Cattail Bonanza!

How do I love thee, cattails? Let me count the ways.

I didn’t actually love thee, not at first.

I was just writing this story, see, and in it there’s a young Native woman living all by herself near a stream. And she has a guest come to visit, and I know she’s eating game, but I wondered what she could serve him for a vegetable. Had a vague memory that maybe you could eat cattails. Put down “cattail roots” with an asterixis that let me know I needed to look it up later.

And when I did … boy howdy! My young lady had just hit the jackpot!

According to this article, cattails can provide nearly everything that a human being might need.

First of all, yes, you can eat them.

In spring and summer the young shoots can be picked, stripped of the outer leaves and eaten cooked or as a raw vegetable. The green immature flower stalks can be boiled and eaten like corn on the cob. Later in the summer months, pollen from the brown mature flowering stalks provide a nutritious flour supplement for cakes and flat breads. During fall and winter when there is no longer any foliage the roots may be boiled down for a starchy broth rich in carbohydrates. Cattail is very low in Saturated Fat. It is a good source of Iron and Phosphorus, and a great source of Fiber, Vitamin K, B6, Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium and Manganese.

“Cattail,” by Henry Holly in the The Northwest Forager, ibid

Secondly, first aid. “Ash from the burned leaves [is an] antiseptic,” and the roots and sap have also been used in first aid. Now, my character did not need any first aid, at least not at that point in the story.

Thirdly, shelter. The leaves can be woven to make such things as hats, rain cloaks, baskets, mats, and for rain runoff on a roof. (This is similar to how coconut-palm fronds are used in Southeast Asia.) And – get this! – the “seed fluff” can be used for pillows, bedding, insulation inside moccasins, wound dressing, and even … diapers. Wow! My girl’s little shelter just turned into a palace with a water-shedding roof and a comfortable bed made of a cattail mat over cattail fluff. Bonanza!

Of course, having learned all this stuff, I had to try it. As you know, I’m a Luddite, although most of the time just a pretend one.

We have plenty of cattails here in Idaho. Here is some proof, with cattails growing along an irrigation canal and the mountains in the background:

According to this article, the cattail roots can absorb pollutants in the water. Also, digging up the roots, drying and roasting them, and pounding them into flour sounded like a lot of work for someone who’s only a Luddite part-time. Actually, even digging up the shoots sounds like it would involve getting my feet wet. All in all, the simplest project for a beginning cattail forager sounds like it would be using the seed fluff. Even I can find the seed heads. Here they are:

I cut a few off with my garden clippers, and soon had a small basket full.

That ought to be enough for at least one diaper, right?

Then it was time to pull apart the seed heads. This is easy, though messy.

Luckily, the seed fluff didn’t cause any itchy symptoms. (I guess it wouldn’t be so useful if it did.) In the end, those dozen or so seed heads gave me a pile of fluff that looked like this:

It was very fluffy and I worried that it would compact so much that it wouldn’t really be useful for bedding. But, as it turns out, it does not compact infinitely (just more than polyester stuffing from the craft store). Here’s a sample “diaper” that I made by sewing a little fluff into cheesecloth:

The sewing part only took me about 20 minutes. It would have taken less if I had ironed the cheesecloth first. I still had enough fluff left that I decided to make a small pillow. Out came the scrap cotton, and when the pillow was done, I stuffed it.

The seed fluff really tends to fly up in the air and then stick to stuff (that’s what it’s designed to do, after all). The pillow, once stuffed and pinned shut, ended up looking like this:

I used a lot of tape to get all the cattail lint off it.

And here is the finished product. Not super high, but a definite pillow. We’ll see how long the fluff lasts or whether it compacts a lot over time. Luckily, there is more where that came from!

This has been “researching books and pretending to be a forager” with Jen.

Botany: Lupine

Here is some Silvery Lupine (Lupinus argenteus) I photographed while hiking atop Wetherill Mesa in Mesa Verde, Colorado. It is probably so named “because of the silvery sheen to the leaves in a certain light.”

I noticed that it bears bean pods:

Good thing I didn’t try to eat these, because according to FalconGuides’ Central Rocky Mountain Wildflowers, “Lupines have poisonous alkaloids concentrated in their seeds.” (page 32)

Kiva vs. Pit House

If you can bear with me, we are going to do one more Mesa Verde post before we start mixing it up again.

As mentioned last week, when I went to Mesa Verde this July, we did not visit the famous Cliff House (which was closed), but instead the lesser-known Wetherill Mesa. Last week I showed you a smaller cliff house, called Step House, that is part of the Wetherill Mesa area. This week, I am going to show you a pit house.

Here’s part of the path to it.

