Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Missing Video

Okay, here’s the second video that was missing from my post yesterday. Finally sorted out what the problem was. I tried to get fancy and close in tight on the clip toward the end, with all the minnows swimming upstream, and that was throwing my crappy video-editing software off.  So I guess you’ll just have to imagine what they would look like close up. Although I didn’t talk about it at the time, what these minnows are doing is a fairly significant phenological event. There’s an endless stream of them moving upriver right now. I’ve often considered netting them for a half-hour or so in this season, drying them out, grinding them up, and making fish-balls with them, for soups and such. I think the only reason I haven’t done so is because I’m a little concerned about the parasites they might carry in their guts, and it’s not like they can be cleaned. But I don’t know… this kind of concern doesn’t affect me with a lot of other foods, and I often drink untreated water straight from puddles and streams. I think it’s good to build up a diverse microbial community inside my body. I mean, isn’t it odd that all the other animals can get by drinking this water, but our constitution is somehow too weak to do so?

Anyway… here it is. Again, there are no ‘martial arts’ per say in this video, but it is very much about MY kung fu. At some point, I will try to articulate my thoughts on this matter a bit more clearly than I do here, though I’m sure you’ll get the gist. A huge part of my life is wrapped up in the active (i.e. not literature-based) study of local ecology, and how to be a part of that as a real human being. My challenge at present is to find a comfortable merge between this engagement with the total reality, and my affection for unarmed (or spontaneously armed) combat arts. Both passions hit me at age twelve, and I have yet to learn how to balance or weave them. There’s an obvious confluence in the area of diet and nutrition. But I think it can be more than that. In fact, I find it very interesting that the weapons of traditional martial arts are often also the tools of hunting and harvest. I’m also interested in styles of fighting that are explicitly influenced by observations of animals. This is very much aligned with my general perspective, which is that one’s way of life should be learned-from and fit-in-with the other species we co-exist with. Perhaps my ultimate response to Sifu’s challenge, to be an artist rather than a collector, will be to develop my own practices inspired by the animals of my immediate region. We shall see. But in any case, urban or rural, I highly recommend getting interested in the foods that naturally occur near your home. The plants and animals are waiting for us to behave like humans again.

Some photographs I took along the way...

Viceroy Butterfly On Golden Currant

Mama Oriole

Fledgling Oriole

Pale Snakeskin Dragonfly On Alfalfa


  1. Beautiful, I love the post! How the heck do you find all this time to train out in nature?! Are you retired, doesn't your wife get mad? I would love to be closer to nature like you are, hunting your own food, training, & just relaxing. I feel like I don't belong in the city, but in the same token, maybe I am meant to be here so that I can reach out to more people within this hectic environment.

  2. The trick to it, from what I've learned, is to totally follow your passions, even when it makes you incredibly poor. With that as my strategy, it turned out that I made a few really wise investments... not financial investments, but experiential ones (I just had to give up any hope of having 'finances' for about thirteen years). The result is that I've now built what I love to do into a career. I work at a tribal college, so I only get paid about a third of what I might by working for a university. But on the other hand, everything is synergized. I can take a day like this almost any time I want, and approach it as preparation for the ecology and traditional foods courses I teach year-round. I have a lot of creative control in my life. I pretty much won't settle for anything less

    As for my wife, she's almost as in love with being outdoors as I am. The only thing is that her condition limits how much she can handle in one stint. She can't walk around or stand for hours on end like I can, so she comes out with me during the evenings, and we'll just walk for a little while, then find a place to sit and watch the animals. She also has a long-time interest in martial arts. She grew up with judo, before the rheumatoid stuff hit her. One of my earliest memories of her, before we were married, was the time I drove her to a taikwondo lesson. I had only intended to wait on the sidelines, but her instructor wanted me to get in and participate. About half way through the class session, he got all the students sparring, then wanted to spar with me himself. It ended up kind of embarrassing for him, but I guess it made an impression on the girl I was after :)

  3. By the way, urban environments are actually really thick with nature. I know some naturalists in Manhattan who get to witness far more than their friends who live in the rural areas of New York. Birds especially love cities. And there's a lot of natural food to be had as well. There are several online communities who share information on the locations of fruiting trees, berry bushes and such in urban areas throughout North America. And I imagine there's a lot of fish in that lake you practice by. It's all in how you direct your attention. As far as I'm concerned, some of the most interesting animals are the ones who live in close association with humans, the 'synanthropic' species they're called. Crows, for instance, are hugely intelligent. Lots to learn from them

  4. Ryan, that was an amazing video!!!

    Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge with us, I really appreciate it.

    I think we have a great deal in common in terms of our attitudes toward the natural world. I have always loved learning nature and with bushcraft and so I chose to study Wildlife Biology and Natural History at university in the hope that I would get a better understanding of the environment and how we interact with it and, just as importantly, how we can protect it. Unfortunately the course wasn't as practical as I hoped it would be but I definitely increased my understanding of how animals and plants interact with each other, so that is good.

