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Camper’s Pampers

I just couldn’t get it out of my head!

Ever since I had seen the article in that old National Geographic Magazine about the Cree Indians, I hadn’t been able to get that picture out of my head. It showed a young Cree mom diapering her baby with sphagnum moss.

Wow! What a concept! I knew sphagnum moss well. I had seen it many times in my wanderings in wetland areas in various parts of the country. I had marveled at its pale green color and its soft, absorbent, spongy texture. I had picked it up by the handful and marveled at how much water I could squeeze out of it. One time I did a test with a bunch of dry sphagnum and a sensitive scale. I found out that it would hold 12 times its own weight in water. Sphagnum’s remarkable ability to soak up water is why it is so important in nature. Because of its water retaining properties and its ability to create and maintain an acid habitat for itself and other plants, sphagnum plays a key role in the formation of bogs. Bog environments act like huge sponges that control erosion on mountain slopes and flooding in valleys. In fact the drainage of almost all the vast northern regions of our planet is controlled by sphagnum moss. Sphagnum moss deposits also provide a medium for the seeding of trees and other plants that are important in the development of northern forests. The peat moss that we buy to mulch our shrubs and mix with potting soil is primarily ancient sphagnum moss that has been mined out of former bog areas.

I had spent time with traditional moss rakers in southern New Jersey. These backwoods folks, known as “pineys”, who live in the relatively undisturbed and ecologically unique area known as the Jersey Pine Barrens, rake fresh sphagnum moss out of bog areas, dry it and bale it for sale to nurseries and garden centers.

The photos above are of William Wasowich, one of the last South Jersey moss rakers hard at work in 1992 in a Pine Barrens sphagnum bog. Wasowich was one of the characters mentioned in John McPhee’s book, The Pine Barrens.

Sphagnum moss also has a long history of use as a wound dressing, reaching a peak in its use during World War I when it was used by both the Germans and the Allies. By the end of the war, the British production of sphagnum dressings was estimated to have been about one million pounds a month.

In the 1730’s the great Swedish naturalist, Linnaeus, observed, “The Lapland matrons are well acquainted with [sphagnum] moss. They lay it in their children’s cradles to supply the place of bed, bolster, and every covering; and being changed night and morning, it keeps the infant remarkably clean, dry, and warm … and makes a most delicate nest for the new-born babe.”

Yes, what a perfect material, I thought — a completely organic, biodegradable, disposable diaper. What new parent wouldn’t be thrilled to have such a thing? As my friends began to have babies I would often go into a bog and collect and dry a batch of beautiful soft sphagnum moss and present it to them as a gift at baby showers. I was astounded that even some of my more earthy friends were simply not interested. They would often say, patronizingly, “Yeah right, Doug, go ahead use that moss on your baby.”

Well the time had come. My wife was pregnant and the nesting phase had begun. The nesting phase is that time during pregnancy when many women get seriously focused on “preparing their nest” for the arrival of the new baby. From knitting tiny garments and shopping for blankets and diapers, to preparing the cradle, crib, playpen and other neonatal accoutrements. The nesting phase is a busy, exciting time in an expectant mother’s life.

As an expectant dad, I found my own nesting instinct had kicked in powerfully and now this old rolling stone was scurrying around in bogs gathering every bit of moss he could find. By the time our little one was due, I had stored away several big bags of carefully dried sphagnum.

What marvelous material it is. I can’t say that it was the only diapers we used because we tried all kinds. But sphagnum was our favorite, not only because it is natural and biodegradable but because it was simply, the best. The moss seems to wick moisture away from the baby’s skin and the tiny dry particles of moss act almost like a talcum powder so that the baby’s skin stays smooth and dry. Feces is absorbed and enclosed in a wad of moss. Because of these properties, as well as the fact that the moss is slightly acidic and is reported to contain small amounts of iodine, sphagnum can be helpful to prevent and heal diaper rash.

diaper changeAnd it was so convenient. When it was time for a diaper change, we would simply remove the moss, and if we were home, we would compost it under a fruit tree. If we were on the trail hiking, we would simply tuck the soiled moss into the topsoil and cover it with leaves or other forest duff. On car trips we would pull off the highway and bury it. (Once we even discretely slipped a wad of our nitrogen-enriched sphagnum deep into the mulch under landscape shrubbery outside a shopping mall.)

