Ken Kramm: Creative Naturalist

My guest today is Dr. Kenneth Kramm, former professor of ecology at Michigan Technical University and the University of Houston.  He is a Texas Master Naturalist and hosts a Facebook page on bushcraft and nature at  http://www.facebook.com/BuschcraftAndNature   and a Youtubechannel at http://www.youtube.com/user/kennethkramm?feature=mhe

Ken Kramm and friend

Ken Kramm and friend

Hi Ken. Tell us a little about your video “Prehistoric Indians of the Lower Pecos Region, Seminole Canyon, Tx.”

Seminole Canyon State Park is a wonderful park with a nice campground and interesting history.  Hopefully, the video will encourage people to visit the park and learn about the prehistoric indians who who lived here nearly 12,000 years ago.  They were attracted by the rivers, wildlife and rock shelter caves.  Guided tours of the rock shelters are particularly interesting.  Different parts of the shelters were designated for activities such as sleeping and cooking.  People slept on woven mats, which are still present in the shelters.  Over a period of 4 to 6 thousand years, the walls were decorated with pictographs.  In spite of the harsh environment, the Lower Pecos Region of Texas provides many photo opportunities for wildlife and wildflowers.

What other videos do you have on your Youtube channel?  http://www.youtube.com/user/KennethKramm?feature=mhee

My YouTube Channel includes videos on a wide range of nature-related topics 1) hiking and camping adventures (to locations such as Texas State and National Forests), 2) relaxing nature videos for meditation, 3) and wilderness survival techniques and bushcraft.   I am currently producing a video miniseries on “How To Camp Out — Advice From an American  Civil War Veteran.”   We can learn much about how to survive and thrive outdoors by following the recommendations of pioneers in the 1800s.

This one shows how to forage for dinner, including “Roly Poly Soup.” Tastes like shrimp. Honest.

 Very clever. How do you create these videos?

Topics are suggested by subscribers.  Before making a video, I research the topic using the internet, books, articles and talking with local experts.  The US Forest Service, Texas State Forest Service and Texas Master Naturalists assist with the production of many videos.    After outlining the video design, I start filming with a Canon Vixia Camcorder, point-and-shoot camera, and smart phone.  The videos are edited with Final Cut Pro X.

 You also have a Facebook page on bushcraft and nature. What is the purpose of that endeavor? http://www.facebook.com/BuschcraftAndNature

The purpose is for people to share their love of the outdoors and learn from its wisdom.  With each advance of technology, life for human beings becomes easier and better. It is now possible to talk and share experiences real-time with people from all over the world, Wow! This same technology, however, has a downside: human beings have become disconnected from the natural world. We have largely forgotten important lessons of our ancient ancestors. The “Bushcraft and Nature community” shares the best from both worlds. We use technology to communicate a our common love of the outdoors and learn from its wisdom.

Had any interesting experiences with snakes or other critters out in the wild?  

After watching sunset at Lost Maples State Park, I walked a 2-mile trail back to camp without a flashlight.  Fireflies were  numerous, so I didn’t need to turn on my flashlight to see the trail.   All of a sudden I heard awful growling /screeching.  A feral hog and her piglets were crossing the trail in front of me.  The mother decided to attack!  I was scared…. Very scarred…. I screamed, turned on the flashlight and threw it at the hogs.   They retreated.  But my heart  was pounding all the way home.

That would certainly scare me too!  Those things can be vicious.  If you had to live in a tent for the next year, where would you like lit to be?  Why?

One of the best places for year-round tent camping, in my opinion, is southern California.  The weather is moderate; food, water and shelter are readily available from nature.  And best of all the region provides unparalleled opportunities for wildlife observation and photography.

 You wouldn’t have to twist my arm very hard on that one.  Why do you believe it is important for people today to experience the natural world?

See my video on the benefits of bushcraft:

Basically

– NATURE MAKE YOU NICER: communities with more green-space have lower rates of crime and violence

–  GET A GLIMPSE OF GREEN:  hospital patients who can see green spaces from their rooms recover faster and require less pain medication;  exposure to the living world can calm the mind, improve learning and enhance intelligence

– NATURE IS THE BEST NURTURE: reduced anxiety and depression, decreased stress, increased immunity, increased energy; 50% lower diabetes risk, vitamin D production,weight loss and fitness, reduced attention deficit disorder

–  SUGGESTED DOSAGE:  Stress is relieved within 2 minutes exposure to nature, Memory and attention span improve 20% with 2 hours exposure to nature; levels of cancer fighting white blood cells increase 50 in 2 days exposure

– NATURE IS INVENTOR:  velcro is an example; hook &loop fasteners were invented after people noticed burrs sticking to clothes

I couldn’t help noticing you have an insect on your hat.  What is it?

