Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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I love to research before I buy. I read the reviews on Amazon. I ask friends for their opinions. I taste the frozen yogurt before I commit. So, when I found out Idaho's capital city has a active beekeeping club that will mentor and even connect you to beekeepers who will let you "try before you buy," I was sold!

Bee Benefits

I had wanted bees for many years, for the pollination benefits, the raw honey and the wonderfulHoney Pot and Honey Bears wax. As a gardener, I knew about the Colony Collapse Disorder that is killing bees at an alarming rate. I figured the more people who can successfully keep bees, the better, for the sake of everyone’s environment. I also knew I needed to school myself before jumping in, feet first. I attended a bee keeping class offered by community education in Boise and I read everything I could find on raising bees.


During the class, the presenters mentioned how some members of the Treasure Valley Beekeepers Club had an abundant number of hives and some of them (on their own—and not affiliated with the club) had taken to renting out hives during the growing season. This sounded great! Like at the yogurt shop, I could try—before I buy! 

However, I wasn't certain bees were actually allowed in my neighborhood. So, I researched our restrictive covenants in our subdivision and perused the city code. Fortunately, there wasn't anything on the books standing in my way.

On the Treasure Valley Beekeepers Club website, there’s a map that pinpoints the various beekeepers who rent hives. I found the closest beekeeper and called. For $175 a season, I rented the woodenware (nuc and first box), a queen and 20,000 of her industrious friends. My bee mentor, Mike Morrison, brought the bees over very early one spring day. The bees are docile in the wee hours of the morning, so he was able to easily put them in the back of his hatchback-style car and drive them over to our yard.

Beehive Arrival and Placement

Beehive Placement in BackyardIt was early season and still a bit chilly in the mornings. So, we chose a sunny location for the hive that wouldn’t be disturbed by kids, dogs or sprinklers. Once the hive was level and the sun warmed it, the bees immediately went to work on pollinating the yard.

I should add this one caveat…our three teenagers, who still live at home, were NOT thrilled with having a hive in the backyard. Each kid has a varying degree of fear when it comes to bees. So, I had my work cut out for me. There were some discussions on bee behavior, flight pattern and general caution. As the weeks passed, the kids (and dogs) become more and more comfortable with the hive. Our son, Woody, would even sit near the hive and watch the bees bring in different colored pollen. He was fascinated.

Swarming Bees

We had one hiccup mid-summer. I walked out front to get the mail and could hear a loud buzzing. I looked over the fence and saw thousands of bees swarming outside the hive. I quickly called Mike. He told me to not take my eyes off them and to find out where they land. He said the queen would eventually get tired and light on something and the rest of the bees would do the same.

Sure enough, the queen got tired and landed in our neighbor’s backyard. Not wanting to give myself up (so far, none of my neighbors knew I placed a hive in our yard), I called her and told her not to freak out, but that a swarm of bees had just landed in her backyard. She freaked out.

I assured her they were the good bees and would not hurt anyone or anything and that I would call a friend who rescues swarms. Mike was there in a matter of minutes. He and I took a large cardboard box and a bed sheet to her backyard. Mike spread out the sheet near the bees – which Mike Morrison rescuing swarm editedwere all precariously hanging in a tree, on the end of a small branch. He placed the box, which had holes poked in it for ventilation, under the clump of bees and without hesitation, jerked the tree branch so the all the bees fell into the box. In an instant, he had the box shut and the sheet wrapped around it and tied. He smiled at my sweet neighbor and said, “I’ll be back for the bees this evening—until then, go about your business in your yard.”

We left her, mouth open, looking a bit dazed. Mike took me back to the house and we inspected my backyard hive. Much to my amazement, the bees were still there! The swarming bees didn’t belong to the rented hive. Mike explained that some queens, for various reasons, will leave their hive and look for another home. The swarm had likely smelled the honey and wax in our hive and was looking for a place to call home. Crisis averted—at least from our family’s standpoint. Later that evening, I received a text message from our neighbor. It read: “Mike just came for the box. He put the whole thing in his car—and he’s not even wearing a bee suit! CRAZY.”

