Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Saskatoon Circle Report

Gathering to share the time honored traditions of all human ancestors, primitive skill experts and enthusiasts came together this week to celebrate foods, crafts, and skills that are intimately imbedded in a variety of earthen landscapes. The Methow Valley on the eastern flank of the North Cascades was our meeting place, and when the air wasn’t thick with the smoke of nearby wildfires, the warm vanilla aroma of Ponderosa Pine wafted through our peaceful camp.

I was invited to the conference to lead ethnobotanical walks (as a second rate substitute for Nancy Turner) and shared what I could of a valley that was brimming with food plants. On the drier west facing slopes we plucked a few remaining Saskatoons (Amelanchier alnifolia) that were dried on the bush, dug under the withered leaves of Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) to expose its resin scented anchor, and plucked the plump hips of Rose (Rosa spp.). A seep on the east facing slope gave rise to a lone Blue Elderberry (Sambucus cerulea) and abundantly fruiting Chokecherries (Prunus virginiana). Finally, the Ponderosa Pine and Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) in the valley bottom gave me a chance to talk about the many forms of edible cambium in the Pacific Northwest. From what I hear, the area is brimming with Bitterroots (Lewisia rediviva), Biscuitroots (Lomatium spp.), Mountain Potatoes (Claytonia lanceolata), and Yellow Bells (Fritillaria pudica) in the spring, but all lay dormant under the cool soil to avoid the scorching late summer heat.

When I wasn’t babbling about botanicals, I did my best to take advantage of the wonderful workshops hosted by the other instructors. I brought a Yew (Taxus brevifolia) wood bow that I have been working on for a while and eagerly received instruction on how to complete it from bow making master Jose. Benjamin taught me how to bark tan fish skin. I occasionally looked over the shoulder of Jill as he scraped the membrane off of deer hides.

There were far too many activities to take in over the course of a single week. Workshops included several types of basket weaving, felting, back-strap loom weaving, flint knapping, animal processing, friction fire making, shelter making, gourd bowl making, and leather working, as well as pottery, archery, and many more.

Lynx shared a short movie about her Stone Age Project in which she takes a small group of people out into the wilderness for three weeks without metal, plastic, or anything else that they haven’t made or harvested themselves from the wild. I have found that many folks that teach primitive skills lack much knowledge of edibles, but Lynx really impressed me with her knowledge and regular use of wild plant foods. I similarly found kindred spirits in the organizers, Cameron and Eric. With luck I will get to join them all next year to harvest spring roots and the mid-summer Saskatoons.

For me, the high points of the Saskatoon Circle came every evening when the light faded and cool temperatures brought us, with outstretched palms to the central campfire. Personalities ranged from the deeply rooted to the radically nomadic, but we all embraced impassioned conversation on sustainable living and outdoor adventure.

Though I was called away early (to another conference of a similar ilk) I look forward to next year’s gathering and staying in touch with my new circle of Saskatoon friends.
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