It’s a stick insect (Order: Phasmatodea). He’s  a harmless invertebrate that feeds mostly on leaves.  They hold the record for longest insects in the world.  See Cool Facts About Stick Insects, a weird moovie – YouTube

You do something different with every video! Your videos are both informative and very inviting.  Thanks for being with us, Ken. It’s been a pleasure. Thanks for sharing your love of the great outdoors with us. 

Joint Pain: Medicine Kit of the Lower Pecos, Part II

Handful of native chili petines

Handful of native chiltepines

Human beings have been plagued with joint pain throughout the history of mankind.  Arthritis, the condition caused by the wearing down of beneficial cartilage in the joints, affects over 27 million people in the United States today, according to the Arthritis Foundation

A joint with osteoarthritis

A joint with osteoarthritis

(www.arthritistoday.org). I don’t know enough about the skeletal evidence from the Lower Pecos of Texas to do more than speculate, but at least some people in the region 4000-6000 years ago must have worn out a knee or two climbing up and down steep canyons and running over rough stone outcroppings in the uplands. In other words, they probably had  their share of  “archaic arthritis.”

Ow! Even that phrase hurts!  Osteoarthritis produces stinging pain and can cause swelling and stiffness in the joints affected. Generally, the older you are, the more wear and tear you have on your joints.  A stiff knee could make a thirty-year-old adult from the archaic period feel old before his or her time. But somebody had to hunt, somebody had to gather plants. It’s not like they could just stay at home with their feet up. So what did they do?

Recently I was forced to experiment to find out.  I had to forego my usual arthritis medication from the doctor, and researched various herbal remedies.  I decided to try cayenne capsules, devil’s claw root extract, and yucca root extract to alieve my own symptoms because native varieties of these were likely available during the archaic period in the Lower Pecos.

The “hotness” of chili peppers is measured in Scoville units. Cayenne is measured at between 30,000 and 50,000 Scoville units, but our native chiltepine pepper comes in at a whopping 50,000-100,000 Scoville units!  The “heat” is caused by capsaicin, which is present in all hot peppers to some extent. capsaicin is a main ingredient of various topical creams available today to treat arthritis. Some sources suggest rubbing the cream on the affected areas four times a day for best results.  Capsaicin seems to work by interfering with the perception of pain (aside from burning tongues!)

While cayenne does not grow wild in west Texas, chiltepines should. I recently asked four people who know the land and plants in that area intimately (ranchers, archeologists, botanist), however, and they could not recall seeing a wild chiltepine plant in recent years. So, even though the plant should be well suited to the area, there must be some reason why they are not currently in evidence.  At any rate, IF they were there during the archaic period, it is likely the people would have utilized the small peppers for flavoring and medicinal purposes. One way they might have used the little chilis would be to apply crushed pods to swollen joints, perhaps mixed in a plaster of some sort. Another way might be to drink the crushed peppers as a tea, although that would burn the mouth.

Devil's Claw

Devil’s Claw  seedpods

Another plant the ancient people likely exploited is Devil’s Claw (Proboscidea parviflora), which grows in dry places throughout the American Southwest. The dry seed pods which give the name to the plant were used by the Pima Indians in basketry and well as for medicine. They  broke off a piece of the claw and pressed it onto the affected area. Then the claw must be lit on fire and allowed to burn down. Ouch!

Devil's Claw plant

Devil’s Claw plant

Another variety called Harpagophytum procumbens has been studied for effectiveness. The journal Phytomedicine (2002) reported a study of 227 people treated with Devil’s Claw extract for eight weeks.  They each took 60 mg of the extract daily, and at the end of the study, about 60% reported decreased pain and increased mobility and flexibility. People are cautioned not to take this if they are pregnant, have gallstones or ulcers, or are taking antacids or blood thinners (see www.arthritistoday.org).

Yucca Root

Yucca Root

Yucca root is also known to have been used by Native Americans to alieve joint pain, among other things. The root has anti-inflammatory  properties, but little reasearch has been done to support effectiveness (see www.livestrong.com). I can say from the experience of taking four tablets of yucca root a day in addition to Devil’s Claw extract and cayenne capsules, that the combination reduced the stinging pain in my wrists and I had more flexibility in my knees.

The last plant in my Lower Pecos pharmacy for joint pain is stinging nettle (Urtica dioica).

Stinging Nettle--handle only with gloves

Stinging Nettle–handle only with gloves

As the name implies, contact with the leaves, or little tiny hairs on the leaves, can be rudely painful. The leaves and stems are widely used in Germany, however, to make a tea for both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. A small study from the University of Maryland was inconclusive regarding the anti-inflammatory compounds in stinging nettle as a topical cream.

