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GOING FOR GOLD: HARVESTING CALIFORNIA CANE

By Ted Anderson 

             1977 I came to California from Idaho to learn to make uilleann pipe reeds. I had met Sean Folsom earlier in the year. Except for Patrick Sky, Sean was about the only reed maker for these pipes in the US at the time. Tim Britton and David Quinn were just getting going and Bill Ochs was making some reeds in New York. Patrick Hennelly, pipe-maker in Chicago was no longer making reeds, but he said Kevin Henry was making some. Tom Busby in New York occasionally made reeds. He liked 1-1/8 inch diameter tubes. In Ireland there were more reed makers, most notably Paddy Keenan, Finbar Fury, Matt Kiernan, Seamus MacMathuna, who drew an anchor on his reed blades, and Dan O’Dowd. Maurice Kennedy was just stopping production at the time and Alan Ginsberg of London was making pipes and reeds. There were a few others as well, many unknown to me by name but I saw their work in chanters just brought back from Ireland. One piper had a chanter with an elder reed in it.

            Sean would get chanters sent to him for reeding from all over the US and Canada. Often the chanters would sit around for weeks until Sean got the time or the mood to sit up into the wee hours of the morning making reeds, fueled by endless tea and biscuits as well as occasional candy bars and Cokes. I began gathering together or making the tools needed for the job.

            Someone gave me some copies of older reed making tips which were published in mimeographs by NPU early on. They included Tom Busby’s notes on Michael Carney’s reed making, “The Ulster Solution” by O’Mealey and a couple of others. They were of some help. Pat Sky’s “The Insane Art of Making Reeds” was a little booklet which was later reproduced in Pat’s tutor. Sean had a copy of it. I was fortunate to be able to get tips from Paddy O’Neil, Dan Sullivan and Leo Purcell, all older pipers in California. Although he didn’t make reeds, Thomas Standeven was a wealth of information, having garnered information from a number of older pipers.

            Sean was gathering wild cane from a farm that raised turkeys near Manteca, California. Sean had already gotten a batch of cane from Medir in Spain. The Spanish cane was too hard for making UP reeds, so Sean put it away for use in wet-blown reeds for some of the bagpipe collection he was just beginning to put together. The California cane was far better for UP, as it was much softer than the Spanish or the French bassoon cane that I had gotten.

            Sean introduced me to Dan Sullivan who was living in Sonoma. Dan made reeds with only a pocket knife for a tool. His reeds looked crude but played beautifully. He had a stack of letters from Leo Rowsome in which Leo would ask for more cane. Dan had lots of cane stuck up in the rafters and all over his garage. He would only send Leo about a shoe box full of tubes at a time. He said Leo would not have written to him as often if he sent a larger supply. Dan had collected most of the old uilleann pipes in the bay area and had been doling them out to pipers who were taking up the instrument. Dan harvested cane along Sonoma Creek. Very soon, Project Arundo began destroying all the cane along Sonoma creek, as it is considered an invasive species. It was all gone in a matter of months. Project Arundo was formed to combat cane where ever it grows in California.

            Sean and I went to the turkey farm to harvest more cane. The farmer had sold most of the cane to a movie production company from Hollywood, who dug it up and used it to plant along a river and then blew it up in a movie with scenes about Viet Nam. Unfortunately, they took the end of the cane break that had the rare one inch diameter tubes Sean used. What was left was too small. I had harvested cane along the Russian River and other areas close to where I lived, but it was about as hard as the Spanish cane. I began driving with Sean around Northern California looking for stands of cane big enough to produce one inch tubes. We passed up a lot of cane that was only up to 22mm diameter. Most of these stands are now gone, victims of Project Arundo. Sean had discovered the best results were gotten from cane which had died and was standing dead in the cane break. Denis Brooks told me that Dan also harvested dead standing cane. There are a lot of myths about harvesting cane at least twenty feet from the water or at least ten feet above the water etc, etc., but they have not panned out in practice. I get any dead stalks I can find.

