or even tan or grey by now. But her signature mask, somewhat hard to see in this light, will remain black.

Also slightly discernible are her "garden gloves," the adhesive toe pads that allow her to climb and cling just about anywhere. I've found her ilk under my tent fly on summer mornings; stuck to my window at midnight, gobbing insects drawn to the light; and tucked almond-shaped between the sod and the foundation of my grade school. Inveterate hobos, Pacific tree frogs have been collared as far afield as Guam, having stowed away in shipments of Christmas trees.

This particular individual was well aware the place was literally crawling with her most rapacious predator, hungry and hunting after the long winter fast, and scrambled desperately up a nearby maple the instant her belly smacked the ground. I took her in hand to further ensure her survival, though as you can see from her expression, she hadn't requested assistance and was uncertain she needed any.

I grew up between a big bog and a larger lake, where each April the Biblical roar of these little prophets foretold a new millenium. (Thus their other common name, the Pacific chorus frog.) The bog has since "developed" into the Alder Terrace Mountain Valley Sherwood Forest Tree Frog Manor Kitchen Sink Estates, and with most of the lakeshore similarly McManaged, the kids in those houses know nothing of the primal thrill of a hundred thousand tiny war cries, raised in unbroken, night-filling forewarning to the Grup Nation that school is about to end, love it or lump it. And in fact, the whole tribe were recently knighted Washington's official amphibian, following a petition by students at my nephew's own elementary, most of whom live in still-rural, not-yet-redeemed country.

I kept a few of these on my desk for a time when I was a boy. They were fun to feed, being lively and unparticular, but their habit of croaking in chorus at sunrise elicited yawning grumbles from the family. For such morsels of mortality they can really belt it out, especially when you're in the same room. On the other hand I've had few alarm clocks as pleasant.

So I was glad this one lived to sing again.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Rough Around the Edges: Vincente

(The following is an excerpt from "Rough Around the Edges: A Journey Through Washington's Borderlands." Copyright RK Henderson.)

Humans are a novelty in the borderlands. The most you usually see is a dormant pickup, careened on the shoulder, awaiting some anonymous driver off on who knows what mission. And even that is uncommon. Which is why I was so startled, corkscrewing down a goat path in the Umatilla National Forest, well into the second half of the day and pushing for yet another dirt track called the Kendall-Skyline Trail, to encounter a man, statue-still and silent, by the side of the road. With no truck in sight, it was clear he wasn't headed anywhere. He'd just come to stand.

As I shot past him I saw also that he possessed the proverbial ten foot pole, a slim, flexible shaft propped against a fir tree behind him. This was either one of those dreams, or a story. I skidded to a halt, determined to get it.

I jumped down, hefting my camera, while my Man Friday watched me with the large, dark eyes of a deer ready to dart into the trees at the first alarm. I grinned and waved, and his round, olive face relaxed into a shy, almost childlike smile.

He was a small, compact fellow, scarcely five feet tall, with jeans bloused into black gum boots and a thick woollen cap pulled firmly over straight black hair. His pole, I now saw, had a metal hook on the end, and that, together with a whiff of wet wool on the wind and the bleating chorus from the woods behind, explained everything. The flock remained unseen, but three deadpan border collies skulked out of the undergrowth, halted at regulation distance, and scanned me up and down like cops. They continued staring, cold and rigid as cast iron, for a good half-minute, then wheeled as one and disappeared back into the bracken.

"Mind if I take a picture?" I said, hoisting my camera.

The shepherd nodded once, and I squeezed off a shot.

"Thanks." I snapped the lens cap back on. "How long you been up here?"

Again the timid smile, followed by an apologetic shrug. Once, many years ago, I met a Basque shepherd in these mountains. My French had bailed me out on that day. Instinctively I reached for it again, but the man's dark skin and almond eyes caught the parlez-vous in my throat.

"¿Habla español?" I ventured.

His face split into a wide grin.


His name was Vincente, and he was from Peru. His awkwardness was not entirely dispelled by my lousy Spanish, and I learned that he'd been tending these sheep, with nothing for company but three unilingual dogs, for several weeks. His features I now recognised as pure Inka; if a single Castilian corpuscle fouled those veins, it was damned quiet. I didn't press for specifics, but he'd apparently followed the same trail that led Scottish shepherds to New Zealand, Welsh ones to Patagonia, and Basques to Chile and the American West.