As you can see, people living in that beautiful region we call the Lower Pecos, between the Pecos, Devil’s and Rio Grande rivers in south Texas, could have used several natural pain relievers to help keep their joints moving 4000-6000 years ago. I wish I knew their medicinal recipes…

Peyote: Plant Helpers of the Lower Pecos, Part III

Huichol indian yarn painting of peyote cactus

Huichol indian yarn painting of peyote cactus

Peyote was a powerful plant helper for ancient people of the Lower Pecos. Like the Huichol indians of Mexico today, ancient people probably considered peyote a sacred plant. Peyote contains the drug mescaline, which brings colorful hallucinations to those who consume it, along with nausea and other uncomfortable side effects.

Peyote has been used for at least 4000 years in the Lower Pecos and other areas for both medicinal and spiritual purposes. Mashed and dried peyote, radiocarbon dated to  4045-3960 B.C., has been found in certain rock shelters near the Rio Grande. Strings of peyote buttons have also been discovered in caves of northern Mexico.

Dried peyote buttons

Dried peyote buttons

Peyote use spread to Native American groups in the Great Plains and Southwest such as the Lipan Apache, Tonkawa, Mescalero Apache, and Pima by the 1880s. Today, only members of the Native American Church may legally consume peyote in the U.S.

Taken in small doses, peyote is a mild stimulant and reduces appetite. Tarahumara indians in Mexico often chew peyote during their foot races to strengthen them as they run 50 miles or more. The cactus also contains substances that possess antiseptic and antibiotic properties against many types of bacteria.  Mashed cactus can be applied to burns or wounds to prevent infection. The Kiowa also used peyote to treat illnesses such as flu and scarlet fever.

This shy little cactus was declared illegal in 1970 by the United States’ Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act.  The cactus continues to grows wild in south Texas and northern Mexico , but is under stress from several causes, according to Dr. Martin Terry of Sul Ross State University.Peyote_Cactus

Previous posts about mountain laurel and moon flower round out this short series on plant helpers of the Lower Pecos.

 

Rock Art Foundation

Rock Art Foundation tour to White Shaman Shelter on the Pecos River

Rock Art Foundation tour to White Shaman Shelter on the Pecos River

My guest today is Greg Williams, Executive Director of the Rock Art Foundation, which promotes conservation and education about the rock art of the Lower Pecos.  The Rock Art Foundation owns the White Shaman Preserve and offers tours there every Saturday.  To learn more, please see their website at www.rockart.org.

Greg Williams, Ex. Director, Rock Art Foundation

Greg Williams, Ex. Director, Rock Art Foundation

Hi Greg, thank you for being with us today. How long have you been with the Rock Art Foundation (RAF)?

It’s been about 20 years.  I first met Jim Zintgraff in 1993 – I had hired him to do a photo shoot in my business – so it’s been almost 20 years since I first became involved with the RAF.

Jim Zintgraff was a photographer, right?

Yes, he was a commercial photographer in San Antonio.  But in the early 1950s he started photographing rock art west of Del Rio, which was mostly unknown by the general public at the time because it was all on private land.  When the state of Texas decided to build Amistad Dam on the Rio Grande around 1963, Jim was commissioned to document many of the ancient pictographs that would be inundated with the filling of the lake. His images preserve this great legacy from the past.  Later Jim organized the Rock Art Foundation to continue this work.

What do you want the general public to understand about the ancient Image 5paintings in the Lower Pecos?

How important the art was to the people that left their stories for us to consider and what they could mean to us. The people who painted them had to be first concerned with survival in a harsh land but they took time from that to paint their mythology which was as important to them as their survival.

What is the biggest thrill you had with RAF?

Every trip I make to West Texas is a thrill. The country, the archaeology, the modern military and settler history, the tour participants – all are thrilling. Each time. It would be impossible to single out only one. I am as excited every time I go – just like the first trip.

Have you had any close encounters with snakes or other creatures of the wild?

Not many – we travel in a group and make a lot of noise. Most critters are long gone before we get there. It’s very hard to sneak up on a desert creature – most are nocturnal. In 30+ years of being in West Texas I’ve probably seen less that 5 rattlesnakes but we did see a mountain lion a few years ago at Meyers Springs. She was most likely tending to a hurt cub or we would have never seen her.

RAF Bunkhouse at White Shaman Preserve

RAF Bunkhouse at White Shaman Preserve

Besides tours of rock art sites in the Lower Pecos, what else does RAF do?

We are currently providing scholarships to the Shumla School in Comstock (associated with Texas State University) and outstanding seniors at the Comstock High School. We work with Landowners assisting in conservation efforts – in a recent example we contracted with Texas Tech University to provide a complete assessment of the prehistoric and historic cultural resources on a West Texas ranch for a new Landowner. The RAF keeps funds in reserve to protect endangered property through acquisition if needed.

We are also involved with restoration efforts on private ranches and are the official “Friends Group” for Seminole Canyon State Park helping them by conducting their weekend tours. The RAF operates a tour guide program with 15 experienced/trained Guides and we work with Landowners to develop access for this program (there is no BLM land in Texas – it’s all private property).

