Ancient ways to make rope

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In a Bushcraft situation, while making shelters, etc, it may be necessary to lash structures together. But what do you do if you don’t have any string or rope? Well, you can resort to making your own. There are many ways this can be done. We can use stems from certain fibrous plants or the inner bark of some species of trees – whether this be from the tree trunk, branch, or roots.

However, it is important to understand that a tree is a complex living structure, with a multi-faceted layering system moving nutrients and water through this structure. Surrounding the tree is the protective layer called the bark.

Bark has many functions. The inner, called the phloem, is a transport and storage system passing sugars from the leaves to the rest of the tree. The phloem lives for only a short period of time before dying and becoming part of the outer bark – the visible part we see. This dead outer layer has many functions, none less important than protecting the tree. The part of the bark that we are after is the phloem.

As the bark must be removed from a living tree, it is important to remember that this is very destructive to the tree and will lead to its death. So, do not do what is called ‘ringing’, which is removing a band of bark from around the tree. By doing so, you sever the tree’s transport/storage system. A better option would be to cut off a suitable branch. Better still, look for a tree that has been uprooted by elephant, or otherwise compromised, by some natural cause. Remember, dead trees are host to thousands of living organisms and processes feeding the surrounding soil, so make your impact as minimal as possible.

The type of tree it is will influence how easy it is to get the bark off. Some will be a lot easier than others, so it may take a bit of experimenting. Knobthorn, Sickle bush and Common wild fig are good choices. Then there are two ways in which cordage can be made. Firstly, the inner phloem from very fibrous trees can be removed in very thin strips and then woven together to produce a thick twine-like string. Secondly, we can simply remove strips of inner bark, if that is possible, and knot them together. This is a very simple approach, as it can be done quickly without the need for a lot of preparation. This is the technique I prefer if it is at all possible.

For the purposes of this article, I used the root from a tree which had just been cut down. I trimmed the root into a 30cm length to give me an even spread of bark, as the root tapered with several branches which would have made it hard to peel off.

Removing the bark is then simply a matter of drawing a knife the length of the root, and peeling it away. Once the bark has been separated, the phloem can be teased away from the outer bark in strips. The width of the strips which peel away will depend on the type of tree being used.

As soon as the strips have been removed, they will begin to dry out. If they are not going to be used straight away, their suppleness will be lost and it will be difficult to wrap them around whatever you are trying to secure together and tie a knot. To help retain their suppleness, place them in water. Keeping the bark wet will also make it easier to remove the phloem.

You may want to lengthen the strands of bark removed from the tree, in which case you simply tie more sections together.

Tail-end

One of the benefits of using this type of cordage over other types, is that as it begins to dry out, it will shrink against whatever it is holding in place, giving a very tight grip. It is also less likely to come loose. As I have previously mentioned, this technique is a lot easier than trying to strip bark fibres and weave them together.

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