The rest of the summer went off without a hitch. Our garden and yard did so well. My Saturn peach tree exploded with fruit! It’s been a busy season of freezing, canning and dehydrating. 

Raw Honey Extracting

Mike called just after Labor Day and suggested we extract the honey. What an experience. Three of us went to Mike’s place as he has a commercial extractor. My husband, our 14-year-old daughter Margaret and I uncapped the honeycomb and helped place the frames in the extractor. All told, we ended up with 2-gallons of dark brown honey. Margaret, Woody and I, all have allergies. We’ve been told that just a teaspoon of honey a day will help ease allergy symptoms.

Now, I’m ready to be my own beekeeper. The bonus is that a lot of people, for whatever reason, are getting rid of their hives right now. Maybe they don’t want to over-winter their hives. Or, they don’t know how to treat their hive for mites or provide the supplemental nutrition they’ll need for the winter. All these things you learn when you rent a hive and have a beekeeping mentor. Keeping bees has become one more way we can be more sustainable in our own backyard. Craigslist ad to seel hive

Is there a honey bee rental program in your community?

1. Do an online search for beekeeping clubs or call your local extension office and ask them for beekeeping information.

2. Research what is and isn’t allowed in your neighborhood, city or county.

3. Do your homework.

4. Don’t get freaked out if your bees swarm.

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 A common concern about bees and beekeeping is getting stung and allergic reactions. When I first started beekeeping I had what I considered to be “normal” reactions to bee stings. I have since developed a true honeybee venom allergy, but luckily, have been able to continue my work as a beekeeper.

 Reactions to bee stings can be divided into two categories – immunological response, and allergic response.   An immunological response can range from a normal, non-allergic reaction at the time of being stung, such as pain, burning, redness, itching, swelling, and tenderness at the sting site, to a large local reaction, including extreme swelling around the site, lasting up to a week. (NW Calderone, 98-99). While some of my reactions had been quite large (I was stung on my foot once, and could not wear anything but adjustable sandals for a week), none had spread beyond the area of the sting.

A few years after my husband and I started beekeeping, we were working on removing a colony of honeybees from the wall of an old shed. It was a long, hot process, and by the end, both the humans and the honeybees being moved were feeling pretty grouchy. While we were finishing up, I received three stings in a short period of time. In hindsight, I should have walked away and cleaned out the first sting right away. However, I was focused on getting the job done. I had also never had a problem with honeybee stings before, so I did not think too much of it.

On the way home, I noticed that my lips, tongue, and throat felt slightly swollen, but I was breathing fine. I debated going to the emergency room, but because my breathing was not affected, chose not too. It was pretty scary, but I chalked the reaction up to receiving multiple stings, and decided to just be more careful. A few days later we went back to collect any remaining bees. I was stung one more time, and had the same reaction as when I was stung three times.

I did some reading, and learned about the other type of honeybee venom reaction – allergic response. Allergic responses are characterized by symptoms away from the site of the actual sting. These can range from hives, rash, and swelling away from the site, to minor respiratory symptoms, abdominal cramps, gastro-intestinal upset, and weakness. In severe cases, life-threatening systemic allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) can occur. This includes shock, unconsciousness, respiratory distress, and laryngeal blockage. (NW Calderone, 99-100).

Visiting an Allergist

I was very concerned about these reactions, and decided to visit an allergist. The allergist said she sees many beekeepers about honey bee allergies every year, and scheduled me for allergy tests. The testing took about half a day, and consisted of skin tests of different types of stinging insect venom. Based on the testing, it turned out that I had developed an allergy to honeybee venom. Luckily, I had experienced a less severe reaction.

At this point I was prepared to hear that I would have to give up beekeeping. However, meeting with the allergist alleviated some of this worry. The bad news was that with every subsequent Jen Smoking Hivesting, there was a good chance that my reaction would worsen. The good news was that if I didn’t want to give up beekeeping, there were three things I could do to make it safer for me.

