Written by Phil Brown, Badger Bushcraft Blog Sunday, 03 February 2013 13:44
There is nothing more satisfying, to my mind anyway, of reconnecting through bushcraft and survival skills with the proficiency, ability and cleverness of our ancestors and when time allows I like to experiment with primitive technology and the possible commonly used techniques employed by our ancestors. Over recent years I have been researching and testing how barks of various trees often used to make cordage, baskets, folded containers and the like respond to being rehydrated. For this short Badger Bushcraft Blog I produced some cordage with inner bark of the wych elm that been dried and rehydrated.
Wych elm (Ulmus glabra) also known a Scotch elm has nothing to do with witches, the word wych derives from the Old English word “wice” meaning supple or pliant, indeed our Mesolithic European ancestors from Holmegaard in Denmark were using elm some 9,000 years ago to produce bows and the inner bark of many varieties of elm have been long used to produce natural cordage.
During early 2012 as the buds were swelling and leaves forming on the long straight branches and shoots of a hedgerow that I know to be mainly wych elm I harvested many meters of bark to make cordage with and I wrapped some of this into small hanks to be dried for later use.
When rehydrating barks, especially when in sheets, I have found that warm water seems to penetrate further in the desiccated material. I have often heard it stated that our ancestors would have only have used bark for making cordage and other craft items during the spring and early summer months when the sap is rising and the bark is more easily removed and especially pliable for forming. My own belief is that whilst our ancestors might have taken advantage of harvesting materials when they are easiest to gather, thus being time and calorie efficient, they would have had cause and need to make their everyday items at any time of year. Perhaps barks of various sorts were dried, stored and then placed weighted down in ponds and streams allowing them to reabsorb fluid and become workable once again? This was a common process for making lime bast cordage although with lime bast retting, which is the bacterial decomposition of the lignin and pectin, was required to cause the separation of the individual bast layers.
As an experiment I wanted to see how pliable the wych elm bark would become by soaking it in cold water for 12 hours and I was pleasantly surprised with the results.
After half a day in cold water the bark was very supple and the outer bark was easy to remove, I scraped this off with my thumb nail with little effort. However the rehydrated bark had produced a thick starchy slime that needed to be removed. This goo contains, amongst other things, mucilage which include long chain polysaccharide carbohydrate molecules and protein. Varieties of elm of have been used as a famine food and in medicine, Culpeper’s “Complete Herbal” list a host of uses for elm, although the variety is not noted, that include “The leaves thereof bruised and applied to heal green wounds, being bound thereon with its own bark”.
With the slime rinsed and wiped off and the outer bark removed I then split down the inner bark to strands approximately 2mm thick and made a length of single ply cordage.
I then found the centre and folded the cordage in half and twisted into two-ply cord that became as thick as a 50pence coin that was strong enough to suspend a 20kg weight from.
I have now placed another hank of wych elm bark into a container of water and I will leave it for some weeks to see what happens.
With materials becoming easier to harvest in the coming months why not harvest and store some bark from a "string tree" and have you own experiments with rehydrating bark for bushcraft projects and craft use?
All the best,