Saturday, February 25, 2017

Forest Scavenger Hunt for Ethnobotany

Birch trees
Climbing the learning curve from “erstwhile city slicker” in Texas to remote rural life in Alaska, my acclimation has been immeasurably aided by several courses in botany, which have enhanced both gardening and foraging for food, home remedies, and construction materials.  Currently, I am enrolled in a fascinating on-line course in Applied Ethnobotany (offered by the University of  Alaska-Fairbanks).

As the name suggests, this field studies human use of plants - for food, fuel, textiles, shelter, medicine, and anything else.  I am learning how indigenous peoples and settlers utilized the resources all around them, that other people, like me, surely overlook. Interested readers will see below a list of resources they may be able to utilize for their own regions.

At the very beginning of this course, our professor instructed us to harvest some local plants for
Witch's Hair (lichen)
several projects.  Really?  In February?  In Alaska?  What could I find this time of year?  Well, duh, trees.  I live in a forest!  But besides use as firewood, construction, and spring birch sap, I did not know much. So one day, my husband and I pulled on our snowshoes and dragged a little plastic sled through the woods for a scavenger hunt. How fun!  In half an hour, we gathered two species of pendulous (hair) lichen with the evocative colloquial names of “witch's hair” and “bear hair,” chopped some chaga and “punk” conks off old birch trees, peeled off some loose birch bark,  gathered a handful of frozen spruce resin globules,
chaga
and cut a wrist thick swath of sweet grass sticking up through shallow snow beneath the shelter of a large spruce tree.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Remote Living: Once-a-Year Deliveries

People who live in cities and suburbs enjoy the gift of spontaneity:
a) frequent, short trips to the supermarket or a restaurant when “there is nothing to eat in the house.”
b) "just in time” delivery of purchases

Short days = cold hauling
By contrast, residents of small towns, villages, and island communities plan their errands around once-a-week or once-a-month visits to Big Box stores where they buy bulk supplies, including food, tools, and toilet paper, to be stored in ubiquitous sheds or walls layered with shelves.  Even more remote homes and villages await twice a year shipments, by boat or plane of a pallet-load of carefully selected supplies... and an eye - opening delivery charge ($0.30 - $0.60/lb).

In our case, our little airplane affords a certain amount of spontaneity for excursions and small purchases... when the weather allows.  But big, bulky, heavy, or flammable items, like furniture and fuel, have to await a  once-a-year window for transportation to our remote home.  As you can imagine, we maintain and continually update a precious inventory and shopping list for these important occasions.  Some purchases are planned (or wait) for several years, since transportation needs have to be triaged by priority and some seasons are truncated.
Water catchment hauled in last winter

Thus, after seven years of waiting,  I look forward to a bathtub and my husband now has the rocking chair he has long wanted for the front porch.

Generally, January - March are our “hauling season” because the rivers are frozen thick enough to become speedy iceways for lodges and residences located alongside, as well as for the recreational snowmachiners and dog mushers who traverse them, too.  We, however, live an hour's snowmachine trip west of the rivers, so we need the right snow conditions to get there.  This winter began with so little snowfall, that we lost the entire month of January.  Devil's club spikes, alder, and even small spruce trees perforated the trail. Our only neighbor told us he went out into the woods to hack out some underbrush and even move around some snow!  But by the time we went out, his hard work was obscured by a 24 hour snowstorm that blanketed the landscape with a pillowy soft 13 inches.

So, before we could go anywhere, we had to construct a snow road hard enough to support the weight we anticipate - up to 1000 pounds - otherwise, the snowmachine, sled, and all purchases will be mired in the deep, soft powder, perhaps even far from any assistance.