For the last 13 years, Caleb Musgrave has taught everything from wilderness survival all the way to Indigenous food systems and lifeways through his business, Canadian Bushcraft.
Musgrave and I have been good friends for three years and have run some workshops together through organizations like Kawartha Land Trust and Diverse Nature Collective and I am constantly learning from him.
He has taught me how to properly skin a beaver; the most effective ways of removing quills from porcupine roadkill (there was a totally normal reason for me needing these quills!); as well as gardening tips and tricks.
I sat down with him a few weeks ago to learn more about Annishinaabeg food systems for Peterborough Currents. We talked about his experiences, what drives his passion for teaching and what he thinks are the most Anishinaabeg foods.
Patricia Wilson: What inspired you to start Canadian Bushcraft?
Caleb Musgrave: I realized that there was a lack of Indigenous knowledge within the realm of survival training as well as bushcraft and other wilderness living skills.
The real truth is that my plan was to learn as much as I could, bushcraft and survival wise, so that I could disappear and never come back. For most of my adolescence and childhood I have been somewhat of a misanthrope, I didn’t like humanity, and I wanted to be able to have the skills to take off into the bush and never come back.
PW: Wow! I’m surprised by this because you are so great with people and sharing your knowledge! So what made you change your mind?
CM: As I started gaining more and more knowledge and skills, things shifted. Through a series of different conversations and observations I learned a lot and quickly realized that it would be extremely selfish and arrogant of me to disappear and not share my knowledge with others. So I decided to stay behind and teach and have always loved teaching youth and people in general these skills.
PW: So when did you start learning all of this knowledge? Were you taught from childhood/your community? How long did it take you to learn what you know now?
CM: I started learning at around eight or nine years old, from different relatives. At 13 years old I had a mentor for about seven or eight years and then from there I went off on my own and learned from other people. I’ve traveled all over the United States, from deserts to the everglades. I sought out Indigenous people, tribe folk and other knowledgeable people in this industry and took in everything I could.
I still travel (up until this pandemic) and learn a lot from others to this day.
PW: That’s incredible, I love that you are still constantly learning and developing different skills. Being a leader in this industry it’s surprising to hear that you still have MORE to learn! So you mentioned before that you like educating youth – is that your main passion within this industry?
CM: My passion is educating everyone. Youth is a driving force, but it’s everyone and anyone who comes my way. Whether it’s knowing what plants not to eat or wipe your ass with, or knowing how to build a fire, shelters or even baskets. I like teaching and showing people how to create with our hands and become confident in the woods.
I hate seeing people who are uncomfortable in the woods – even just simply crapping in the woods is hard for a lot of people. It’s absurd to me how scared they are at the sounds of wildlife at night and everything else.
PW: I couldn’t agree more! I think it’s a testament to how disconnected we as people have become with the land, which is truly sad because it offers so much to us. That leads me to my next question – talk to me about traditional Anishinaabeg food! What is included in the Anishinaabeg food system?
CM: So a food system is how a traditional diet of a certain group of people works. It’s more than the dirt that grows the food – it’s the tools used to harvest the food.
Using manoomin (wild rice) as an example, the tools would be the ricing sticks, canoes, etc. It’s the parts that make it all happen, the songs that are sung at ceremonies for those foods. It’s the traditional language, concepts and stories around this food. All of these things are integrated and connected to create that one meaning.
PW: So from your experience what is a staple Anishinaabeg food and what are the most important foods for Anishinaabeg people?
CM: The most Anishinaabeg food in my opinion is manoomin.
It’s hard to pick just one food source as the whole system is connected and so everything is important. But if I had to pick: acorns, maple sugar and manoomin would be the best plant based staples for the Anishinaabeg people.
Manoomin is one of the best food sources for many reasons. Nutritionally speaking it’s the most balanced grain there is. When Anishinaabeg people would harvest in the early 1900s, a sustainable harvest from Rice Lake, Ont., would be 10,000 bushels in a season. Each bushel is roughly 62 lbs which means annually 620,000 lbs of manoomin was harvested from just Rice Lake.
This traditional food is easy to harvest and to process and while you’re harvesting you are also re-seeding the area for next year’s harvest so it’s self-sustaining.
Manoomin is also food that is offered at ceremonies, and it’s a food that you have available for visitors in the middle of winter. Manoomin is the Mnidoowag grain: a grain that belongs to the Spirit. When we have ceremony, we need to offer manoomin to feed them as well.