We also assist in research funding helping to defray the cost of field research and assist with publication funding. We have published our own book and CD ROM on Lower Pecos archaeology as well as the development and continued support of our website and have just established an electronic newsletter.

We also stage an annual fundraiser campout, the Rock Art Rendezvous, each October at Image 6the White Shaman Preserve and offer as many tours as possible that weekend. All these efforts are focused toward the preservation through education of the unique world class archaeology in West Texas. Our funding is all provided through private donations. We operate very efficiently – no one in our organization receives a salary.

Any advice for people new to exploring Lower Pecos rock art?

Yes – go to West Texas and listen to the country. Look at what appears around you and sit quietly. Be there at a sunrise, a sunset, sit beside the campfire – it will change you. If you’ve never been there it will introduce you to a part of yourself you didn’t know.

Thanks for being with us today, Greg.

Moon Flower: Plant Helpers of the Lower Pecos, Part II

IMG_1401

Moon flower, one of  the triumvirate of powerful helping plants in the ancient Lower Pecos, is known by many names: Jimson weed, loco weed, datura, stink weed, thorne apple and devil’s weed, to mention the most common.  These plants are members of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, which claims over 2,500 species such as potatoes, eggplants, and tomatoes. Datura stramonium, or moon flower, is a fragrant night-blooming plant that grows wild all over the world, including the Lower Pecos, and can cause delirium, anxiety, hallucinations, stupor, coma and death.

The plants contain the tropane alkaloids– atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine. These alkaloids have many uses in modern medicine, but also serious side effects. Atropine interferes with activity in the brain stem, ranging from motor impairment to rapid heart beat, to overheating of the body. Internal bleeding and stroke can occur. Scopolamine and hyoscyamine are also sometime known as  “zombie drugs” because of the delirium and unpleasant hallucinations they can cause.

Spiny seed pods

Spiny seed pods

The seeds and leaves are the most potent, but all parts of the plant are toxic.  Uncomfortable effects generally begin 20-30 minutes after ingestion. Effects can  last from eight hours to three days.

Many researchers agree that ancient people of the Lower Pecos used moon flower, or datura, as a plant helper to converse with the ancestors and gods.  Their shaman were undoubtedly familiar with the plant and learned to dose themselves and others carefully to prevent dire reactions.  Some images in rock art have been interpreted as datura seed pods.

Spiny dots could be datura pods

Spiny dots could be datura pods

The Hopi used this plant for divination purposes, and Carlos Castaneda wrote about it in his famous book from 1968 The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. In the European Middle Ages, the  deadly nightshade known as belladonna was often used in magical brews.

A large moon flower plant grew at the base of our back door steps when I was a child. I was fascinated by the aromatic flowers that bloomed as the summer twilight deepened ,  and I wanted to pluck them for my hair.  But my mother always cautioned me strongly not to even touch the plant, and especially never to eat it. (It was not unknown for us kids to eat a little grass with our mud pies, but then, those were simpler days, when kids made up their own games outdoors.)

There must have been a note of truth and urgency in my mother’s voice when she cautioned me, for I obeyed her on this. And I was not known for being obedient.

Once my grandfather and I were riding horseback through a field when we came upon a moon flower plant.  I still remember the sharp distaste my grandfather conveyed as he said, “Don’t let the horse get into that!  That’s loco weed.  Now I have to get out here and get rid of it.”

I asked why he didn’t want the horse to nibble it, and he said, “because it will make him loco, crazy.  Don’t let him get into it, and don’t you touch it!”  And we quickly turned the other way.P1040172

The Center for Disease Control reports a number of datura or moon flower intoxications over the past few years which resulted in trips to  emergency rooms and admission to intensive care units. In one case, a family accidentally ate datura leaves in a stew, thinking it was an edible wild herb. Six members of the family were taken to the hospital, two of them unconscious.

Moon flower is not regulated in any way in the United States, even though it can cause severe reactions. It carries no warning signs in gardens or in the wild. Archaic people knew the power of this plant, after generations of dangerous trial and error.  Modern people should be aware that even one seed is poisonous and can cause severe discomfort.

The ancient people of the Lower Pecos used all parts of their environemnt, including toxic hallucinogenic plants. A  post in January discussed mountain laurel in Part 1 of this series, and an article on peyote is coming in March.  Nature is beautiful and complicated, as we learn over and over again. Four thousand years ago in the canyon lands near the Pecos River and the Rio Grande, the people knew this well.

Snake Story: Life and Death in a Bedrock Pool

Bedrock Pool in Seminole Canyon

Bedrock Pool in Seminole Canyon

I’m pleased to introduce my guest blogger today, Jack Johnson, park archeologist for the Amistad National Recreation Area near Del Rio, Texas.

Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson

Thanks for joining us today Jack.  I’ll bet you run into snakes frequently as you hike the area around Lake Amistad, either in the course of your work or recreationally.   Ever see any rattlesnakes?