I realized that not only were we being gentle on the earth and giving our baby the best care available but we were also, in some ways, tapping into our ancient heritage because sphagnum moss was used by our northern European ancestors as well as native North Americans.

I asked a native-American friend, who is a speaker of Cree and other northern Algonquian dialects about sphagnum. He told me about how it is still used in the back- country. Mothers wrap their babes in a soft buckskin bag filled with dry sphagnum and change it as necessary His people use the word “otaow” (rhymes with cow) to refer to sphagnum moss. When I asked him about how the word translates, he said the root of the word, “ota,” is associated with the word for father.

“Is that because the fathers gather the moss?” I asked expectantly.

“Not necessarily,” he said. Men might collect moss sometimes but it is usually the women who gather it because they also use it in the moon lodge where the women spend their menstrual periods, singing, talking, praying and hanging out with each other while seated on pads of sphagnum. (Modern women tell me it is hard to use sphagnum if they remain active.)

This root word, “ota,” he went on to say, is a word that implies presence, meaning something like “right here” or “being there.” I thought about how fatherhood had imbued the words “presence” and “being there” with new meaning for me.

The word for sphagnum, “otaow,” he told me, would translate out to mean “protectively holds” or “embraces.”

“Is that because it’s used for diapers,” I asked.

“Not necessarily,” he replied (again), explaining that it is more because of the way the sphagnum covers the ground — like a carpet in some moist areas, growing over rocks and logs and everything — protectively holding the Earth Mother.

When I would protectively embrace and hold my young son in my arms, I would sometimes think about our responsibility to protectively hold all that we touch. When I think about that spongy wad of sphagnum moss in our son’s diaper, I marvel at the vast millions of acres of sphagnum moss that are currently embracing our planet, protectively holding, and ever so gently, softly, controlling the flow of the countless trillions of gallons of water that drain boreal land masses all around the globe.

That wad of sphagnum tucked in our child’s diaper, containing the fluids and mopping up our own baby’s nether regions seemed like a wonderful parallel – sort of a microcosm of what is happening on our planet every day.

How (and Where) to Gather Sphagnum Moss for Diapers

To gather sphagnum moss for baby diapers, it should be picked as clean as possible and promptly dried. When gathering moss I generally carry a tarp or large drop cloth, a pillowcase and /or a pack basket with me into a bog area. Late spring and early summer seem to be ideal times to gather because there is a lot of new tender growth. Boots, amphibious sandals or wading shoes are recommended. In the boggy areas where sphagnum is found, it usually grows as the first layer of vegetation, anywhere from a few inches to a foot or more in depth. It forms a moist, fluffy substrate with various other plants poking through. These might be tufted sedges, delicate flowering orchids, exotic looking pitcher plants, robust red cranberries, or low thickets of pink-flowering sheep laurel and wooly-leaved Labrador Tea. Sometimes sphagnum moss will completely cover a partially submerged fallen log or creep up the base of a tree trunk. The best places to gather the moss are the more open areas where it grows in thick clumps or beds. From areas like these you can pull one handful after another and still leave large amounts to regenerate. When gathering moss, (or any natural resource) it is important to diffuse your impact, taking a few handfuls from one clump then moving to another. Of course it is important not to gather in an area where the moss is not common. You will see, however, that in areas where moss is abundant, you can pick for a few hours in a relatively small area and there will still be so much moss left that it will be difficult to tell where you have harvested. Pick the moss as cleanly as possible, removing pine needles and other bits of debris when you find them. (There will be more opportunities to do this when you spread it out to dry later.) When I pull the moss, if the bottom of the clump is muddy where it was rooted in the bog, I cut or break this part off. I collect the moss in a gathering basket or a sack. When this container is full I carry it to the edge of the bog, ideally to a sunny area, and spread the moss out on a clean tarp or large cloth and go back for more. The moss dries amazingly fast if it is spread thinly. If tarp space is limited and the moss is piled rather thickly it will still dry in a day or two, especially if you turn it regularly and break apart the moist clumps. A few hours of gathering and a day or two of careful drying can yield several months’ worth of sphagnum. The use of a tarp is important to keep the moss clean and away from contact with the soil. This will virtually eliminate the risks of sporotrichosis, a fungal infection that sometimes affects greenhouse workers who work with sphagnum. Recent studies indicate that the offending fungus, Sporothrix schenckii, lives in the soil. It has not been found (and apparently will not grow) on living sphagnum moss. It can be a problem, however, in greenhouses where the dead moss is mixed with water and dirt and allowed to stand for extended periods in a heated environment.