One was to use more protective gear to avoid stings. For me this meant using coverall pants as well as a jacket, and using gloves when in the past I had preferred to work with bare hands. I was also told that I should carry an Epi-pen with me in case of a more serious reaction. The third method of dealing with the allergy involved more of a time commitment. I started going to the allergist for venom shots to desensitize me to honeybee venom (known as immunotherapy). I began going in once a week for three shots of a very minute dose of honey bee venom. I was monitored in the office for 30 minutes after each shot for any adverse reaction. While this was a large time commitment, it gradually tapers off. I worked my way down to one shot a week, then every other week, then once every three weeks, and so on.

I eventually worked my way down to one shot every 6 weeks, and the treatment seemed to be working. I was stung a few times after starting the treatments, with no reaction at all. Great news! The treatment is not very painful – no worse than a bee sting! I always felt very safe as I was being monitored, and never had an adverse reaction to the shots. According to the literature I was given, the shots are 97% effective, and most people can discontinue the shots after 3-5 years. After a while, I had worked my way up to one shot every six weeks. I received a sting while moving a nuc from one yard to another, and had another allergic reaction. At that point my allergist dropped me back to one shot every four weeks. It also means that I will probably need to continue these shots as long as I continue to keep bees.

Again, this does involve a time commitment, but it is worth it to me to be able to continue beekeeping. The treatments may not be for everyone, but for me it means I can still keep bees. I also do not feel as anxious while I am in the bee yard, so it was well worth it! If you have had a bad experience with bee stings, I highly recommend seeing a doctor to find out what might work for you.

Calderone, NW. So, You want to be a Beekeeper. Ithaca: Cornell University. 2009

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Wax Disk

As the beekeeping season comes to a close and my hives need less of my time, I’m confronted with the jars and bags and racks and bowls of beeswax all over my house patiently awaiting my attention. There are a million methods for all things beekeeping out there but I’d like to share this very simple method of rendering beeswax that will take you from sticky mess to wonderfully fragrant disks of clean beeswax ready for your crafts and beauty products while costing very little of your time and precious energy. And best of all, there’s no waste and your bees will actually benefit from it!

You will need:

1. Some type of plastic or metal grate that will fit inside of an empty super. It should have spaces big enough for a bee to crawl through but not big enough for chunks of wax to fall through.
2. A cheap double boiler (I found two pots for $2.00 at the thrift store that worked perfectly)
3. A small plastic, metal or glass container (that you don’t need for anything else) to pour the melted wax into
4. A cheesecloth and rubber band

Note: All of this equipment should be things you don’t care about or use for anything else as beeswax is pretty much impossible to clean off. You’re going to want this equipment to be used exclusively for wax processing (hence the thrift store recommendation).

Part One:

1. Grab all of your wax capping and other still sticky wax, your grate and your empty super, take them outside to your beehive (I like to suit up for this) and remove the outer cover on your hive.

2. Make sure that your inner cover is the kind that has a hole in the top. Place empty super on top of inner cover and then place the grate on top of inner cover inside the empty super. Now spread your sticky wax out on top of the grate. Place your outer cover back on top to close up and if you have a bee escape hole in your inner cover it’s probably a good idea to plug it up with grass cork or something else to discourage robbers.

If you don’t have an inner cover with a hole in it, you can simply remove it as well and set the grate and super directly on top of the frames and then place your inner cover on top of the empty super followed by your outer cover.

Congratulations, you’re half way done. When you come back in a day or two, you will find that the bees have completely cleaned every scrap of honey off of the wax and left you with a beeswax sculpture that’s pretty amazing. The absolute best part though is that the bees have saved you a lot of time cleaning all of that honey and instead of it going down the drain, they get to add it back to their winter stores.

Part Two:

1. In a double boiler on low heat add first about an inch of water and then start adding your wax. As the wax melts down you will be able to add more. You might be able to get it all in there or you may have to do more than one batch. You don’t want it more than 3/4 full of hot wax. DO NOT WALK AWAY! Wax is extremely flammable and it also makes a very difficult mess to clean if it boils over. 

2. When the wax is completely melted you will see that there is still quite a bit of debris that you want to get rid of so just remove it from the heat and let it cool a bit but not to the point that it starts to solidify again.