Weirdly, most of my rattlesnake stories involve trying to capture and relocate snakes that have placed themselves in the path to a restroom or latrine, and in one case done so repeatedly over several days.

Well, I’m glad that’s your job, not mine. What’s your favorite story about a snake?

Well, those rattlers were not especially big ones, nobody came close to being bitten, and this will not be that story.  The snake that features in my most memorable herpetological happenstance was small, non-venomous, and was not a threat to anybody. In fact, it couldn’t hurt a bug.

Please explain.

One day I was leading a hike in Seminole Canyon State Park, down the dry canyon in the direction of its eventual confluence with the Rio Grande.  We had passed Fate Bell shelter, the impressively large and pictograph-adorned rockshelter visited by the park’s daily tours.  We were on our way to a major side-canyon called Presa Canyon, on an all-day trek that allows park visitors to explore the otherwise off-limits canyon bottoms and to experience more of the striking landscape and ancient rock art of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands. We walked over smoothly sculpted bedrock, and past two of the small permanent springs that would have provided Fate Bell shelter’s nomadic inhabitants with fresh drinking water for thousands of years.  These canyon floors also have many other bedrock pools that are not spring fed, but because they are shaded part of the day by high canyon walls they can hold water for weeks after seasonal rains.  The pools are an oasis in this semi-arid land and magnets for wildlife.  They are home to countless insect larvae, tadpoles, and other aquatic critters and are frequented by deer, raccoons, birds, and just about every other animal out here.

Folks on tours often ask me about snakes, and inquisitors generally fall into two very different groups.  The first group asks with trepidation, and if I told them there was a good chance that they would see a rattler during their visit to the park, I think some of them would go straight back to their RVs and drive until they thought it was safe to step outside again. The second group asks eagerly, and often these are snake hunters — either herpetology students or collectors or people in the pet trade — and we have to keep an eye on them as they often try to poach snakes from the park.

I tell the tour that here in the canyon bottoms they are most likely to see ribbon snakes, small and harmless relatives of garter snakes. These are pretty little snakes, almost black with bright orange and yellow stripes running from head to tail. The ones I see are usually about the diameter of a pencil and maybe 18 inches long.  They live in and around the pools, where they eat the tadpoles and such.  I tell people that if they think they are afraid of snakes, it goes the other way too and they should just see the urgency with which a ribbon snake tries to be anywhere else when beset by two-dozen enthralled elementary school kids on a field-trip.  I tell them that if we approach each pool quietly, we may get to see one, and possibly frogs and other critters.

I had just finished so introducing the ribbon when we came around a corner and saw some commotion in the next pool down the canyon. A small snake was writhing furiously, locked in combat with something.   I assumed that a ribbon snake had caught a frog or something that had more fight in it than the snake had bargained for.  I was reminded of that cartoon of the frog with its hands around the neck of the water bird that is trying to eat it, with the caption “Don’t give up!”   I’d never actually seen a ribbon snake feeding before, so I got out my camera and tried to think what David Attenborough would say.

Beetle attacking ribbon snake

Beetle attacking ribbon snake

As we got closer to the pool it became clear that the ribbon snake was not the predator here but the prey.  A diving beetle, perhaps an inch and a half long, had a firm grip behind the unfortunate snake’s head with its pincers.  Whenever the snake struggled to free itself, the beetle’s legs would unfurl and it would ride out the thrashing like a bull-rider, eventually wrestling the snake into submission.  The beetle’s legs then folded back against its body, and it once more looked exactly like a floating brown leaf instead of the terrifying and thankfully small creature that it is.  I had seen pictures before of diving beetles grasping little minnows, but this snake was nearly a foot long! Also, still

Struggle between beetle and ribbon snake

Struggle between beetle and ribbon snake

photos of a diving beetle nibbling on an already dead minnow did nothing to capture the violence of the life and death struggle going on in the pool before us.

Diving beetles grasp and stab their prey with huge, hollow piercing pincers that they also use to suck out their prey’s juices.  When diving, they carry a supply of air with them under their wing covers, like scuba tanks. They can fly.  I thought of Starship Troopers, and was very, VERY glad that diving beetles don’t get big enough to be a threat to people. I would never go near the water again! No thanks, I’ll stick with predators that aren’t so terrifying.  Like big gosh-darned rattlers.

Thanks for telling us this fascinating story, Jack.  And, uh, watch where you step.

Mescal Beans: Plant Helpers of the Lower Pecos, Part I

mt. laurel flowers

These lovely flowers of the Mountain Laurels so familiar in many parts of Texas belie their past ritual usage for  archaic people of the Lower Pecos and many other historic Native American groups. These flowers produce the potent “mescal bean,” which causes nausea, convulsions and even death when ingested. Mountain Laurels are one of three powerful plants abundant in the Lower Pecos that were used ceremonially by ancient peoples to gain visions, talk to ancestors, cure sickness, or fill other important needs.  Articles about datura and peyote,  two other potent plant helpers of the Lower Pecos are planned in the coming months.