I felt lucky for the accident, and privileged to have met him. Solitude is a skill, practiced professionally by very few in this day of robot lighthouses and flying fire watchers. If the wheels of commerce have ground most of us to dross, it was a comfort to know that there was still a place in these hills for Vincente.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Hermitcraft: Ancestor Gong

This is an ancestor gong I made from an old saw blade I found in my grandfather's shop. Each time you ring it, it sings gratitude for those who went before and made this life possible. Starting with my grandparents, who built the house I'm living in.

The blade sings nicely (I chose the best ringer in the lot), and gongs of this type have deep meaning for Old Settlers; time was, all the tiny, isolated, muddy villages on the Green Side had a big, worn-out head saw blade hanging in the square, along with some random piece of busted ironmongery to beat on it. That's how you got people's attention for announcements, fires, aboriginal raid scares, celebrations, and so on. Where there was no church bell, it called folks to that, too.

The symbolism in this particular blade goes even deeper, as my grandfather, his roots gnarled deep in this glacial till, as were all my grandparents', was a congenital, nay a compulsive, woodworker and builder. With this very blade he put the roof over me and the walls around. So with each stroke, this gong pays homage to all my people, conceptual and concrete.

The striker is a piece of hawthorn I cut on the property. The photo at right shows what it looks like now. (Click for better detail.) This was originally finished in classic trinity tar (linseed oil, turpentine, and vinegar), but that mildewed in the insistent rain. So I took the beater back down, sanded off the first finish and re-tarred it, this time with linseed oil, paint thinner, and vinegar. About half a part of asphalt was also pitched in, to gum and darken it up. I like the result; the grey mildew that remained in the grain brings it out nicely, and after about two dozen coats of that toxic, no-more-mister-nice-guy tar, well-rubbed and hardened over the woodstove for a month or so, it's looking good out there on-post.

The lanyard is six strand kongo kumihimo: four strands of tarred seine twine, two of gold mason line.

I try to ring this gong every day. I give it one han roll-down, at noon if possible, and strive for perfect symmetry and tone. It's become part of my mindfulness practice.

Update, 5 November, 2011: It turns out that the saw blade eventually loses the ability to ring in this climate, evidently because of the heavy coat of rust it acquires. Today I replaced the original blade with another from my grandfather's pile, but it too will gradually grow duller. It would be fine for a chime hung indoors, though. In fact, I'm currently working on a table-top model, hung in a wooden frame.

Just a heads-up to others who may be meditating a similar outdoor project. If anybody has any ideas about how to prevent this, or recondition the old blade, I'd appreciate the comment.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Gun Control

(Click on the photo to see it full size)

Razor clamming has been central to the local culture and economy since humans first arrived here. (By best current guess, 15,000 years and counting.) You used to be able to dig any tide low enough, and the limit was, uh... so many I never had to know how much it was. Then, when I was in high school, a combination of overdigging and an epidemic disease closed all the beaches, as in no more digging, ever. Together with a catastrophic failure of the logging industry, it blasted the whole coast back to the 1930s. We never really recovered.

But back in the 1990s, fisheries biologists determined that stocks had bounced back enough to open the beaches for a day, here and there, with a 15 clam limit. When the populations survived that, they authorised a few more openings. These days, it's typical to get one weekend per month between October and April. But that's no guarantee, and my suspicion is that what with recent development and the Tribe fully exercising its treaty rights, we're going to see fewer openings in the near future.

At any rate, I've seen some winter openings this year with July 4 crowds on the beach. And the digging has been harder, and less profitable. Especially for an old-schooler like me, who still uses the traditional clam gun and his own hands. Sometimes I'm the only guy on the sand with a shovel, surrounded by tube-tuggers like the Seafair Parade.

So that's my position. Open the beach, ban the tube. Make it guns-only from now on, just like back in the day.

And if that doesn't work, by God: ban the gun. We'll see who the real bay boys are.

Cereal box prize:

Links to Buddhist movies galore, with synopses. Many are instructional, if you're into that. Also many feature films, like those periodically reviewed here. You many never need to leave the house again.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

I Get Off With A Warning

So it's midnight, and I'm meditating on the lower deck when my fat lamp suddenly goes out. With only twenty minutes to go, I decide to sit tight. (No pun intended.)

Until something literally almost climbs into my lap. I yell, and it scatters. After collecting a flashlight, I see this.

Should've known: it's the night shift. (Note my zafu and zabuton in the upper right.)

They scope me out, more from procedure than concern.

"Don't look like much."

"Don't smell like much, neither."

"No worries, guys. It's just a big Buddhist monkey."

And they continue their rounds, as if no one were there.

No one important, anyway.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Street Level Zen: The Importance of the Possible

Japanese monk chanting in
the aftermath of the tsunami.

"Almost anything you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it."

Mahatma Gandhi

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