3. Fold your cheesecloth a couple of times so that it's about 4 layers thick and place it over the top of whatever container you’re going to let the wax solidify in. You can even use one of those round, plastic yogurt containers. Secure the cheesecloth with a rubber band making sure it’s sagging just a bit in the middle.

 4. Pour your slightly cooled wax through the cheesecloth into the container, water and all and leave it until the wax is solid and cool.

5. Use a butter knife or something similar to get your wax disk or block out of its container leaving the water behind. When it’s completely dry, store in an airtight container or plastic bag.

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“Honey - lets retire and move to the mountains and live close to the land. Just a small cabin is all we will need for the two of us and you know how much we love the mountains."

I wonder how many times this has been said over the years. I know I said it many years ago and quite honestly neither of us have regretted a minute of following through on it. It is not for everyone, however. Having lived full time in the mountains at 9,780 feet elevation in a mostly remote area for 17 years, I will try to offer some insights for others' consideration before they make the jump into a rewarding but demanding lifestyle.

Rigors of Mountain Living

For example, if you are moving from a lower elevation to one on the side of a mountain you may want to consider that there is a condition known as altitude sickness. Moving around more deliberately and slowly is something that needs to be employed in the lower oxygen of high altitude. Living in that small cabin requires a lot of work that is not experienced in other environs. Mountains are made mostly out of rock and at least in our location they are always in the way and need to be moved. We heat with a wood stove so we need to have at least 9-11 cords of firewood on hand for our winters which are seven months long. We average 264 feet of snow each winter and that needs to be moved out of the way and is constantly being repositioned by the wind. These are only a few of the rigors of mountain living and require a high level of fitness. Also consider that as you grow older you lose muscle mass therefore making routine tasks harder to perform.

Weight Lifting

Beyond the obvious hardships of weather and endless work, living in the mountains like we do requires a high level of physical fitness. I started lifting weights when I was a child by using two milk jugs full of sand. If I wanted to add weight I added water. I was a skinny kid and like most children my parents told me if I got in a fight that I would get a fanny warming when I got home. Being skinny I was picked on and bullied, which is why I started weightlifting. My arms looked like toothpicks with a tiny knot in the middle. After coming home with torn clothing, black eyes and skinned up knees and elbows from being pushed down and bullied several days in a row my parents finally said I could fight back. I did and wasn’t bullied again. I guess today that would be frowned upon.

I never stopped lifting weights and have spent a lifetime keeping my muscles toned. There are two objectives in lifting weights: one is body sculpting, which requires less weight but more repetitions. The other is using more weight for strength conditioning. I chose the strength aspect and went from those early milk jugs to an Olympic weight set which I finally sold last year. I get enough exercise cutting and splitting firewood, shoveling the roughly 25 feet of snow we receive each winter and moving rocks around.

I would recommend lifting weights to keep muscles strong and supple. You will gain a little weight as muscle tissue weighs more but you will carry it better. If it were not for good muscle tone and keeping fit, living here for 17 years would not have been a possibility. We have seen many attempt our chosen form of life and fail because the demands are never ending, and to properly handle them you need to stay fit.

Before you embark on lifting weights, however, I would suggest some important cautions. First, make sure you have medical clearance to undertake this demanding exercise. Join a group that has been doing it for a while because they will have found the correct techniques so you lessen your chances of getting injured. They will also encourage you and be there to spot for you when you are balancing large weights over your head. If you can’t find a group then find an experienced trainer to train you. The cost is well worth it and with trainer experience you can sometimes join experienced groups which otherwise wouldn’t want to take time in training you.

Over the years I have met some really good people in gyms. I have worked out with professional football players who have access to the very best trainers and professional weightlifters who will not let you develop bad habits or hurt yourself. I have worked out in groups with people from all walks of life and I have rarely found people who are rude or nasty. Those types generally end up working out by themselves as they don’t fit into dedicated groups.

