When I first moved here seeing devils club would make me cringe. I would lament at its pervasive cover. Inevitably when hiking, I would grab onto a stalk for support or bushwhack through a thicket of them. I noticed on a recent hike that my feelings for devils club had changed significantly. I was excited to see the plants, the larger the stand the bigger my grin. Now I see devils club as a medicine, a prolific and powerful resource in the Tongass. Its healing qualities seem to cure any ailment and have been used by Tlingits for thousands of years.
Last week, I met with one of our families to learn the process of harvesting the plant. Always harvest from a large stand and leave little impact. Be careful to harvest stalks above new buds so the plant can put energy into those shoots. Before clipping a branch, thank the plant for its medicine and healing properties.
Over the weekend, 4H Alaska way-of-life members located a stand of devils club, harvested a few stalks, scraped off thorns, and peeled off the green bark. I had already made the devils club oil by heating the dried bark gently in a double boiler for three hours (the longer you infuse it the stronger the medicine). Together, we added beeswax shavings to the warm oil to make a salve. Its applications are limitless: chapped lips, sore muscles, bug bites, buns, etc.
**It is of utmost importance to be mindful in your harvest, maintain respect for the plant and its natural environment, and harvest only what you can use.
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While teaching a Discovery Southeast introduction to eco-systems at Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School a student blurts out…"Aren't you supposed to be teaching us this stuff"? I stop writing on the board, thrilled to hear this. I think she just gave me away.
Our educational system tends toward rote memorization by having the student repeat an answer over and over. This is unexciting and exclusive to students who have the knowledge. This particular student figured out an educational method called the art of questioning. This teaching technique opens up space for thoughts, giving the class time to think about an answer. Sometimes, weeks go by and students will stop me in the hallway and present me with an answer to an old question or mystery.
I ask the fourth grade class a few questions. What plants and animals live outside your school? This builds confidence in the class and hands start going up. Many of the students know the answers. What is an eco-system? What do you know about Alaska's eco-systems? The students are ignited by the questions. This is their opportunity to be creative by developing original answers. I continually ask more questions, building on the students answers.
Eco-systems are a big and difficult concept for fourth graders to understand. First, you have a population of plant or
animal such as salmonberry or deer. Then, add these individuals living in communities and interacting with the environment. Then, tack on the earth as a giant biosphere. Nature based educators make connections that help the classroom teachers explain this complex subject.
The school is seven minutes from one of Alaska's eight eco-systems, the coastal temperate rainforest. Naturalists at Discovery Southeast use this proximity to teach hands on nature based education and connect students with real science experiences. There is not a computer, T.V. program, or book that can connect those students with the science subjects better than the forest itself.
When the students leave the heated box of the school they are energized by being outside. Calming the students down and focusing their attention is a very effective way to prepare the class for a fun learning experience. Our journey begins down a road. We are ready to discover mysteries about our flora and fauna. There is an important step we must not forget. It is what Discovery Southeast naturalists call "Opening the Gate." Opening the Gate involves crossing your right hand over your left hand, interlocking your fingers, and then bringing that into your chest. Next cross your right leg over your left leg holding that stance for a minute. Changing the hands and feet to the reverse position completes this procedure. This is an exercise that gets kids to focus their attention on their body and senses, a meditation of sorts. A silent moment at the end of the exercise helps us make the transition from the pavement to our natural surroundings.
The fourth grade class is ready and soon discovers a set of deer tracks. As they quiet down, I start asking the students questions about the relationships between the deer, plants and the other animals around this place. They do not seem to realize that they are explaining to each other the make-up of our eco-system. The class starts listing individual plants and animals such as red alder, salmonberry, Sitka spruce, Sitka black-tailed deer, raven and even a northern goshawk. One student adds another important piece about the abiotic components and asks me if a rock is alive or dead.
We step outside for forty minutes and our experience equates to just a fragment of the life around those children. The class accomplishes a few really important ideas. We ask questions, share each others' nature intelligence and slow down enough to pay attention to the natural world. This inquisitive and inclusive approach to learning makes us all feel part of our outdoor science class.
