Corn Cobs as Fuel

I wanted to know whether I could use the few pitiful dried corn stalks left over from my garden as a fire-starter. Poking around on the Internet, I stumbled across this blog post about burning corn cobs, which has a ton of fascinating historical information. My favorite part is the picture of a North Dakota housewife feeding corn cobs into her kitchen stove, with the baby in a high chair in the background, in 1940.

Forest Gardens

So, a member of the Out of Babel research team sent me this cool link. (The research team being blog readers/friends who send me links.)

Apparently, the native peoples of British Columbia made gardens in the temperate rain forests up there. These were patches of forest where they planted edibles such as “hazelnuts, crabapples, cranberries, and hawthorn.” These patches persist to this day. They did not look like agriculture to the Europeans. We are just now realizing what they were, a mere 200 years behind the times as usual.

This article brings to mind the Wild Yam Question, which was raised by an old ethnology professor of mine. Part of the Wild Yam thesis is that people groups who look to city-dwellers’ eyes like hunter-gatherers, may actually be engaging in horticulture, where they plant a staple food (such as sago palm) in clusters in the forest and then rotate where they harvest it, which looks like pure foraging but isn’t. According to the linked article, the forest gardens in BC are the first instance of this kind of horticulture that has been discovered in a temperate climate.

And not to go on a patented Out of Babel rant, but I’ll just note that this kind of discovery undermines the old model of anthropology where people start out as hunter-gatherers and progress to gardens, then large-scale agriculture, and so on, becoming more urban as they go. This suggests that there are a variety of ways to do agriculture and that people can mix elements of different lifestyles to suit their needs. This, in turn, suggests that we can’t just look at whether a given people group has agriculture, and assume that we can infer from this when they lived or what stage of development they were in. There may well have been people groups who went from being farmers or herdsmen to being hunters when forced to do so, either because they were migrating or in response to some disaster. In fact, this is exactly what happens to Enmer’s tribe in my trilogy.

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)

Quote: Stay Edgy

“Don’t water so much, boy. These plants are like people, they need to be a little scared.”

“They need to be scared?”

Black Mesa nodded. “If the seedlings aren’t scared, they won’t sink their roots deeply into Mother Earth. Then when the droughts come they’ll blow away without a fight. If you want to save them, don’t make their lives easy, force them to prepare for the worst.” He nudged Poor Singer with his elbow. “Hurting makes everybody stronger.”

People of the Silence, p. 265