            After cutting the stalks in the field, I put them bundled up in the rafters of my garage. When cured for a couple of more years, I took them down and cut the stalks into individual tubes and sorted them by diameters. On each tube of cane is a scar from where the branches grow. It makes a hard streak down the tube below the scar. I cut about an 1/8th inch wide strip out of the tube including the scar. You don’t want that hard strip on one side of a reed. A one inch tube, after removing the strip could still yield five half inch slips. Most pipers were using 7/8 to 1 inch diameter cane, following Dan O’Dowd’s method. After a few years, just when I was going to consign a bunch of  3/4 to 7/8 inch diameter tubes to the fire, Geoff Woof wrote and asked for that size of cane. I was glad to get it to him rather than burn it. Several European customers had me cut the tubes into 4 1/2 inch long slips and pre-gouge the slips so the weight would be less than tube cane and they could ship in a small package, saving a bundle in postage costs.

            Sean and I harvested some beautiful cane by a marina near Lodi. It was the best quality we had ever found. The next time we retuned, the marina had removed all the cane there and it was replaced with river rock. I continued hunting cane on my own. I discovered some stands along the Sacramento River on the side of the levee away from the river and along side an orchard. It had lots of larger cane and much of it was quite soft and produced lovely tone. I seldom saw any grey mold on cane from this source. I have often marked cane from this source with a green marking pen. I called it my “green” source. This, along with a few stands near to it, were my main source for several years. About twelve years ago, the farmer who owned it tried to slash and burn the cane to get rid of it. It re-grew and began producing dead stalks five years later. About four years ago the farm sold. The new owner ripped out the orchard and the cane. The levee slope where the cane grew was paved over with asphalt.              A few miles away lays a stand along the river that must be hiked into. It is about a hundred feet deep by a mile long. There is little or no dead cane available on the land side of the cane. It is best approached from the river bank. This is now my main source. Tubes from there are marked with a dark blue marker and I call it my blue source. Much of this cane that has some grey mold on it. Maybe one tube in five will have no mold, as there are protected micro-climates within the cane stands that are less wet so that cane doesn’t get moldy. As it grows in the same soil type, it produces some cane that is as good in tone as the now defunct green source. Fog lies on the river most nights so some of the cane gets grey mold. The fog didn’t get to the green source cane.

            When I first met Paddy Keenan I gave him this analogy. When I harvest cane, I take whole stalks and bundle them up. After they lie in the rafters for two years, I cut them into individual tubes. A certain amount is rejected, being too small, crooked or whatever. The cane is sorted into boxes by size and moldy or mold free. Paddy likes one inch diameter cane. The boxes of that size, mold free are a much smaller part of the whole harvest. Paddy then goes through the boxes and selects the best soft cane he can find. “He has refined the harvest like refining gold out of a lot of rock”, I tell him. Paddy called the selected cane “the gold”, not me, but it was based on my analogy. To me the gold is the hand selected cane from a good source that produces musical cane. When I met him in 1986, Paddy was down to the last two tubes of cane his father had gotten in a large box from Spain years ago. He disliked the Medir cane they were shipping then and he thought he may never pipe again as he did not have a source for good cane. He made a couple of reeds from some of my cane I had with me my pipe case. He declared it was as good as or better than his fathers’ cane. I offered him any cane he wanted from my supply of hundreds of tubes. He only took eight tubes with him.

            Some of the cane I harvest is hard but good sounding reeds can be made of it. There is plenty of hard cane in California. Soft cane is more rare. The softer cane sources in northern California have been a focus of mine for 35 years. A customer got a batch of cane a short time ago and tried the first tube, which he found to be hard. He got angry and threw the rest of it in the bin. It was hauled away before I told him there was a lot of good soft cane in his bin. It was mostly top grade cane, though a  odd hard tube may have been encountered.

