Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Woodcraft And Wisdom, Be Aware As You Go

The Northern Great Plains, photo by World Wildlife.
XXIII: Woodcraft And Weather Wisdom
Akhíta Máni (Be Aware As You Go)

By Charles Eastman
Note: The following is an excerpt of Charles Eastman's "Indian Scout Tales." Since the life of the Indian is one of travel and exploration, not for the benefit of science, but for his own convenience and pleasure, he is accustomed to find himself in pathless regions —— now in the deep woods, now upon the vast, shimmering prairie, or again among the tangled water-ways of a mighty lake studded with hundreds, even thousands, of wooded islands.

How does he find his way so successfully in the pathless jungle without the aid of a compass you ask? Well, it is no secret. In the first place, his vision is correct; and he is not merely conscious of what he sees, but also sub-consciously he observes the presence of any and all things within the range of his senses.

If you would learn his system, you must note the relative position of all objects, and especially the location of your camp in relation to river, lake, or mountain. The Indian is a close student of the topography of the country, and every landmark—— hill, grove, or unusual tree—is noted and remembered. It is customary with the hunters and warriors to tell their stories of adventure most minutely, omitting no geo graphical and topographical details, so that the boy who has listened to such stories from babyhood can readily identify places he has never before seen.

This kind of knowledge is simple, and, like the every-day meal, it is properly digested and assimilated, and becomes a part of one’s self. It is this instant, intelligent recognition of every object within his vision in his daily roving, which fixes the primitive woodsman’s reckoning of time, distance, and direction.

Sunrise on the Great Plains, featured on Wallpaper Up

Time is measured simply by the height of the sun. Shadow is the wild man’s dial; his own shadow is best. Hunger is a good guide when the sun is behind the clouds. Again, the distance traveled is an indicator, when one travels over known distances. In other words, he keeps his soul at one with the world about him, while the over-civilized man is trained to depend upon artificial means. He winds his watch, pins his thought to a chronometer, and disconnects himself from the world-current; then starts off on the well-beaten road. If he is compelled to cut across, he calls for a guide; in other words, he borrows or buys the mind of another. Neither can he trust his memory, but must needs have a note book.

The wild man has no chronometer, no yardstick, no unit of weight, no field-glass. He is himself a natural being in touch with nature. Some things he does, he scarcely knows why; certainly he could not explain them. His calculations are swift as a flash of lightning; best of all, they come out right! This may seem incredible to one who is born an old man; but there are still some boys who hark back to their great-great grandfathers; they were not born and nursed within six walls!

The colors of tree, grass, and rock tell the points of the compass to the initiated. On the north side, the bark is of a darker color, smoother, and more solid looking; while on the southern exposure it is of a lighter hue, because of more sunshine, and rougher, because it has not been polished off by the heavy beating of snow and rain in the cold season. An Indian will pass his hand over the trunk of a tree in the dark and tell you which way is north; some will tell you the kind of tree, also.

The branches of the tree tell the same story; on the south side they grow thicker and longer, while the leaves lie more horizontal on the sunny side, and more vertical on the north. Again, the dry leaves on the ground corroborate them; on the north side of the trees the leaves are well-packed and overlay each other almost like shingles. The color and thickness of the moss on rock or tree also tells the—secret.

But I must leave some things for you to discover; and I advise you to select a rock or tree that is well exposed to the elements for a first attempt. Of course, in well-protected localities, these distinctions are not so marked, but even there are discernible to a trained eye.

If you ever lose your way in the woods, do not allow yourself to become unnerved. Never give up.” Fear drowns more people than water, and is a more dangerous enemy than the wilderness. A normal man, with some knowledge of out-of-doors, can without much effort keep in touch with his starting-point, and, however tortuously he may rove, he will pick the shortest way back. Know exactly where you are before starting, in relation to the natural landmarks, and at every halt locate yourself as nearly as possible. Measure your shadow (it varies according to the season), and scatter dry earth, leaves, or grass, to learn the direction of the wind. The water shed is another important point to bear in mind. On a clear night, look for the well known stars, such as the Great Dipper,” which lies to the north in summer, the handle pointing west. The Milky Way lies north and south. Once you locate the camp, you may be guided by these or by the wind in night travel.

Hunting bison in the dusty airy landscape.

The Indian, as an out-of-door man, early learns the necessity of a weather bureau of his own. He develops it after the fashion of another system of precaution; that is, he takes note of the danger-signals of the animals, those unconscious criers of the wilderness, both upon water and land. These have definite signals for an approaching change in the weather. For instance, the wolf tribes give the storm call” on the evening before. This call is different in tone from any other and clearly identified by us. Horses kick and stamp, and the buffalo herds low nervously. Certain water fowl display a strange agitation which they do not show under any other circum stances. Antelopes seek shallow lakes before a thunder-shower and stand in the water the Indians say because lightning does not strike in the water. Even dogs howl and make preparations to hide their young. Ducks have their signal call; but the chief weather prophet of the lakes is the loon, as the gray wolf or coyote is of the prairie.

Certain leaves and grass-blades contract or expand at the approach of storm, and even their color is affected, while the wind in the leaves has a different sound. The waves on the beach whisper of the change, and we also observe the ring around the sun, and the opacity and disk of the moon. The lone hunter may be left with only the open prairie and the dome of heaven; but he still has his grass-blades, his morning and evening skies. Sometimes the little prairie birds give him the signal; or, if not, he may fall back upon his old wounds, that begin to ache and swell with the change of atmosphere.