There is much meaning in inquiring deeper into a subject. By asking questions the class creates unique layers of understanding probing into the life of a deer, alder or goshawk. New ideas, questions, and perspectives become part of our learning experience. In Dennie Wolf's article" The Art of Questioning" she points out a range of questions, inference, interpretation, transfer, reflective questions, and questions about hypotheses. How educators ask the questions will bring us closer to a mystery, make a subject more exciting and keep us pondering for weeks.
[dropcap]Kevin O'Mally[/dropcap] Kevin has spent six years with Discovery Southeast and is currently acting as lead naturalist for the Auke Bay elementary Nature Studies program. He leads Early Dismissal Mondays at Glacier Valley and is the assistant naturalist for the Nature Studies program there. He's coordinated a variety of special projects such as GPS-mapping classes andwinter shelter-building field trips to bring outdoor and nature education to local homeschool students. Kevin has a degree in Cultural Anthropology and recently graduated from the Kamana 4 Naturalist Training Program. He has also completed a nine-month residentialnaturalist training program through the Anake Outdoor School at the Wilderness Awareness School.He grew up within walking distance of Lake Erie and the Cleveland Metroparks, which helped spark his connection to nature. Even when he isn't outside, you may catch him reading nature field guides.
The much anticipated deer stew has been put up, 37 pints worth! After months of patience, 4H members got to see their skinned and butchered deer turn into a shelf-stable food. And a delicious one at that! 4H members gathered around a large table full of ingredients that needed prepping. We rotated through different stations of washing and skinning potatoes, chopping garlic and onions, dicing carrots and celery, and slicing up deer and moose meat. We all commented on how together, as a community, we could accomplish so much. It brought me so much joy to be working alongside my new friends (young and younger..) putting up food until hunting season begins again next August.
After our raw ingredients were prepped we filled our jars with a little of this and a little of that. Potatoes, meat, carrot, onion, garlic and celery were layered in each jar and topped with salt, pepper, spices, and a little bit of a stock mix before carefully cleaning each jar rim and capping with a top and ring. The jars were then placed in two large pressure canners and once they reached a pressure of 10#s were cooked for 110 minutes. Once the timer alerted us that they were done, we turned off the heat letting the pressure and temperature come down naturally. Once it was safe to open, we removed the jars and delighted in the popping sound that comes with a finished product!
I have to say that this was an activity that I was really looking forward to. I feel more empowered when I can put up food for myself, knowing every ingredient and its source. I have learned that hunters are very close to the land, know its subtleties and patterns, and have a deep respect for the lives that they are taking for food. That respect is carried through the entire process from the hunt, to processing, and cooking. These 37 pints of deer stew carry with them stories of community and the gratitude of a life for a life. We will share these delicious jars with 4H volunteers, mentors, and elders to continue the story…
A big thank you to 4H Parent and Subsistence Biologist for the Forest Service, Jack Lorrigan for sharing this important skill with the 4H Alaska way-of-life Club!
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The Tongass provides an abundance of wild salmon berries, blueberries, and huckleberries—what better way to enjoy their wild summer flavors than in a pie shared with friends and family? The Cloverbuds 4H Club learned how to bake pies this week, mastering a home-baked good that many shy away from. Each Cloverbud went home with a pie ready to bake; for many it was their first (and for the parents too!).
Each member made their their dough, patted it into a round, and rolled it out to fit in the pie dish. Fillings were poured in and tops were added. It was great to see youth who were overwhelmed by the thought of making pie or touching butter get into the process and see (and eat ) their final product. Sharing foods, especially ones with locally-harvested foods is a deep pleasure that connects us to place.
After our pie-baking extravaganza, we met to create light. Candles today often add ambiance to rooms but historically they were a critical light source. Students got to rotate through different stations, creating three different types of candles. They each dipped candles, resulting in chubby little pillars perfect for the next birthday cake. They filled a votive mold and also decorated jars with glitter, marbles, stones, and sprinkles to create personalized candles. After the melted wax was poured, wicks were placed in the center, and we patiently waited for them to dry. The candles turned out beautifully—putting a few in our survival kits wouldn't be a bad idea for emergencies.