Mountain Living Dependent on Being Physically Fit

Living where and how we do would not even be possible if I had not spent a lifetime working out with weights and staying fit. For many years I also ran jogging tracks at the rate of about 15-18 miles a week. Between the running and weight lifting I am now able to cope with the rigorous tasks of mountain living. Over a lifetime of weight lifting and running I have had injuries along the way but—having been blessed with a very high pain threshold—I have been able to deal with them or work right through them. The worst was a blown knee that happened when my regular workout partner was unable to make it one time. A semi-pro football player encouraged me to adjust my stance doing squats and just that fast I blew a knee. Painful lesson learned and it reassured me that I needed to stick with proper techniques from people whom I trusted and not deviate from the right way to lift. Just moving your toes out an inch can cause major damage so it is real important you are taught the right way and stick with it and not experiment or be swayed into change by those you do not know.

It takes physical endurance and muscle power to live as we have chosen to live. Now in our 70s we are able to both live this lifestyle because of preparation and staying fit earlier in life. If you are coming from a desk job or semi-physical job to mountain living, it is my personal experience that you need to be physically fit before you make the plunge.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and mountain living go to:

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We're Fine, Thanks. My bees think I’m hilarious, I can almost hear them laughing. I am indecisive and I second guess myself at the hive, mostly aloud, a lot. The bees hear all my insecurities and at times, taunt me.

They especially love when I crack open a hive, getting them good and mad, only to discover I do not have all the tools I need. I will make several trips to and from the bee yard retrieving forgotten tools and without fail my smoker will go out every time. I have combined hives, separated them and combined them again. I tried to level an uneven hive only to have it fall right off the stand onto the ground. An hour and many stings later, the girls suggested that I leave the hive uneven to which I obliged. I overstay my welcome at the hive sometimes and do more harm than good.  I went into a couple of troubled hives twice a week for four weeks straight trying to fix issues when on my husband’s suggestion I left the girls alone for three weeks. Upon my next inspection, three weeks later, I discovered that the girls had remedied all issues and were quite happy.

I have learned that beekeeping is patience, anticipation and trial by fire…or stinger. You are going to make mistakes, you are going to kill bees, you are going to make your bees very angry at times. It’s okay. This is how you learn and get better. It’s the times that you do the right thing at the right time and get awesome outcomes that you can almost hear them chanting your name.

I second guess myself a lot; I have a tendency to force things to my will. The more I relent and surrender, the better they do. It can give you a complex at first, but go with it.

The bees are my guide, I am not theirs. Don’t control the hive, learn to read it and help when they throw you the signals. Trust your bees and stay prepared. Let your bees be bees and give them some room.

It gives the term bee-space a whole new meaning. 

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orchardFall has descended on us here on Deer Isle. The Hostel is closed, the cucumber vines but a mere shadow of what they were a month ago and the Brassicas are singing in the much needed October drizzle. Fall is not only a great time to enjoy garden bounty and peak foliage but also a great time to plan for spring, and our plan is a new orchard.

Two years ago, we went to visit a friend of ours who had cleared an acre of his woodlot and now had 40 young apple trees growing there, in among a myriad of other edible and beneficial shrubs and plants. The area looked nothing like most people imagine an apple orchard—branches from the felled trees were left in big mounds to decompose and provide fertilizer, shrubs and brambles that had naturally planted themselves grew scattered throughout the area and each tree was encircled by herbs and flowers. Most people would describe what they saw as a mess, I would describe it as something I could do to, in our own backyard. Our friend's theory for this way of mimicking a diverse landscape in its natural state was based on the observation that he often found disease free and vigorous apples in the wild that when cultivated in a conventional orchard quickly got infested with pest and diseases. We revisited his orchard this fall and he told us that the more “orchard-looking” fruit trees he had up the road had severe problems with apple bores (one of the worst apple tree pests) while this natural-looking, poly-culture orchard had little to non apple bore damage.

Up until then the area behind the hostel building had been left pretty much as is was when Dennis started the clearing for our homestead. Dead and blown down trees in a thicket of brambles and brush. After our visit to our friend's new orchard, we've spent part of each winter cleaning up the mess and we now have a roughly 70-by-30 foot area where we'll plant the first fruit trees next spring. Time has been essential to observe and be resourceful, for example have we not wanted to fell more trees than we could stack in our wood shed so to not waste them and last year we realized that more drainage was needed, something which at that point the ground was too we to do.