The ruin sites that have been excavated on top of Wetherill Mesa have had sheds built over them that are open on one or two sides. I imagine this protects the excavated ruins, but it’s also great for the tourists. It is so hot out there in the Four Corners desert that, were these sites not shaded, no one would stop for very long to look at them. As it is, you come over the blistering trail, and that shed represents a welcome oasis of shade where you can cool down, take a breath, and then spend some time studying the ruins.

A Pit House

Here we are standing at the entrance to Badger House, viewing it through the first two anterooms, towards the inner room at the back. The inner room has a bench around the edge of it, a narrow little door leading into it, and a big slab of stone sitting right in front of that door, blocking our view in. When in use, this pit house would have had walls extending a little way up from ground level and then a roof. All of this would have been made with wood posts for the basic structure, and then adobe applied in a wattle-and-daub manner. These pit houses had the people living partially but not completely underground. This kind of housing is super practical in a desert, because it insulates the inhabitants from the wild swings of temperature that come not only seasonally, but also between day and night.

Here’s a view of the inner room of Badger House, taken from the side. As you can see, in the foreground there is a little stone closet area (for grain storage?). Opposite it, on the other side, is another stone half-wall (for privacy?). On the left, there is a line of three post-holes for wooden posts that would have helped hold up the roof. (The holes in the bench are also thought to have been put there so that wood beams could be rested in them.) The star of the show is the sunken fire-pit, with the upright slab of stone standing between it and the door that leads from the anteroom.

When I first saw this slab of stone, which seemed to me to be randomly and inconveniently placed, my thought was, “What the heck?” Then my mind immediately went to privacy for people in the inner room, or a Feng-shui type arrangement for blocking bad spirits or energy that might try to enter, or even a physical barrier to make it easier to corral pets and toddlers. But the actual explanation may be even simpler. It’s to protect the fire from drafts. I hadn’t considered this explanation at first, because I expected such a stone to be placed right next to the fire. (A Native friend once told me that if you build a fire right next to a stone, the stone will cause the smoke to draw upward.) But apparently, this is how the Anasazi people dealt with drafts. The informational posters at the site call it a “deflector stone.” If this is where they needed to deflect drafts, that also gives us clue about how the air was flowing through this pit house. The builders were aware of the need for ventilation, as we will see in a moment when we look at a kiva.

The small hole just to the left of the fire pit may be a sipapu. Every kiva has a sipapu, and we know from modern Four-Corners area Indians (the descendants of these builders), that the sipapu symbolizes (or is an iteration of) the hole through which people’s ancestors emerged in their origin legends. In Navajo origin legends, for example, people start out living in a world that in some ways resembles ours, but is four levels down under the earth. Through a series of disasters, they have to abandon each level and flee to the one above it. If I remember correctly, the final level is destroyed by a flood, and then the people finally emerge onto the bare surface of the earth.

So, this is a pit house that shares some characteristics with a kiva. This article explains (or at least introduces the topic) of how, before the Anasazi started using adobe brick to build structures aboveground, they apparently lived in pit houses that also functioned as kivas. When they started building aboveground dwellings, they would then build a kiva for every settlement, but in pit house dwellings, the distinction between kiva and living area is not as clear. So, in Badger House (this is my own thinking now), it’s possible that the three rooms we see are anteroom, then the living area in the middle, and then the more elaborate room at the back is the kiva.

A Kiva

Farther along the path on Wetherill Mesa, we see complexes like these, which are called pueblos. Though still partially dug (again, practical) these are not pit houses but little villages or apartment complexes that are laid out in a row and employ adobe brick. In the first photo, you can see multiple layers of brick walls laid down at different times and not quite square with each other. Once you start getting pueblos like these, each comes with a proper kiva.

It was difficult to get a wide enough angle to properly photograph this small kiva, but here are my attempts.

As you can see, there is a bench around the edge just as in the kiva area of the pit house. There is a fire pit with a deflector stone. There is a deep recess on one side (second photo), and there is also a raised platform area in the wall behind the deflector stone. Under this comes the ventilation. You can see the little hole at the bottom of the platform, which is the ventilation shaft. The other end of the ventilation shaft is aboveground, here.

When my kids first saw this, they speculated that it was for pouring water into; but no, it is for air.

The kiva would have been covered with a roof, and of course the interior would have looked much smoother than this, perhaps with plaster, paint, etc. After all, this thing is about 1000 years old.

This poster has some good information about the kiva, although the drawing on the right cracks me up. It shows that the artist didn’t really know how the kiva was decorated, what kinds of clothes the Anasazi wore (so they just gave them almost none), or what they did in the kiva. (Weaving? Wouldn’t that be done in a house? Oh, what do I know …) More detailed, colorful, and elaborate speculation about all these things shows up in the novel People of the Silence, which I will soon review.