(1) Footnote: (1), Mycopathologia 123: 87-94, 1993.

Diapering with Sphagnum Moss

sphagum mossIn the 1730’s the great Swedish naturalist, Linnaeus, observed, “The Lapland matrons are well acquainted with [sphagnum] moss. They lay it in their children’s cradles to supply the place of bed, bolster, and every covering; and being changed night and morning, it keeps the infant remarkably clean, dry, and warm … and makes a most delicate nest for the new-born babe.”

Though some of our friends lay the sphagnum moss on a cotton diaper, we find that a moss filled nylon diaper cover works best for us. To prepare for diapering, open the diaper cover and place it on a flat surface. Place a couple handfuls of the moss in the diaper cover and arrange it “strategically” (more in front for boys). Examine the moss carefully to be sure it is free of leaves, pine needles and other potentially uncomfortable debris. (I press the moss into place with the back of my hand to be sure it is soft and free of projections.) Sometimes we use different “grades” of moss. The softest moss is reserved for the inner layer and the rest is used as the “backfill”. Sometimes we place a few sheets of toilet paper on top to cover the moss.

Then we set the babe down onto the moss and fasten the diaper up as gracefully as possible. Since managing a squirmy baby on an easily scatterable pile of moss is not always easy, having an extra person helping usually makes it easier. (We call it “tag team diapering.”) Once the diaper is fastened we found that training pants or rubber pants help hold the whole assembly together. The moss seems to wick moisture away from the baby’s skin and the tiny dry particles of moss act almost like a talcum powder so that his skin stays smooth and dry. Feces is absorbed and enclosed in a wad of moss. Because of these properties as well as the fact that the moss is slightly acidic and is reported to contain small amounts of iodine, sphagnum can be helpful to prevent and heal diaper rash.

We used moss primarily as a travel diaper and it was amazingly simple. We could go for weeks with only a stuff bag full of moss and two or three nylon diaper covers. While one cover was on the babe, the other, after being rinsed was drying out. Our youngster, as fussy as he was about diapering in general, never did develop an aversion to the sphagnum. When he got to older toddlerhood, he would even help us tuck the loose pieces of moss into his diaper cover.

Of course using such an unusual method of diapering does leave you open to a few raised eyebrows as well as the occasional wisecrack. One friend watched us undo our son’s diaper. When he saw the huge wad of soggy moss he asked, “Don’t you think that boy has a little too much fiber in his diet?”

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The Africans in Mexico – A Bee Hunting Adventure

“Vamos al enhambre. Quieren ustedes ir?”

“Let’s go to the beehive. Do you want to go?” they were asking us.

Si! Si! Si, Por supuesto,” we replied. “Yes! Yes! Yes, of course!”

The year was 1985. We were about 600 miles due south of the southwestern tip of New Mexico in a remote foothills village on the western slope of the Sierra Madre mountains in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. My wife Yanna Fishman and my old friend and expedition partner, Gary Shapiro and I had been invited by Silverio Perez and his family to stay with them for a while. Gary and I had worked with Silverio on previous occasions. Silverio’s family, like the rest of the villagers here, were campesinos (peasant farmers). They made a sparse but adequate living raising corn, beans and cattle, supplemented by foraging, hunting, and some crafts.