We've also sampled our way through the island apple trees to find the varieties we'd like to grow—a mix of early and late, keepers and eaters, sauce apples and drying apples. In the winters, we've gathered our scion and in the spring we've grafted the trees on rootstock we bought from Fedco, a Maine fruit tree company. The young trees are growing in our vegetable garden and by spring they'll be ready to transplant to the new area.

With a couple of more snow free months, it's good to look ahead at see what can, and should, be done while the ground is still unfrozen and dry. We've dug more ditches, we'll run our pigs in the area to root up the brambles and rocks and we'll clean up and level the ground afterward. We'll decide where the trees will be planted, dig the holes and fill them with seaweed to fertilize the soil.

And as we're now starting to map out what besides the apple trees we'd like to grow and what other steps that are needed to take between now and spring we're also coming up with a set of goals or guidelines to keep in sight as we proceed.

Maximize the Edible Yield

We're planning an orchard with multiple edible trees, shrubs and plants that will produce food from the first year. Peach trees can be planted between the apple trees, they are comparatively short lived (12-15 years) and will be dead or declining by the time the apple trees start to produce fruit. Elderberries, viburnum, June berries, different cherry shrubs, blackberries, raspberries and Jerusalem artichokes are all good options as well as different annuals such as winter squash for example. We'll research mushrooms that could be inoculated and grown in wood chips in the shade underneath the trees.

Other Beneficial Plants

Many perennial herbs and flowers serve the purpose of both attracting pollinators, repelling pests and be useful for culinary and/or medicinal purposes. Some varieties high up on our list are echinachea, catnip, lemon balm and yarrow. Both planted varieties as well as common wild flowers, often seen as weeds in perennial gardens, fit the purpose to have something in bloom for pollinators from early April (daffodils, dandilion, wild strawberries) until late October (calendula, morning glory, marigold, asters, golden rods).

Make the Orchard Efficient

To keep the deer out we need to fence in the trees and the most efficient way is to do the whole area instead of caging the individual trees. The orchard will most likely expand as we keep increasing the clearing so some stretches of the fence need to be easy to move while some we'll be put in permanently. We have black locust logs that we'll mill and use as fence posts – they can last as long as 50 years. We can source most of the shrubs ourselves by taking cuttings or shoots from established plants around the island and we use the same local and natural fertilizers as in our gardens and our existing orchard—seaweed, horse manure and our own compost. Logs and branches from trees we've fell to create this space will be left around the fruit trees and along the paths to break down and create a habitat for mycelium and micro organisms.

Make the Orchard Durable and Sustainable

A sustainable edible landscape is one that is easy to maintain, will produce food from the first year and remain productive for a very long time. By grafting our apple trees on standard rootstock we'll give them a chance to outlive us by generations (100-year-plus apple trees are not uncommon) and the right set of companion plants will lessen the need for other pest management, such as spraying. By giving them rich soil and adequate drainage the plants in the orchard will be healthy and better able to resist diseases and pests, while producing more food for us.

A sustainable landscape is also one that's accessible and easy and comfortable to work in - we need to be able to get to all the trees with a wheelbarrow on flat and weed free paths and vegetation around each tree should be kept low so to easily see the tree trunk and it's base to detect pest problems in time.

It is an exciting time on Deer Isle, with so many apple trees for us to explore. As we climb, cling, pick, shake and search the bounty of untouched yet laden trees we often comment on how we, in a foreseeable future won't have to go further than to our own backyard to get all the apples we can eat.

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The 260-pound hog came toward me through a narrow chute, herded along from behind by the farmer, who tapped it on the flanks with a short stick to keep it moving. Beyond the chute, in a plank-fenced holding pen, I waited with a cocked-and-locked Colt Commander and a Schrade Extreme survival knife. When the hog had entered the holding pen, the farmer closed the gate, then stepped away several paces.