Mitigamin (acorns) are high in fat and can keep for a long time. If you dry them and keep them in their shells, they can keep for five years. This is a staple food that you can rely on again and again as long as you time it right with bumper crops, you will have a lot of food.
Ziinzibakwaad (maple sugar) is another big staple food item. Traditionally, we were yielding around 200 lbs per person per household. It’s used in trade for goods, it’s used in meat and fruit dishes, preserves and beverages.
Unfortunately sugar bush production levels have been taking a huge hit over the past few years and over the next 10 years maple syrup in Canada is going to change drastically. Warmer winters mean lower sap production, so climate change will have a huge effect on this staple food source.
In the winter during the sugar bush, women, children and elders would stay back at the winter camps while the youth and grown men would go into the bush to work the sugar bush. They wouldn’t take any food with them because they did not want to leave the remaining women and children without food. They also didn’t take weapons because they didn’t have the time to hunt and trap.
Anishinaabeg are smart hunters – they wouldn’t waste time tracking down animals but instead they would set snares and traps. There’s this stereotype of natives as great mighty hunters… we were but we were also better trappers. The Anishinaabeg were most sought after during the fur trade because we produced the highest volume/best quality furs.
PW: So in your own backyard you’ve been expanding your garden and creating this amazing and almost self sustaining food forest. Are you growing mostly traditional and native foods?
CM: I grow Eastern Woodland Nations foods: Anishinaabeg Calico Flint corn, Kahnawá:Ke Pole beans and Lene Lenape squash, but I have also been experimenting with Hopi beans and corn – these require less water, as they were cultivated in arid desert conditions.
We have been seeing more and more drought conditions since 2016. So I have been looking for different foods that tolerate less water. At my place, I don’t have a continuous water source to draw from so I’m looking for plants that can handle more sunlight and less water – I’m experimenting with everything.
PW: I always love visiting your garden/food forest and seeing it thrive and change each time I visit. What has been the craziest part of your growing journey?
CM: Getting good soil. Good soil can be one of the biggest challenges to growing food in a sustainable way.
Figuring out the biochar method, raising ducks for manure etc. and how to mix everything in a good way to make different foods do well. Clay sucks. It needs to be more than just potting soil from a garden supply. You need diversity and life in that damned dirt.
PW: In your garden, what’s one plant that has been your biggest source of pride?
CM: My biggest pride is my corn.
We were able to bring back traditional Anishinaabeg corn to Ontario, in a place where we are completely landlocked by [genetically modified] corn. Here in Mississauga territory, where all we have is genetically modified crops, our corn is still pure.
PW: Given your knowledge and experience with growing both native and non native foods – what is one thing you want people to know?
KILL YOUR LAWN! Grow food instead. Lawns are the largest monocrop and are absolutely useless.
I don’t care about your soil or what you want to grow/where you get your food from – you can grow food anywhere.
Ancestral Amazonians terraformed the Amazon rainforest into Terra Preta (the black earth) by taking biochar (same concept I use) and adding plant matter, animal carcasses, potsherds, etc. and put it into soil with biochar and rotting logs. 3,700 years later we are still growing food here.
Having poor soil isn’t a good enough excuse not to grow food. People all over the world change their soil to fit what they need to grow. You don’t need to be a rocket surgeon to figure it out!
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Musgrave shares a ton of knowledge and covers a wide range of topics from hunting to bushcraft skills and Indigenous perspectives on the land using his social media platforms and podcasts which are available here: http://www.canadianbushcraft.ca/
And to learn more about Musgrave’s growing practices, his soil transformation and to see his newly converted backyard food forest, check out the recording of ‘Introduction to Traditional Food Systems,’ an event hosted by Diverse Nature Collective and the Trent Central Student Association.
Patricia Wilson is a nature lover at heart, and passionate about increasing diversity and inclusion within the conservation and environmental world. Patricia has worked within the environmental non-profit sector for six years and has experience in ecological restoration, land stewardship and invasive species management, trail development and community outreach. She currently works with Kawartha Land Trust as their Community Conservation Coordinator. She also holds a BSc from Trent University in Conservation Biology as well as a diploma in Ecosystem Management from Fleming College. Patricia knows that in order to create lasting change, we need to come together to mobilize and empower BIPOC voices, and this led her to create the Diverse Nature Collective.