No one in the village kept honeybees, but many of the villagers knew of perhaps as many as a dozen feral colonies located in the nearby cliffs and canyons. They would occasionally harvest honey from the more accessible of these colonies. A honey gathering expedition to one of their favorite hives was being planned and we were invited. I couldn’t have been more delighted.

Guerillo cut slabs of golden honeycombThe next morning a group of about ten of us hiked a few of miles up a trail into a barranca (a canyon full of small trees and other vegetation). The group split up as the canyon got steeper and narrower. I headed to the left with the guys who were going to rob the hive. The other group, including Yanna and Gary, went to the right and climbed the facing canyon wall to a place where they could get a view to watch and photograph the event.

A young man named Guerillo was more or less the leader. He took us up on a ridge overlooking the cliffs, where he tied a long rope to a tree. They gathered a few handfuls of firewood and then holding onto the rope we lowered ourselves down the cliff face. There were a few trees and some other vegetation growing out of the rocks here and there. The rope gave welcome security as we worked our way down and it was really essential the last twenty feet as the cliff got steeper near the hives. There is a small ledge just below the hive and Guerillo lowered himself down to this ledge. From where I was situated just above the hive, I could watch Guerillo work, but I could only see a small part of the comb sticking out from behind the rocks protruding from it’s alcove in the cliff. From the other side of the canyon, however, Yanna could see it all. She looked through the telephoto lens and was astounded. “This is the biggest hive you have ever seen,” she hollered. “There’s nine or ten combs. Some are four feet long!” Guerillo lit a small fire on the ledge at his feet. Then he held smoking chunks of wood up under the combs. We lowered a 5 gallon plastic bucket down to him and soon he was cutting large pieces of golden, honey-filled comb and loading them into the bucket. When that bucket was mostly full we hauled it up and handed him another.

After hauling the heavy buckets of honey down the trail we met up with Regino.As the second bucket was getting full, I noticed that he had it tied to a branch with what looked to me like a flimsy palmetto palm frond. The bucket was accumulating weight rapidly. It probably had 30 or more pounds in it. I kept looking at the hasty hitch he had made with this palm leaf holding all that weight and finally had to question him. “?Es suficiente fuerte?” (Is it strong enough?) I asked.

He looked at me and then smiled, “Si, como no.” (Yes, of course.) He used palm leaves like this all the time, he assured me. Later I learned that the rope that was holding us as we climbed down the cliff was made out of this same kind of palm leaves. (And we later learned to make these ropes ourselves.) (more on rope making can be found in Elliott’s book, Woodslore.)

Guerillo works at the hive.Soon the second bucket was full and most of the accessible honey was harvested. Guerillo was getting stung occasionally but he didn’t let it bother him. He had accidentally cut one comb that contained mostly brood (young bee larva) and I watched while he used a stick as a prop and carefully tucked these baby bees back into their nest before he started back up the cliff. I was impressed with his concern for the well-being of the hive as well as his ability to work the bees barefoot and with short sleeves and no protection on his face (not to mention while perched on the edge of a cliff.) We hauled the heavy buckets up the cliff and then down the trail and eventually we met up with Silverio’s brother Regino who had been out gathering majauhue (bark strips) for thatching the roof of his new house. We loaded the buckets on his burro and they carried them the rest of the way back to the village. There they strained this light, flavorful honey and poured it into an assortment of bottles and jars. By the next day most of the honey harvest was dispersed among family and friends in the village.

Though we kept in touch with the Perez family, we didn’t make it back to the village for eighteen years. I often thought about that hive. I had read with interest in the beekeeping journals about the gradual northward extension of the range of the Africanized (so-called killer) honeybees. Like many beekeepers, I monitored their slow but sure spread from Brazil though much of South and Central America , on through Mexico and eventually into the southwestern United States . I wondered about this hive. Located as it was in a remote canyon, could it escape the “invasion” of the “killer bees”?