    What I need to work on now is my species identification skills, especially when it comes to plants and insects. I am not too bad on birds and mammals but tackling plants and insects is SO daunting. I am trying to at least get the trees under my belt (seems like the logical place to start) but it can be difficult to know that you are correctly identifying a species without someone with this knowledge there with you. But hey, it is something I enjoy doing, so I will keep at it. :)

    I also believe that to be a complete and well balanced human being that we need to understand our place in nature and to have a deep understanding and respect for it; not to try and assert our dominance over it, but to integrate with it. It was actually a bit depressing to study the subject at university because it really made you realise just how much of our natural places we have lost and the rate is accelerating. But I hold on to the hope that that attitudes are slowly changing, got to stay in a positive frame of mind after all!

    While I don't have the surroundings you do, there is a river near by which I enjoy walking along (although I don't know what I would catch if I went swimming in it, probably a hefty fine at the very least!) so when I get my video camera I may take some shots of it and show you my favourite spots in return.

    Funny you mention crows, on the street I used to live there were dozens of pairs of Jackdaws, one to each chimney stack and I used to love watching and listening to them chattering in the evenings. It is a shame there aren't many around where I live now but at least now I have a river to walk along!

    Crap, sorry, this comment is becoming huge!

    Thanks again for posting that video Ryan and I really hope you continue with them. I may live thousands of miles away, and may never encounter any of the species you show us but I still love learning about them.

    All the best and keep on smiling!

  5. Thanks Xiaolang... What part of England are you from? I've been around Oxford a bit, and London as briefly as possible (too metro for me). Also traveled around Scotland quite a bit, love it up there. But yeah, you guys have some amazing corvids. Saw Jackdaws living at Stonehenge. But the ones that really impressed me were those black and white rooks! Oh, and your magpies have a British accent, for real, lol.

    So I'll tell you really briefly the system that I've been using to learn about my local ecology for the last six years. I'll break it down into the steps I've developed so far, but I'm sure new levels (and questions) will be reached in the future:

    1) Find a good place with diverse plants and animals (which is just about anywhere, even in the most urban areas) that is accessible enough you can visit no matter the weather condition, and start spending time there. I recommend 2-3 hour visits at least twice a week

    2) Look around, listen... what do you see and hear? Try to go around one day and take a thorough inventory of each species you know, and those you don't. The latter represent a gap in your knowledge, and so you should try to identify them, one at a time, until you know them all. It is slow work learning new species, incremental. But once you know a species, then you will pay much more attention to it. It's like with people. If you're in a class with a group of people, the ones you know by name will gain your attention much more than those you don't know. So names are important. With the insects, there's a lot of good online communities who can help with the identifications. Unfortunately, most of the insects do not have common names, so you may have to give them one yourself. Anyway, learn the names

    3) This is maybe more of an extension of Step 2, but you should also try to learn to recognize songs and sounds, and be able to identify by ear. It's often especially difficult to get a visual on small birds - warblers, sparrows, finches and the like - during the season when they're most abundant. Sometimes the only way to know who's out there is to be able to identify by ear. Moreover, you can learn the language of each species, and know what they're saying to one another - whether they're excited, or panicked, or flirting, or what have you - and this can lead you to encounters and discoveries you might not otherwise have

    4) While you're learning the names of new species, and learning to match sounds to some of these names, start paying attention to the ones you already know. Stop by when you're walking along and ask them, "What's new today?" There's always something going on. By checking on everyone every couple weeks at least, over a couple years you'll start learning their annual cycles, which include a lot of ecology. For instance, many times when you ask a plant "What's new?" the answer will be something like, "This particular ambush bug is waiting beside my flower bloom for the bee mimics that keep stopping by."

  6. 5) Follow the corvids. They have been synanthropic for as long as we've been around, and they're kind of waiting for us to act like us again. In this respect, they will happily lead you to all kinds of other animals, showing you what the most available food is all the time. P.s. when they bring you to large animals, they want you to kill one and give them some, lol (but true)

    6) If you're like me, and have an interest in natural foods - which I see as our primary human way of engaging with the environment - then you've got to start responding to the flow of the season and the cues of the animals and plants. Like I was saying in the video... there's usually just a very small window of a week or two where each food is at its best, and the only way to really know when that window is open is to be out there and paying attention, and then take advantage when it happens

    7) This is a more recent kind of inquiry for me... try to learn the names of the micro-environments of your study site from the perspective of the other residents. I have names for all the little spots around my pond, where I've witnessed different events take place. Most of these names are from my perspective. More recently though, I've started asking what the names for these features would be from the perspectives of the others. Some are going to be the same as mine. For instance, the hawk nest, or the owl nest, or the coyote den, or the bulberry brush are all pretty much going to be widely known as such. But there are lots of other features. For instance, there's a tree whose limbs dangle over the edge of a cutbank beside the pond, and I originally called it the Bat Tree, just because I once saw a 'big brown bat' climb into it. But to the kingfisher, it's known as a particular perch for catching young pike. You know, that kind of thing. Trying to put your mind into the perspective of the others and see it through their experience

    So that's about where I'm at now, six years into doing this practice all year round, every few days. I've learned a ton. Definitely more applied and local knowledge than can be gained in any biology course at the university. I can't wait to find out what broad question I'll start asking will be

    1. Hey Ryan,

      Thanks for the reply to my comment, its good to see that I am not the only one that likes to do big comments and posts!