Sophora secundiflora grows wild in the dry limestone country of south Texas, and it is often used as an ornamental shrub in urban and suburban settings. The fragrant flowers are a favorite of bees. However the pretty red beans they produce are highly toxic.

P1040493

 When eaten, even as little as half a bean can cause  nausea and vomiting, dilation of the pupils, tachycardia [excessive rapidity and irregularity of the heart-beat] followed by dizziness, mental confusion, muscular incoordination and weakness, and convulsions; in addition respiratory paralysis may occur leading to death by paralysis, according to  Martindales Extra Pharmacopoeia p 1746.

Parents and teachers should warn children of the dangers of these tempting beans, which often fall from their pods onto sidewalks and backyards.  If a young child ate even one bean, it could be fatal. Seeds contain the highly toxic narcotic alkaloid sophorine, or cystisine; don’t be fooled–they do not contain mescaline and have no relation whatsoever to the alcoholic drink called mescal.  If you suspect someone has ingested mescal beans or Mountain Laurel, take that person to the hospital emergency room immediately.

Archeologists theorize that ancient people in the Lower Pecos used this drug in ceremonies to cleanse the bodies and souls of the participants (though severe vomiting) before undertaking other trials such as vision quests. Ancient mescal beans  have been found in a number of dry rock shelters that were occupied by people in that area 4000 or more years ago, and the plants are common in the area today. The beans were included in charms and amulets, made into necklaces or other adornments, or used as parts of other shamanistic regalia.P1040501

      In a 1957  issue of American Anthropologist, James Howard described mescal bean cults among the Apache, Comanche, Delaware, Iowa, Kansa, Omaha, Oto, Osage, Pawnee, Ponca, Tonkawa, and Wichita tribes. The bean was regarded as a powerful fetish and used in ceremonies similar to those for peyote. One Apache man said “Go ahead, eat that bean. You can do miracles, jump right up and out the top of the tipi.”  You probably will jump up if you try this–but you will run to the toilet instead of through the smoke hole of the tipi.

Alanson Skinner described the effects of the mescal bean on participants in 1926.  He said that “everything looks red to the drinker for a while, then he vomits, and evacuates the bowels.”   The toxic effect also causes a feeling of stupor, which some have confused with hallucination.  The majority of literature on mescal beans, however, does not indicate much in the way of hallucinations. Many of us have suffered a hangover at some time in our lives.  It is not the same thing as “tripping” back in the 1960s.

Among the Wichita, medicine men used to administer mescal beans to spiritual novices, causing them to throw up and become unconscious.  The sharp jaw of a gar fish was then raked across the novice’s naked body to test his ability to withstand pain. This ceremony also served to ritually remove evil influences and promote good health, long life and general prosperity (Dorsey, 1904).

Native plants were used in many ways by ancient peoples, but this is one plant better admired from afar.

Sotol Fire Drill

Sotol Fire Drill

Survivalists! Ready to start a fire?  This short slideshow explains how to make a make a successful fire using a fire drill made from a sotol stalk.  First, select a dry sotol stalk.  Sotol grows all over central and west Texas from about Waco to Mexico.  Cut two sections, each about two feet long, from below the flowering head of the stalk.  Whittle a little off two opposite sides of the larger piece to use as a hearth stick. Make the hearth stick flat on two sides.  Then smooth the remaining piece perfectly round, and gently round the small end.  Make a notch in the hearth stick as a guide for the first drill hole.

Place dry grass under the hearth stick to start the spark. Hold the hearth stick steady by placing a booted foot on it. Set the spindle stick in the notch on the hearth stick. Twist the spindle between your palms under a wisp of smoke appears.  With a gentle, steady breath, blow on the base of the spindle a little bit. Twist the spindle faster and faster between your palms as necessary.  Blow gently on the dry grass and smoke as necessary.  When you achieve ignition, carefully remove the hearth stick and spindle, and gently fold the dry grass over in your palms as you pick it up.  Carry it to the kindling and wood you have already stacked for your fire and place the spark gently amongst the kindling.  Blow gently again as necessary to ignite the kindling.

The process is demonstrated here by Texas State University students from San Marcos, Texas, at a recent archeological research site in the Lower Pecos.  I am grateful to Vickie Munoz, president of the Texas State Experimental Archeology Club, and Peter Shipman  for sharing their expertise with us.

Similar fire drills can be made using yucca stalk instead, and possibly lechugilla, although I haven’t seen one of those yet.  Let me know if you have experience with lechugilla in this way.  I suspect it would work just fine.