A big thank you to parents Eric Kaplan and Susea Albee for leading the activities for the month and parents Paty and Scott Harris for hosting!
Earlier this month 4H members went to Ed Gray's local tannery at the Sawmill Industrial Park. We were instantly immersed in his world of preserving hides, the process between skinning an animal and the hide that sits nicely on your couch or lines your mittens. Ed Gray took us through this process step by step. What I write below is an over-simplification but will give you an idea of what it takes to preserve an animal hide.
First the hide needs to be scraped to remove any remaining flesh that could rot, this process is appropriately called "fleshing." Ed has his own unique method, but I won't share his secret here! It is then salted, which acts as a preservative and pulls out excess liquid. Once the skin is dry and the hair is set, the skin is rehydrated and placed in a pickling solution of water, salt and acid (Ed uses a plant-acid). This swells the skin so it can be shaved, creating a softer pelt. Ed said it took him over 300 hours to master this fine technique. The hide is then placed in another solution with an adjusted pH allowing it to react with the tanning solution where it sits for 15 hours. Then the skin is removed and allowed to dry overnight before it is oiled and dried almost completely, about 90%. The skin is then tumbled in a hardwood powder to finish the drying process by removing any remaining oils. The process is complete once it is tumbled in a wire cage to remove the wood flour and then buffed creating a soft and shiny hide for the proud hunter.
Students got to touch a number of hides in different stages of the process and got to test (under supervision of course) the acidity level of the solutions using pH strips. Ed showed us how a number of his pieces of equipment worked (some ingenious yet simple and others more complicated needing very refined motor skills). Ed works with all animal hides ranging from sea otter to marten to bear and will be working individually with one of our 4H members on his very own deer hide.
This skill continues to be cherished in the local community, with two operating tanneries in Sitka. Traditionally tanning hides (often with the natural acids found in the brain) was a source of warmth in the cold winters. Today it serves as a connection to the past, to keep the tradition alive. It is a skill that we find valuable to share with 4Hers as a reminder of how we used to survive using only local resources native to the area. Although we had an introduction on how to tan on a commercial scale, we may continue to explore this topic if there is interest and learn how to tan hides as a survival skill.
THANK YOU to Ed Gray for sharing his local knowledge of tanning animal hides.
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Nov 2011. On an autumn Saturday afternoon, a group of kids gathered around a deer hanging in the Sitka Sound Science Center barn. At first they stood a few feet back, taking the deer in slowly with curious gazes. They got more comfortable as Jack Lorrigan, the father of one of the children, began to explain how to skin the deer and butcher it into choice cuts of meat. Over the next two hours, Jack, the Subsistence Biologist with the Forest Service, demonstrated the various cuts and allowed kids and parents alike to wield the knife. Jack also shared stories of how he learned to hunt from his mother, carrying on indigenous traditions, and he offered important ecological considerations from his work as a subsistence biologist. Andrew Thoms, executive director at the Sitka Conservation Society, helped Jack teach the lesson. Andrew shot the deer along with Joel Martin and Paulie Davis on Kruzof Island about 10 miles from Sitka.
For the people of Sitka, Alaska, subsistence hunting and gathering is an important part of life. The Tongass National Forest that surrounds Sitka provides many of these resources. SCS works to protect the resources of the Tongass as well as helping pass along the conservation skills and values that will allow us to live as part of this landscape forever. The Alaska-way-of-life 4H club is part of the ways that Sitka youth are learning about their environment and being part of the community.
We will follow the deer from forest to plate in the month of February. Members will learn how to tan hides from Ed Gray at his local tannery and will can deer stew for future enjoyment of this local food source.
Note: In following with time-honored subsistence traditions passed down from peoples who have occupied this landscape for millennia, at least half of the deer meat from this activity was shared with neighbors, friends and elders.
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For the month of January, the Alaska way-of-life 4H club focused on tracking and trapping in the Tongass National Forest. These important skills further connect us to the natural environment as we notice the habits of the animals and birds in our shared ecosystem. Tracking as a skill gives us more capacity to understand the workings of the forest and thus the compassion to protect it. Traditionally this activity was fundamentally crucial, and continues to be, as a source of food and animal pelts (for clothing, warmth, and trade).