      I am from a place called Bedfordshire, actually in Bedford town. It is about an hour NNW from London and about the same NE from Oxford. It is a nice enough place although everywhere in this part of England is very built up and the only places you will really find any kind of wilderness is in Scotland, Wales and some parts of Cornwall - heh, basically not here. A lot of the surroundings here are farm land, there are very few wooded areas which are my favourite habitat type so that is a bit unfortunatel, but saying that, there are still some nice places around.

      I totally understand what you mean about London, I really don't like going there. My older brother lives in London and I'm always amazed that he can stand it, I think he likes the hustle and bustle of city life but it would depress me no end to not have much green around me.

      I really like your suggestions listed above, I am definitely going to start putting them into practice. I really need to get over the fact that I might not identify a plant or tree species 100% accurately, but even if I recognise the species in and of itself I will eventually learn the correct name for it. I have spent some time trying to lean how to identify common birds by their song and calls and I have some of the most common down, so at least I can recognise when there is something new or a bit different about but I have SO much room to improve on, but hey, that’s good! :)

      I do have an interest in natural foods, although due to my Crohn's disease I can't really eat many of them but I still like to know what is edible (and when) - its another tool in the tool kit. I think we have really lost touch with the world around us and when you know that such and such a plant can be eaten, the fibres from such and such grass can be used to make cordage or the resin from such and such tree makes good glue then I think it really gives you a deeper appreciation for your natural surroundings, which in turn makes you want to look after them.

      When it comes to fishing and hunting in England it is largely illegal. Taking fish from lakes, canals and rivers is illegal except for trout on specified rivers and at specified times of the year (I think). Also the only large animal you can really hunt is deer, and for that you need a license, both for the hunting and for the gun (bow hunting is illegal in England). I think it is legal to trap rabbits, but most small mammals are protected. So that really just leaves plants and insects as a viable food source but there is LOTS to work with there so I am trying to learn as much as I can, albeit slowly!

      I have always loved corvids too and yeah we do have some great members of the covid family in the UK. I have never seen a Raven, that is definitely on my 'hitlist' but I think I have seen all the others in England. Rooks are amazing, their colonies or 'Rookeries' are very impressive and can be huge. I really like Jays too, they are stunning to look at and I have had some really good views of them feeding and they really remind me of parrots, although slightly clumsy ones! :)

      Anyway, thanks again for taking the time to write such a detailed and helpful comment, it is very much appreciated and has given me a lot to think about on my walks!

      All the best and keep on smiling,

  7. Ryan yet another awesome video Sir. You also make some very good points in your writings. Its good to see that I am not the only one that talks to animals. And yes they DO talk back. We can learn so much from the animals and most seem to be just as happy to teach as you are to learn. It's almost like in the Disney movies ya? I also like that you showed the gathering/processing of the foods you found. Please please keep these types of videos coming I will try to get some up myself of my local area soon. We are suffering a bad drought (even for Oklahoma) so my personal space is realy unhappy right now but it'll make it, it always does. Meditation in your personal space is the bees knees!!!! Once again great job and keep up the good work.

  8. Also if you are wanting to know your local food sources U advise anyone beginning to start with the poisonous plants/insects/animals first and how to counter act (if possible) their harmfully effects. From there watch what the animals eat. And if your unsure ALWAYS test the food before you eat it there are several ways to do this. Also any old woodsman/bushman/outdoors type you can find in your area, get to know them most will pass down the knowledge they have to anyone that cares to learn. That is one good thing about living in Oklahoma there are tons of Native Americans here and with them the old ways die hard! That is 100% a win for me

  9. Speaking of watching what the animals eat... last year, I learned directly from a hairy woodpecker of a delicious beetle grub called the 'poplar borer larva'... it tastes like candy, even if it does look like a two-inch maggot

  10. Taste like Candy?
    Spoken like a True Scientist!!!!!!!!
    However..........the grub might contain a high content of hair growth hormones.
    Hairy Teacher.....Ipso Facto.....hairy student.
    if such is the case of high content.....let me know i might be able to use it.
    I'm loosing my hair.....:-)
    just the bird, butterfly,....etc., pictures.

  11. Natural hair growth hormones... I hope that's true


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