This is one way to use a sotol plant, to get you started on the challenge I issued several days ago.  I’m still look forward to your ideas for ways to use this versatile plant.  Please leave your suggestions in the comments section below.

Halo Shelter Paintings

I’ve just returned from another wonderful trip to the Lower Pecos region of south Texas where I had the good fortune of seeing these magnificent ancient paintings.  Their color is vivid even now, 4000 years or more since their creation.  The gold anthropomorph struck me as especially well-preserved. My quivering legs were my souvenir of the rugged climb in and out of the canyon where these paintings are located.  I had to climb straight down–and then straight up– hand over hand on a rope. But luckily not too far.  It was only after we had arrived in the shelter that my guide told me of the rattlesnake that had been there a few days before.

Do not attempt to find these paintings yourself.  They are on private land with no roads.  But do find amazement in what the ancient people who came before us thought, created, and left for us to ponder. No doubt these figures express profound stories and understandings of the world that we may never fully comprehend.

Yet they tell us of their lives and dreams, their gods and heroes, their world and ours.

If you do have the privilege  of seeing such rock art with your own eyes, I hope you will do everything you can to protect it as the world treasure it is.

36 Hours in the Lower Pecos

The Lower Pecos region in south Texas doesn’t look like much as you drive west on highway 90 from Del Rio.  Dry, dull grey or brown, nothing but creosote and cactus.  Even Lake Amistad, built by damming the Rio Grande, looks like dry bones after years of severe drought. Long distance trucks fly by without a glance on their way to El Paso or LA.  But with over 300 aboriginal petroglyph sites deep in the canyons, this hidden gem holds wonders topped by nothing else in the world, much less in North America.

Rugged canyons protect world-class rock art from over 4000 years ago.  Most of these treasures of human creation are on private property with no public access.  But several sites are owned by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Rock Art Foundation, which offer tours for the adventurous to selected  locations.

Del Rio, Texas, makes a good base for a visit, with plenty of cheap hotels, restaurants, and bars. Just a short drive away a new world opens up, when you take the time to see.

Friday  6 p.m.

1. Fortifying Your Belly

Have dinner  at Wright’s Steak House, a family-owned spot in business more than 30 years.  The bartender/owner will make you a margarita to soothe your soul, or anything else you like from the full bar.  Order the fried onion rings as an appetizer for about $5.95, but don’t bother asking for a half-order.  They just won’t do it.  You’ll be delighted with the towering plate of golden rings anyway, and they are perfect for sharing with four people.  Excellent steaks are $15-25.00, with full salad bar and vegetables of the day. Be sure to see the year-round Christmas tree. It had big pastel bows, silk  flowers,  and colored Easter grass the last time I was there.  Live music on weekends. Wright’s is located about 8 miles west of Del Rio on highway 90.

 Saturday, 9:00 a.m.

2. Prepping Your Senses and Sensibilities

Leave Del Rio about 9:00 and drive about 60 miles west of Del Rio on Highway 90 to Langtry, population 30, clinging to a spectacular golden side canyon on the Rio Grande. Visit the Chihuahuan desert botanical garden at the Texas Highway Department Visitor Center to learn about the many uses of desert plants.  Then wander through the Judge Roy Bean Saloon and Opera House. Judge Roy Bean billed himself as the “Law West of the Pecos” in the 1880s-90s, and was infatuated with the English singer Lily Langtry, thus the name.

The Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railway used to stop here to take on more fuel and water.  A small community grew up around the stop to service the train, and a few people took up ranching on the side. Judge Roy Bean ran the saloon and served as Justice of the Peace.  He also sponsored boxing matches and kept a pet bear.

Drive down the streets in Langtry to see the crumbling adobe ruins from over 100 years ago.    The old white school house from the 1920s now serves as the community center.   That and the church where services are held about once every three weeks are all that remain of the village.  Drive to the end of the pavement, and proceed carefully on the gravel road to glimpse the majestic canyon.  You will need four-wheel drive to go very far, so take it easy. Prepare to leave Langtry by 11:15 for the drive back east on highway 90. Just before you cross a little bridge that says “Eagle Nest”, pull off on the wide shoulder.

Take a good look at the canyon in front of you.  Turn your head slightly to the right to see a cleft in the canyon edge across from you, and a big tumbled rock pile.  That is Bonfire shelter, location of several spectacular bison jumps during the past 10,000 years. Do not even think of going down there.  It is private property (patrolled by shotgun) and extremely dangerous. Instead, read all about it at www.texasbeyondhistory.net/bonfire/index.html.

As soon as you cross the Pecos River high bridge, turn left into the White Shaman Preserve. Stop at the gate if it is not open and wait for the guide.

12:00 noon

3. White Shaman Shelter

Arrive White Shaman Preserve gate by noon. Eat the sandwiches and apples you brought and put on your hiking boots, preferably  with two pairs of socks.  Slather on the sunscreen and bug spray. Adjust your hiking sticks.  Get your hat and sunglasses, and pack plenty of water. Tours start promptly at 12:30 every Saturday, no reservations needed.  Donations of $20 cash per person are appropriate.