A Great Kiva

Here, near one of the pueblo sites on Wetherill Mesa, is a partially excavated Great Kiva, a kiva big enough to serve a whole community (or a larger community). I’m a little confused by this excavation, because if I understand the informational poster correctly, its total circumference is much bigger, and it looks to me liked it would overlap with pueblo ruins that it shares the site with. So it’s a little hard to picture how this complex looked in real life.

Here’s a poster that explains the excavation. It almost looks like the Great Kiva was filled in, and then a pueblo built over it.

The ruins at Chaco Canyon, where People of the Silence is set, include not only large towns with many rooms, but multiple Great Kivas, well-preserved, in each town. Unlike this rather confusing site, things were planned out so that the town was built in a semicircular shape, people lived in rooms around the edges, and the kivas were in the plaza in the middle. This was a large culture area that extended over what are now four western States.

Other Cool Stuff

This tunnel-tower arrangement is apparently connected to the smaller kiva that I showed you earlier. What I called a “deep recess” was actually the entrance to the tunnel!

Again, I love how the illustration shows nothing but the kiva, tunnel, and tower in the middle of a desert. No people, no fields, no animals, no other buildings. Maybe they had strict instructions not to go beyond what is proved.

I don’t know whether this tunnel and tower were constructed for war, but in Chaco Canyon, we see archaeological evidence that the people started fortifying their previously accessible town, sealing up the entrances and even windows, until there was only one small door leading in and out. All around this region, we find massacres.

I can’t now find the map I photographed, but as I mentioned last week, these excavated sites are not the only ones on this mesa. There are other known sites that have not been excavated (which we walk by on our way to these convenient shelters), and there are probably many undiscovered sites as well. This is not wild and unsettled country, and it has not been for millennia.

The Quieter Side of Mesa Verde

Here is a small part of the Mesa Verde formation, seen from the North, as we head west along Highway 160 towards the town of Cortez. My boys and I “camped” at Mesa Verde last month, but we didn’t really camp camp. We just slept in a tent. We drove into town to get our meals, so I don’t call that camping. There were some much more hard-core campers in the sites near ours, including a family who had come all the way from Maine.

Once you have entered the park and the road has begun to climb, you can stop at an overlook and look out towards the East, over Mancos Valley.

The most famous cliff house in Mesa Verde is called Cliff Palace. It’s the one that you usually see pictures of. To get to it, you take a short but steep hike down into a canyon with a ranger for a guided tour. I’ve done this once in the past, but this year, Cliff Palace Loop road was closed for maintenance. So, we (along with every other visitor) went instead to “the quieter side of Mesa Verde” (per the brochure), namely Wetherill Mesa.

Here’ a view from the top of Wetherill Mesa. As you can see, it’s at a very high elevation, with views in the distance of some of Colorado’s majestic mountains. Notice also the many burned trees. The climate is so dry here that you can see the skeleton forests left by many generations of past forest fires.

Wetherill Mesa is a very large area. There are several different sites of ruins that you can visit, including a couple of “overlooks” from which you can see cliff dwellings but not walk to them. As noted last week, my boys and I did one cliff dwelling hike on Wetherill Mesa, to a site called Step House. Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of the whole complex from a distance, just close-ups of its features. It is not a large ruin, but here are the steps that made it famous:

They look like scattered rocks, but if you look closely, you can see that they have been fitted into steps. To the right is the edge of the “proto-kivas” found at Step House. Farther to the right of that, you would find the dwelling itself, and in front of it a proper kiva (though still smaller than those at some other sites).

This proto-kiva has burned wood still as it was left about 800 years ago, much as that blows the mind.

Some small rooms behind the proto-kivas (the one on the lower left has a reconstructed roof on it).

Here’s the proper kiva, which is in front of the dwelling part of pueblo.

And here are the walls of the pueblo, rising up from the edge of the kiva in the foreground to the underside of the overhang.

The other place we visited on Wetherill Mesa was a series of dwelling sites that were not cliff houses, but were built up on top of the mesa. A few of these sites were pueblo-style (square buildings made with stones, and attendant kivas), but one was an earlier pit house (cool!). I’ll show you pictures of this stuff another time, and give you some basic archaeological information as well, but for now I’ll close because this post is getting pretty long already. I do just want to add that, as we were informed by a sign, as you walk from the parking lot to get to the excavated dwellings, you are walking past other sites that have not yet been excavated. Mesa Verde, and in fact the Four Corners region in general, is literally covered with archaeological sites, some known, some unknown! You think of people in, say, Jerusalem as people whose daily lives are literally lived atop layers of history, but the more I learn, the more it seems this is true everywhere you go in the world. They are even finding ancient human settlements in the Amazon rainforest now.

O.K., that’s enough archaeological nerding out for one day. I hope you enjoyed the tour! Have a great weekend!