Jeff Gottlieb has been a major force in adding to my interest in how Native Americans used nature for their survival. Early on, he taught himself the physical properties of plants, rocks, and animals. For example, one time he said, “Look how this hickory sapling bends without breaking. It’s perfect for wigwam framing. To make a cattail mat, cut them as close to the bottom as possible, separate them, and lay them on the ground to dry in sunshine.”
Our friendship grew as I accompanied him on foraging and construction trips. Through all this, I deepened my respect for the intelligence of our First People or Native American Indians. Jeff taught me how to survive by learning how to use nature.
One of his early experiences was two weeks in New Jersey where he underwent rigorous challenges with expert Tom Brown in the Pine Barrens. He was challenged to spend several days alone with just a knife.
Jeff wrapped a wet rattan strip in order to fasten two saplings. He criss-crossed the wrap, pulled the two ends tight then tied. He was building a wigwam frame. He builds wigwams with his hands, natural materials, and knows how. He gets commissions to construct both domes structures and long houses. Jeff practices primitive technology. He needs a pair of strong hands as well as a good jack knife.
He finds his materials in the forest. Maple, cedar, and hickory saplings bend easily. He ties two ends together to make an arch, then more arches, which he ties together like the framework of a house. Frequently, I help.
The wigwams he builds serve as educational props. They are used to teach how indigenous Native Americans used them as shelter. After the frame is finished, he starts to cover the frame with either large slabs of bark which he has peeled off tree trunks, bundles of reeds, or cattails. He often goes to lumber mills to strip tulip tress bark. He pries the bark off with a plat iron and his hands. This is only one of dozens of skills he has acquired to create products that show how the first people, the red skins, the indigenous who occupied North America long before Europeans arrived.
“Take this tool and hack tall reed grass, as much as you can.” He asks. “Tie them in bundles. I will stack them against the fame in an overlap to waterproof the lodge.” Slowly, the structure took shape. It usually takes a week to complete. Jeff is paid to build wigwams. A good, well cared-for wigwam will last about five years. When he will get a message to come back and make repairs, he gets paid for it.
One early spring, we decided to tap black walnut trees, collect the sap, and make syrup. I had dozen mature black walnut trees n my property. We made spiles (hollow taps), and attached plastic gallon milk containers to hold the sap. About weekly, we’d empty the containers into five gallon buckets. This went on until we had 15 gallons of sap which we stored in a walk in refrigerator.
When it was time to evaporate the sap, Jeff obtained a large, rectangular stainless steel tray. We built a fire, poured sap and kept the fire going for five hours. The liquid bubbled, we added more weed, we talked, we carved, we savaged for more dry wood. It was late March, rather chilly and damp. We stayed close to the fire, keeping an eye out for adding firewood and more sap. Six hours later, we had a pint of rust-colored syrup. We split the syrup in to half- pints and called it a day. This was more about friendship, experimentation, and trying something new. Native people used clay vessels, tapped maple trees, and collected the sap as we did, and boiled it down. At dusk, in Jeff’s kitchen, we made pancakes and topped it off with black walnut syrup. Yum! It was the journey, not the destination.
Jeff can flint knapp, a term for making arrow points. His strong hands can firmly hold a piece of flint, and chip off flakes around the edges with his free hand holding the tip of a deer antler. It takes time to create a pointed arrow with two sharp cutting edges and a base that can be hafted onto a straight shaft.
Jeff can make fire using a bow drill, spindle, and friction board. He spins a spindle that sit into a conical hole. With vigorous spinning the friction generates a tiny red hot coal. He carefully transfers this to fine tinder and blows on it until a flame pops up. He has various sized of wood to keep the fire going.
I watched Jeff teach a class on how to make moccasins from rawhide. The rawhide came from deer hide that he processed. He used a bone needle to sew. He made the bone needle by sanding a bone against a sandstone rock and scraping an eye using a sharp piece of flint left over from flint knapping.
Jeff can make string, rope, or cord from plant inner bark. He uses the bark of a basswood tree, removing the inner layer, and twisting wet fibers, adding to them to create long strings for other projects. He showed me how to use dogbane stalks to make very strong string.
Jeff can carve ax handles and fashion stones to make an axe. He can make bark baskets and can dry thin slices of deer meat to make jerkey.
I went crabbing with Jeff. He showed me his patient skill of just knowing when to slowly pull the crab and bait close enough to grab it with a net ( which he made).
One of Jeff’s most important possessions is his jack knife which he always carries in his pocket. He has learned how to keep the blade razor sharp.
I have accompanied Jeff on several annual Christmas Counts for the Audubon Society. We identify and count every species we can from daylight to daybreak, then report our findings at a gathering.
He is constantly learning new skills. Recently he moved to North Carolina In the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. He build a straw bail house, lives with no electricity, collects water off his metal roof, and grows several fruit trees and has a garden. He is living very close to a sustainable lifestyle.
Jeff has given me my own personal native name. “Many Voices”. In a native tradition, the elder of a tribe gives a name to the teenagers based on what they observed as they grow up. I am a grownup with many voices…poetry, essay, sketching, and asking lots of questions. Knowing Jeff has given me a deeper understanding and love for our precious environment.