White Shaman Preserve is owned by the Rock Art Foundation (www.rockart.org), which vigilantly protects the property. The ancient rock art here is world-famous, and justly so. New research is currently on the verge of breaking the iconographic  code to understand what the artists from long ago were telling us in this panel.

An informed guide leads each tour.  The climb down into and up out of the canyon is moderately steep, and it can be very hot.  It is not recommended for those in poor health or with mobility issues.  The tour generally takes about two and one-half hours.

4:00 p.m.

4. Cool off in the Pool

This being hot desert country, almost any Del Rio hotel you stay in will have a pool.  The Ramada Inn’s two pools (indoor and outdoor) and three hot tubs are highly recommended.  Plunge into the cool water to lower your body temperature, then soak your bones in a hot tub.  Your muscles will thank you. Next, time for a nap in your dark air-conditioned room.

7:00 p.m.

5. Dinner Again at Wright’s

This is the best place to eat I have found in Del Rio.  Try the chicken fried steak with real homemade mashed potatoes and gravy or the  16 oz. garlic encrusted ribeye.  Really good. They also have fish, quail, and frog legs.

If it is dark when you come out, and the sky is clear, look up.  The Milky Way spreads out like heaven itself here in the desert. Better yet, drive further out of town and find a side road to park on.  Then stretch out on the hood of your car and drink in the night sky.

Sunday

8:00 a.m.

6. Canyon of the Winged Anthropomorphs

Leave Del Rio by 8:00 a.m. for the 40 mile drive west on highway 90 to Seminole Canyon State Park (432-292-4464). Pay your entrance fee and tour fee of about $8.00 per person.  Wander the small but well done museum that explains human life from the  Paleolithic era to the present in this area. Listen to the explanation of rock art and watch the informative video while overlooking the canyon.  Put on your hiking boots, etc., use the restroom, and meet on the back deck at 9:55 for the tour to Fate Bell Shelter. Entrance to the canyon is by guided tour only.

Tours leave Wednesday-Sunday at 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. from September through May, and 10:00 a.m. only June through August. If you are lucky you will get an informed guide, but sometimes you get an intern that is pretty green, so you never know.  The hike in and especially out is moderately strenuous and very hot. Carry water with you. Do not put your hands and feet anywhere you cannot see, i.e. in rock crevices.  That’s where rattlesnakes like to hang out.

You will see two rock shelters on this tour, the largest of which is named Fate Bell, for the rancher who once owned the property.  Fate Bell is a huge rock shelter where 30 people or more could have lived comfortably.  And live they did, as evidenced by the sotol matting still visible in the disturbed cave dust floor.  Stay on the rubber mats put down by the park service at all times in order to prevent further damage. Flint flakes are everywhere on the floor as well, but do not be tempted to take them with you.  Look but don’t touch.  Please.

Fate Bell shelter is inspiring now, and must have been almost overpowering 4000 years ago.  Notice how the paint goes all the way down below the current floor level.  It probably continues down several feet, but we may never know, as any archeological digging would likely destroy the art that can be seen today.  It’s a real dilemma that frustrates many a concerned person.  The paintings cover the entire expanse in this shelter, so look carefully as you go. 

The brightest and best preserved grouping is the “winged shaman” at the left end of the shelter.  No one really knows their meaning, but they are powerful images, nonetheless.

12:00 noon

7. The Joy of Running Water

When the tour is over, you will likely be covered in sweat, so drive up to the campground and take a shower to cool off.  Hot and cold running, courtesy of the Texas state parks. Put on clean clothes. Believe me, you will feel much better.  Then eat the sandwiches you brought (you did, didn’t you?) and drink plenty of liquid. This is the time for that bottle of Gatorade.

1:00 p.m.

8. Pecos River Overlook

Leave Seminole Canyon State Park and turn left onto, you guessed it, highway 90.  Within about 2 miles you will see a sign for a scenic overlook.  Turn left there and wind around past the old mobile homes.  You will come to a roadside park with a magnificent overlook of the Pecos River.  The view is spectacular.  Look far to the left to see the conjunction of the Pecos and the Rio Grande.  From here, it’s time for the journey home, or to continue on your way.  Happy Highways!

If You Go

The Ramada Inn Del Rio, 2101 Veteran’s Blvd (aka highway 90), 78840, 830-775-1511, www.ramadinndelrio.com is a good hotel with two swimming pools, three hot tubs, an excellent gym, dining room, etc.  A room with two queen beds is about $60.00 per night.  There are many other inexpensive motels along this strip, as well as lots of chain eateries.  The Wal-Mart is one of the best-supplied I’ve ever seen, and is great for that forgotten sunscreen or hat.