Monday, August 18, 2014

Chapter 19

“Well, for no practice that was much better than I expected.  You must be quite good when you have the time to limber.” 

I shrugged.  “Papa was a Guard.  He could have asked that the church provide our meat but he said if one of us was capable the meat that the Brothers brought in should go to feed those that couldn’t hunt for themselves.  I had no brothers or male cousins so I helped Papa see to our family and that included my grandmother after my grandfather flew away with the angels.” 

“No one said anything?  We have women in the village that hunt, some that even enjoy hunting, but most prefer to leave it to the men.  There are a few females that look down on the ones that hunt.” 

“The Sisters learned to tolerate it when they found that I always took the extra that I brought in to the church kitchen.  I did the same with fish I caught.  Papa said being generous was no skin off our nose and prevented complaints.” 

Gid chuckled.  “Well, you’ll hear no complaints from me.  I’m more than willing to share that duty.  There is work enough for us both to get ready for winter.  And seeing you shoot also means that I feel better about you roaming around.  I would ask that until I can take you further afield and show you the landmarks that you stay within sight of the cabin.” 

I told him, “It will be as you say.” 

“Very good.” 

I gathered the arrows from the target I had used, put them in the quiver I slung over my shoulder, and then took a basket and went into the woods surrounding the cabin to look and see what I could find.  Immediately I spotted a veritable Eden of edible plants.  The trees alone could sustain a tribe of people if managed carefully. 

There were spruce trees dotting the landscape.  The Brothers made a kind of unfermented beer that was a treat for Sabbath meals.  When I was a small child I liked it better than candy.  As I grew and Old Annie gave me lessons I learned that spruce beer helps to prevent scurvy, a great problem in some communities.  In the spring time the inner bark of the spruce tree can be collected, dried, and then ground into meal for extending other grain flours. 

Then there were the fir trees.  The cones from the fir tree can be ground into a fine powder and mixed with lard and then cooled until it hardened.  The Sisters would serve this at special meals when we had important guests or were ordaining missionaries to go out into the field.  It was considered a delicacy that helped to aid in digestion with the unusually large meals and rich food served at banquets.  The inner bark of the balsam fir was just as useful as the same from the spruce tree.  It was gathered, dried, and ground to extend flour and meal supplies. 

Douglas firs hid another treat.  On hot, sunny days we children were allowed to collect and eat the white crystals of sugar that would appear on the needle tips.  In our area it happened so rarely that we were given special breaks from school or chores to take advantage of the event.  The needles of the Douglas fir can be used as a tea or morning brew though Papa preferred grain and seed based brew. 

I spotted a grove of hemlocks and it reminded me that Wash’s head barkeep was partial to an odd meal that his woman had taught me to fix while she was down from birthing a babe.  You scrape the inner bark of the trunk and then bake or steam it.  When it came out and while it was still warm and soft, it would get pressed into cakes.  The man ate this with fish oil most of the time but cranberries when he could get them from the northwest tribes.  I tasted it and it filled the belly but glad I was he was so jealous of the mix that letting a female have any was a rare occurrence.  Hemlock tea is nice when you can use fresh needles and the small branch tips can be used like a vegetable if they are cooked with meat. 

When I stood on a boulder that was likely thrown there during the Dark Days when the volcanoes threw things from the sky for great distances since there was no similar type rock anywhere near to it I could see off in the distance at a lower elevation a forest of pines.  I knew from their size that they were either redwood or ponderosa and by the coloring of their bark I was fairly certain they were ponderosa.  The cones of the ponderosa give oil-rich seeds that are edible.  The seeds can be ground into meal, and we’ve been so short of flour at times that I’ve done it, but most folks dislike the extra work and simply eat the seeds whole. 

As lovely as the ponderosa’s looked they brought to mind why Wash always made sure to travel through a forest of them when he could.  It was not a good memory.  The bar girls made a tea from chopped needles and drank it when they thought they might be with babe so that they’d lose it.  The truth of the matter is that they doctored themselves with it about once a month just to be sure.  Wash forbid it being more than once a month when he lost a girl ‘cause she poisoned herself by drinking too much of the pine tea.  With the ponderosa that is an easy thing to do.  Even cows will abort their calves if they eat ponderosa or so the cattle drivers claimed. 

Closer to the trail I was walking around the homesite I found birch trees.  Just like with many other trees, the sweet inner bark could be ground into a powder to make a type of bread.  But with the birch you could also add it to soups or stews as a kind of filler.  The young leaves and catkins of the tree can be added for flavoring to salads, cooked vegetables, and meat dishes.  The most common use of the tree however was to collect the sap during the early spring when it warmed during the day but still froze at night, and then boil that to make a syrup.  We did the same when I was a child but we used maple trees.  Birch syrup and maple syrup taste similar yet different and both are sweet.  The few times I had seen birch syrup being made it seemed to take much more sap to make a syrup than what I remember of the maple.  It was a pricey item in the Buy ‘n Sells and one Aunt Giselle refused to spend her coins on because she said it was rich man’s fare and generally only traded at places we couldn’t gain admittance to. 

On a piece of escarpment in a different direction from the ponderosas I saw aspen trees.  Even so far away I knew it was aspens from the white and silver color of the tree bark.  The slum kids could strip a grove of aspens quicker than you would believe.  They tear out the inner bark and eat it raw.  And the older ones taught the younger to eat the leaf buds and young catkins as they would keep away the dreaded scurvy.  I’d tried it myself once and could barely bring myself to swallow because of the bitter taste.  Had I been starving I would have forced myself, but only if nothing else was available. 

As I walked the land, staying in sight of the cabin, I tried to put to memory all I was seeing.  I knew that Gid wanted me to be a thinking slave; he’d all but said so when we’d been below stairs, and I was determined not to disappoint him.  Using the old names of the months rather than just calling seasons, we were into July.  The nights grew cool in the foothills and I know for many it was time to turn their hands to preparing for harvest time.  My problem was that as a traveler rather than as a steady resident, I was unsure of what and when there was to harvest in the area that the cabin was in.  As far as I could remember it was not an area that Wash had ever followed the caravans into. 

I recognized many plants but I did not know how long I would have access to the fresh greens and I was not sure what in this area could be set aside for the cold months.  Just then I spotted fresh mulie scat.  The hooves showed several of good size and the greenery in the tracks was trying to spring back up so I knew they could not be far off as I hadn’t heard anything running in the brush that surrounded me on all sides.  I began to carefully track what would give us good meat and was practically on top of them before I expected to be.  Their white rumps faced me and the wind was just right; they had no idea I had them in my sight. 

Then it happened.  Less than half a breath after I released my arrow a powerful beast lept from the tree above the deer.

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