Springtime Bushcraft, from the eyes of an Ojibway

Spring is arriving across the northern hemisphere. This past week, I was only a two hour drive north of my house, and up there they still require snowshoes to get around. Whereas my front garden has sprouting daffodils within it. It is truly a wonder of the natural world. This current month (March) goes by many names in my Ojibway culture. The Crow Moon and Goose Moon are common names for March, referring to the first birds in our culture that signify the return of spring. Breaking of Snowshoes Moon is another popular name, though the symbolism is often lost on those out there who have never trudged a winter away on a single pair of snowshoes day-in and day-out. Perhaps the other name -Hard crust on the snow Moon- may shed light on why. Eventually those snowshoes are going to break, and you hope it happens when the snow is receding! However, the most popular name for the month of March in the Ojibway culture is the Maple Sugar Moon. This is the time of year when the sap is running strong, usually. This year, many people have noticed a mild winter. I’m not here to debate 2012, climate change, or El Nino. I’m here to talk about seasonal beauty. The fact of the matter is, it has been an odd winter. What can you do? Just move onto the next season I suppose.

From this sort of landscape…
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..to this.. in less than three weeks!

With that, I want to talk about the beauty of this upcoming season, from the eyes of my people. You see, the names of this current month are not just cute titles, or us trying to honour some pantheon of deities. The titles of this month identify precisely what will be happening this time of year. The birds will be returning. Just the other day, I saw my first flock of snow geese for the season. These returning birds represent food, in great bounty after February. Interesting fact is that February in many Ojibway traditions is called the Hunger Moon in our language. It does not leave much to guess, huh? The sap is rushing through the cambium of birch, maple and even box elder. These fluids were high in sugars, irons and other sources of nutrients that are also required after a cold, harsh winter. Not to mention, the maple sap can be boiled down into bricks of solid sugar, to last the rest of the year, or to be traded to other communities. The snow is awkward to traverse, both in moccasins, and in snowshoes. Even many modern boots struggle with the mix of mud, black ice and candle ice.

April will be the time of white sucker fish flowing up the rivers of Lake Huron, and for that, my Chippewa cousins refer to that lovely month as the Sucker Moon, whereas my band of Ojibways (the Mississaugas) call it the Loon Moon. The Chippewa rely on that heavy spawning of white sucker fish as much as my family relies on the geese heading north. To us however, the call of the loon signifies the regrowth of the forests. During this time, Coltsfoot, dandelion, and mayapple will all begin to creep up. The Loon Moon is when we peel bark to make into baskets, and use those baskets to harvest the large crops of wild leeks, trout lily and fiddleheads. April is also known as the Frog Moon, which becomes an obvious name if you take a stroll near any body of water. Expect to hear bullfrog, leopard frog, spring peepers and wood frogs. Though it is my favourite month of the year, I sometimes do wonder how I will ever get to sleep when I’m listening to those mating calls! The final name of April in my culture, is the Grass Moon. April is when grass sprouts wherever it is capable of growing. This is vital, as the bears -who wake from their long winter dreams- rely on the tender blades of nutrient-dense foliage such as grass to recover in time to start searching for real food.

Trout lily Trout Lily, one of the first plants to emerge in the spring

May is simply known by many Ojibways as the Flowering or Budding Moon. It is in this month that everything really begins to pick up the pace. Lilacs, Cowslip, some varieties of raspberry, and even the mayapple begin to blossom. While this happens, the basswood unfurls its’ leaves from the large tender buds (which taste awfully like a peanut to me for some reason). Add the sudden explosion of undergrowth, and it is incredible that the woods were clear to see through only a month before.

A bird’s nest from the summer before was used by a mouse to store these small seeds for the winter.
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A wood duckling freshly hatched!

In the eyes of the Ojibway, and countless indigenous cultures around the world, there are actually thirteen months, each being twenty-eight days long. This still adds up to three-hundred and sixty-five days a year. Each month represents something drastically important, and that is life in the bush. This intimate relationship to our surroundings allows those of us who still practise the ways of our ancestors, a means to know what to gather, and when. But just as importantly, it reminds us what not to gather, and to leave until later when it is ready. For if I gather all of the edible leaves in April, there will be no raspberries to harvest in July, (which just so happens to be the Raspberry Moon, and is my birth moon). Though the Ojibway people have a complicated calendar which is frequently compared to those of European, Egyptian and Meso-American beginnings, we do not focus so much on specific dates. We focus on the moons, the months, the proper harvesting seasons.