Monthly Archives: April 2009

Hide-tanning report

I have a new respect for leather. Last weekend it took all of my strength and the strength of ten other people to tan three buckskins and a couple of rabbit furs.

We were learning, sure, but to make a single buckskin in a natural way is an incredibly intense–physically and mentally–exercise. We were lucky to have the expertise of Tamara Wilder, a primitive skills master who has been making buckskin and teaching wilderness skills for the past twenty years.


Tamara, pictured here with a student, brought all the poles and beams we needed to scrap the hides clean. She also brought three hides for us to tan–two deer and one goat. It’s her side gig to skin deer for hunters during hunting season so she collects a lot of them. She merely salts the hides, folds them up, and then puts them into a large plastic box in a shady spot. When she has time–usually in the winter–she’ll take them out and start the hide tanning process.

Though two of the hides were almost three years old, they hardly smelled at all. Our first order of business was to scrape off all the muscle tissue and fat off the hides. We donned long plastic aprons, set up scrapping beams, and went to work. We used dull blades and elbow grease to work off the tissue. At some points, it was gross.

Then we flipped the hides over and started scrapping the fur side off. Tamara pointed out that this is the time when most mistakes happens. There’s a membrane that must be removed with the hair. If it doesn’t get removed, it will never be soft and supple buckskin.  This requires a hefty amount of upper arm strength. And in my case, grunting. Every once in awhile we would pour water over the hide to keep it moist.

That first step took almost all day. Those of us who opted to make a bunny fur, also had to scrap the muscle and fat off a rabbit hide which had been soaked in an alum and salt solution overnight (this sets the fur so it doesn’t slip).

Next, Tamara showed us how to properly remove a brain to do the brain tanning solution. We also added about a dozen egg yolks and blended it all up. The scrapped hides and furs went into the brain bucket overnight. We all limped home and licked our wounds.

The next day, we were up early, setting up pieces of thick wire along the fence posts at GhostTown Farm. The neighbors were very curious. We spent the rest of the day fussing with the brain-infused hides. We pulled them, and stretched them, and roughed them up on the wires. Then pulled them some more. The bunny furs were prodded and stretched. After many hours, the hides started to feel really soft and pliable. They could be tugged on. They turned a wonderful white color and were soft as felt. We had made buckskin.

Then Tamara (who was wearing a buckskin tank top and had made a pair of buckskin hot pants!) started a fire with a stick. We all nearly gasped at her genius. We then smoked the buckskin, which makes it waterproof, and turned it a dun color that I’ve only associated with buckskin wearing natives.

By that second day, we were all exhausted, stretched to the limit, giddy with our new knowledge. Tamara divided up the buckskin–each of us got a quarter of a hide–and we all wondered what we would make with ours. I think I have enough to make a bikini top.

Also, tonight i’ll be at:

CounterPULSE, 1310 Mission St., San Francisco, CA 9410

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I’ll be one of five speakers discussing “transitioning into sustainable urban living.”

Water, water, nowhere

Loved the rain last week. I’m from Seattle, where I hated the constant drizzle and dark but when I moved to dry(ier) California, I learned to love the wet stuff falling from the sky.

This year, for the third winter in a row, we didn’t get our usual amount of rain. Which means we’re facing a drought, with snowpack only at 75%. Which means trouble for my lush vegetable garden and micro-farm.


Unless I flex my puny brain and focus on the options.

One is to downscale. To plant a cover crop and let a few of the beds just rest up and go fallow. I’ve done that with two beds, planting fava beans which I’ll pull up and cover the bed during the summer. Once the rains start again in October, I’ll plant lettuces and greens.

Another is to use more greywater. This is the water that comes from your dishwashing, clothes-washing, hand-washing. It’s kind of clean but not drinkable. Bill and I have been watering our trees with this water for the past two years with no ill effects. We use Oasis soap, which is considered “biocompatible” with greywater systems. Now when we take a bath we’ll dump that water in the washer and do a load of laundry. After the washing machine is done with it, then the water is siphoned out into the garden. So it’s used three times! These are the kind of things that should be encouraged by the government, not made illegal. Check out this website which is trying to encourage a bill that makes greywater use legal in the State of California.

A third thing I’m setting up is a dry-farmed area in my garden. I’m planning on planting corn, beans, potatoes, herbs, and some of the Mexican plants a fellow gardener sent to me. The plan is to water them for the first month or so until they are established and thriving. I’ll mulch them with rabbit and goat turds and a layer of straw. And then, I stop watering. From what I’ve seen, the fruit of the tomatoes become dense and taste intensely tomatoe-y, the potatoes same thing. The corn is for flour and so doesn’t need much water. The beans like it hot and dry. The herbs become more powerful. I’ll let you know how it turns out.


Finally, my ultimate challenge: I’m building an outhouse! Here’s the foundation so far. I hope to have it done by this weekend for the hide-tanning class. The idea is that we waste tons of clean water by shitting into it. Water that we could drink–we poop into. Now during a drought, that seems mighty stupid. This will be a composting toilet that contains all poo in a large bucket where it will break down over a few years. I’ll devote a whole post to it and the system once the outhouse is built and is functioning. Can’t wait to carve out that little crescent moon….

Tonight, April 3, Ferment Change Party

Sorry for the last minute notice (you should see how dirty my hair is right now–too. busy. to. bathe.) but here’s a fun event where I’ll be giving a talk about animals and fermentation:

What: Ferment Change: A celebration of Urban Agriculture, Food Justice,
Fermented Food and Community. To benefit CitySlickerFarms in West Oakland, Ca.
When: Friday April 3, 2009
Where: Humanist Hall, 411 28th Street, Oakland, CA 94609
Time: 7:30-10:30pm

Cost: $10-30, no one turned away for lack of funds
Cosponsors: Ecology Center, Humanist Hall, City Slicker Farms, Friends of L.Bacillus

Music By: Zoyres Eastern European Wild Ferment plus others