I disengaged the Colt's safety, and, when the pig turned toward me, I fired a .45-caliber Winchester SXT bullet through the top of its skull from a range of ten feet. The 230-grain expanding bullet exited through the underside of the hog's jaw with explosive force, plowing harmlessly into the dirt floor below. The animal collapsed in a heap, dead before it hit the ground.

But the nerve-wracking part was yet to come. I snapped the gun to safe, and quickly exchanged it for the already unsheathed knife. I'd been butchering "winter" hogs every autumn since I was a kid, and I knew the hard way that only about five seconds would pass before the creature's nervous system caused it to thrash wildly for about two minutes, until its heart ceased beating. To keep blood from coagulating inside major blood vessels, and imparting an unpleasant taste to the meat, a pig has to be bled-out before its heart stops. It's a race with time, and there's no time to be tentative; you really don't want a big hog to start kicking while you're holding a shaving-sharp blade.

The hog collapsed onto one side. With my left hand (I'm a southpaw), I thrust the tip of the Extreme hard into the side of its neck, just above the rib cage. There was slight resistance on penetration, then the blade slid in effortlessly to its hilt. I grasped my left hand with my right, and drew forcefully across the throat. It was a cold day, and the initial gush of aortal blood felt hot as it washed over my hands, but the blade easily parted a chasm as deep as its seven-inch length from one side of the neck to the other. I had just finished the job and stepped back when the big hog began thrashing, its violent gyrations accelerating blood loss from the huge gash my knife had made.

If that description sounds repulsive, imagine being the guy who does the shooting and cutting. But there was a saying in my family, "Sometimes you've gotta do the hard stuff," and before we could eat the pigs, cows, chickens and occasional goat we raised for meat, someone had to kill and butcher them. It was a lifestyle that gave kids a more grounded, less narrow perspective of the world than most get today, and a genuine, firsthand understanding of the realities of life and death.

Butchering animals also impressed on me at a young age the very real power a sharp blade has to pierce and rend flesh. The wound created to bleed a hog or cow would be horrific to a human body, far more damaging than a gunshot wound; the almost effortless way a sharp edge slices through the ribcage of a whitetail makes onlookers cringe; and the ease with which a large animal can be instantly dispatched by a slender-blade knife driven upward through the jaw, the upper palate, and into the brainpan is no less than frightening.

Contrary to one myth, a knife embedded in flesh is not held there by suction, nor is it the purpose of the so-called "blood groove," or fuller, to break said suction. A fuller, which has gone notably absent in modern knives, is put there to stiffen a blade that might otherwise flex when pressure is applied against its point. As for the suction myth, one old-timer observed that if a blade can cut its way in, it will also cut its way out.

As a weapon, only a shotgun can match a sharp blade in the amount of tissue damage it can create, and in a close-quarters, home-defense scenario no firearm is more likely to injure some part of an assailant. A single, blind strike in a dark room can eviscerate, or cause sufficient trauma to swiftly put a much larger opponent out of commission. James Bowie's brother, Rezin, has been credited with adding the handguard to his namesake knife after nearly cutting his own thumb off while using his belt knife—as the tale goes—to kill a charging bull.

Whether you buy that story or not, it was clearly the effectiveness of edged weapons that spurred the invention and evolution of projectile weapons, because the only safe defense against a determined assailant with a knife is to bring him down before he can reach you.

One federal officer tells me that during training he was instructed to shoot a knife-wielding assailant as soon as he or she approached to ten feet, because within that radius a knife was judged to be on par with a handgun in terms of lethality.

In reality, few of us are likely to use a knife as a weapon in our lifetimes, and, based on personal experiences with animals, I believe that is a blessing. Most of the folding and fixed-blade knives carried in public or in the wild will spend their existence performing mundane cutting chores; but, like the claws they emulate, intent can turn any of them into a ferocious weapon.

Advanced weapons technology has not lessened the decisive lethality that a keen cutting edge has demonstrated countless times over many millennia. If you have a knife, you're still very well armed.

Len McDougall is a full-time writer, survival instructor, and author of 16 books, most of them about the out-of-doors.  He lives surrounded by almost 3 million acres of public forest in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where he raised full-blooded gray wolves, under license, for 18 years.  You can view his books online.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

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