Guerillo perches in the ledge beside the hive.When we had an opportunity to return to the village in January, 2003, one of the first things I asked about was that wild hive. Regino, as it turned out was the right person to ask. He told me about one day in the mid 1990’s when his buddy, Guico, (Guerillo’s brother) said to him, “Vamos al enjambre” (Let’s go to the hive.) It would be a good day to go harvest honey from this favorite wild beehive. So they loaded up their buckets and ropes and headed up into the barranca. As usual, they tied the rope to a tree at the top of the cliff and worked their way down. Once Guico got situated on the ledge at the base of the hive, Regino climbed back up and gathered firewood and brought it back down to Guico. Guico took one of the sticks and hit it against the ledge he was standing on to break it into smaller pieces to start the fire. As soon as that stick hit the rock, those bees attacked and covered them both up. Regino was up the cliff further but those bees swarmed all over him too, stinging him all over. He said that as fast as he would wipe them off more would come. He grabbed the rope and started up the cliff as fast as he could, swatting bees all the way. The bees were even attacking the moving rope as he climbed hand over hand, so he got a handful of bees and more stings every time he grabbed the rope.

Guerillo calms the hive with smoke.By then Guico, who was still down below, right beside the hive, was screaming, “They are killing me! I can’ t see!” They were stinging him all over his face. Regino tried to go back down to help him but the bees were attacking him so he couldn’t get nearer. Guico was screaming, “I can’t see! Where is the rope? Where is the rope?”

“It’s right there,” Regino shouted. “Feel for it. It’s right there; right in front of you.”

Guico groped around frantically for the rope and when his hand finally felt a rope he desperately grabbed and pulled. It was a rope alright — the rope he was using for a belt to hold up his baggy pants. He pulled out the slip knot that was holding his pants up and his pants fell down. Now he had bees in his pants too! He really started screaming then but somehow he finally found the correct rope and started up the cliff as fast as his drooping trousers would allow. He finally got up to Regino. Regino helped him up over the ridge and they managed to swat most of the remaining bees off him — whereupon he fainted. In a minute or two he woke up. Then he vomited (and emptied out from the other end too). His face was so swollen he couldn’t see, but he could still walk. Regino led him down the steep trail. They came to a deep pool in the stream. Guico immersed himself in the pool thinking it might give him some relief, but the opposite occurred. The water seemed to activate the stings. Guico let out a moan and passed out again — this time in the stream. Regino ran into the water to drag him out before he drowned.

Guerillo with a slab of honeycomb”But he was fat!” Regino exclaimed, “I couldn’t pick him up and carry him.” He did manage to drag him to the shore where he could get Guico’s head out of water. Regino shouted for help. His calls were heard by a lone broom maker who was in a nearby thicket with his burro cutting a particular shrub that is used to make the brooms that people use to sweep their yards. (No lawn mowing in that part of Mexico.) The two of them loaded the still unconscious Guico onto the burro, draping him across the load of broom straw, belly down. Before long they got back to the village. When Silverio, saw them coming in like that, he thought Guico was drunk. When Guico’s wife saw him, she thought her husband had eaten so much honey it made him fall asleep. When they realized what had happened, someone ran to the village telephone and called the doctor who lived in a nearby town. The doctor, ironically, was unavailable because he had also, just that day, walked too close to a wild beehive and the same thing had happened to him. However, their mother, Catalina Perez, is somewhat of a curandera (healer), so she made Guico a strong potion from a tropical vine called guaco and within a few days he was completely recovered.

Guerillo leans into his work cutting slabs of honeycomb.Regino says that when he sees Guico these days, he will often say, “Vamos al enjambre.” Guico doesn’t think it is very funny.

This story appeared in the American Bee Journal, V.143 No.10 October 2003. I split the money I was paid for the article with Regino, Guerillo and Guico.