We began the unit earlier this month by gathering around a table overflowing with animal pelts. We identified the animals native to the island and began matching each animal to its print. Ashley Bolwerk from the Science Center taught us the steps involved in tracking animals: 1) know your location and the animals native to it, 2) note the size, pattern, and type of track, 3) check for distinguishing details like number of toes, nails, etc., 4) note other animal signs like scat, fur, feathers, eating patterns, etc.
In addition to learning the basics of tracking, Kevin Johnson and Tyler Orbison, both local trappers, met with the older 4H group to show them the fundamentals of tracking mink and martens. They got to practice setting up the different traps (more difficult than one may think) and directed question after question to our guests.
On Saturday, we got to put study into action. We had a blast roaming the coastline and snowy forest searching for tracks and signs of animals nearby. We successfully saw the tracks of deer, mink, marten, squirrel, raven, and swan including scat and signs of grazing. The older kids were joined once again by trapper, Kevin Johnson, who demonstrated where and how to place traps in the forest. He also, to our delight, showed 4H members how to skin a marten in the field. Everyone was awe-eyed and attentive as he quickly removed the hide from body, an excellent lesson in anatomy.
Check out the pictures—they tell a better story than words ever will. These activities would not have been possible without the help of: Kevin Johnson, Tyler Orbison, Jon Martin, Kent Bovee, Ashley Bolwerk, Andrew Thoms, and the Science Center. THANK YOU!
**Although a bit out of order, 4Hers have learned how to identify deer tracks, skin and butcher a deer, and in February will learn how to tan hides and can deer stew. A forest to plate series!
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The Alaska Way-of-Life 4H Club seeks to connect youth to their natural environment through a number of hands-on, outdoor activities. Through parent and volunteer-led activities, youth are taught the skills to feel equipped while out in the Tongass National Forest. They are taught skills that relate to safety, like building survival kits and shelters, to wild-food harvest and preservation, to outdoor hobbies like bird identification. As with all 4H Clubs, our group seeks to incorporate elements of the 4H's: Head, Heart, Hands, and Health. We also strive to develop a healthy community through family and youth participation.
For the 2012-2012 school year, we will focus on a variety of topics: mushroom hunting, berry picking, cooking, shelter building, tracking, plant ID, survival kits, and food preservation.
We meet the first and third Tuesday of the month and every last Saturday. There are two groups: Cloverbuds, ages 5-8 and 4H, ages 9+. The cost to join is $20.00, which is divided between registration to National 4H, insurance, and the Activity Fund. If cost is an issue, please ask us about scholarships.
Check out our briefing sheets for more information:4H Briefing sheet
Please contact Tracy Gagnon at [email protected] or call 747.7509 if you are interested in joining!
Earlier this fall we set out on a hunt, a mushroom hunt. With our paper bags in hand we searched for different mushrooms with Sitka Conservation Society Board Treasurer, UAS Professor, and mycologist Kitty LaBounty. Families worked together looking for different fungus: some large, some small, some edible, some gilled and others with spongy pores. This was the first time many of the members of the Alaska Way-of-Life 4H Club have ever looked for mushrooms. This outing helped them to experience their natural environment in a new way, with different eyes. Their vision became focused and directed at finding these special fungi that are intimately connected to the forest through their extensive mycelium network. After collecting mushrooms we gathered together to group the mushrooms in to different categories: edible and non-edible, size, color, and cap structure. On this evening parents and children alike learned safe harvesting practices, edible mushroom types, and mushroom identification. It was a wonderful opportunity to tap into the underground mysteries of the forest with fresh, young eyes. And—what a fun way to forage for food!
**Knowing how the different forms of life in an ecosystem interact helps us all to better understand the natural world. And the more we understand the natural world, the better stewards we can be to ensure that future generations can experience the magnificence of the local environment. The Alaska Way-of-Life 4H Club teaches students about the natural world through hands-on activities so they too can be a part of their natural environment of the Tongass.