            The quality of musical cane may be a combination of genetics and habitat. The good cane has less fibro-vascular (sap carrying) bundles than the harder cane possibly due to genetics. The dunk test yields a 45% sink with my best cane. The soils in which my cane is grown are silty sand with high alumina. Cane from different sources will have different characteristics like degree of hardness. This is largely due to different minerals in the soil.

            Cane stalks have a life span of four to five years. It comes out of the rhizome (roots) the diameter it will always be and does not increase in diameter as it gets older. The walls do get thicker with age. Cane for oboe and clarinet etc. reeds is cut green at two years of age and cured for three years before using. Medir has sold uilleann pipers one year old thin-walled cane as soft cane. It is not the same stuff they produced years ago and not very suitable. Medir buys cane from locals who harvest it in the wild so it is quite variable. I would like to go to Spain and show them the kind of cane we want. Much of what they ship is hard and not very useable. Some is passable. When a stalk dies, the leaves dry up and the cane goes from a green to a yellow or to a tan color. For a year and maybe more after the stalk dies, it is harvestable. By the second year grey mold begins its process and by the third year it is completed. I store stalks at least a year before cutting them into tubes and try to store them another year before using. Curing involves more than just drying the cane. It is the process of various fungi, bacteria and viruses acting on the sap in the cane to break it down into a stable form. This process takes 3 years from the death of the stalk to complete and reach stability.

            I last did a major harvest in 2004. Since then, I relied on stock on hand to fill cane orders. After discovering the demise of the green source, I was depressed and only had limited success harvesting from the blue source. A few years ago, Sampson Cane in southern California made a major push to harvest and sell California cane. My sales fell off, but I was glad for the break. A number of old customers who had bought Sampson cane have been contacting me for the high percentage of softer cane I had supplied to them. While good reeds could be made from the Sampson cane and it was fairly consistent, they were not finding much of the soft cane they had gotten from me. I asked Joseph Sampson about this. He said his previous source had only about one soft tube in eight harvested. His new source as of last November yields more soft cane, about one out of three. Sampson does not cure his cane further after harvesting. He feels that if he can break the cane loose from the rhizomes, without cutting, that the cane is 3 years dead. I take issue with that. That is why I have cured it at least two more years before shipping. It’s been dead about a year already when I harvest it. I snap off or cut any cane that is dead. I always check to see that there are no green leaves growing from branches before I harvest. A small amount of still living cane comes along with the dead cane by accident.

            Many times stable reeds can be made from just harvested cane. If the process of curing has not been completed, some of the reeds can change characteristics, such as pitch and tuning, as the sap continues to break down in the finished reed. Luckily, this doesn’t happen very often.

            After going to Ireland in the spring of 2012, I had almost exhausted my back stock of cane. This year I made a major push to harvest again. I was quite successful and have built up my stock of all the sizes used for UP. A new area of the blue source presented itself this year and I will continue to harvest it when the temperature falls back to 80 degrees or less. I have continued to harvest drone cane as well, most of it from sources closer to home. I can harvest chanter cane much closer to home as well, but the cane is harder than the river cane that I harvest from over a hundred miles from where I live. There is a lot of hard chanter cane near to me. Harder cane is a plus for drone reeds.

            Drone cane is best harvested in mid-summer, when the cane is green and living. It is cured at least two years after harvest. While drone reeds can be made from branches off of chanter cane, the best reeds are made from the rare small tubes growing straight up from the rhizomes. It is more uniform in wall thickness than the branches. This is the drone cane I mostly go after. I will use branch cane if it is round and firm. Getting drone cane with the sap still running in it yields reeds with a lot of springiness in the tongue. Some dead branch cane is brittle and the tongues snap off when making reeds from it.

            Having refilled my stock of cane this season, I will cut it up and sell it, like Sampson does, without my normal curing time. You can let it sit at your house and cure. You can take your chances and make reeds from some of it right away. While whole stalks of cane cure well where I now live, the cut up tubes absorb moisture from the sea air and grow other types of mold from the cut ends. After cutting it into tubes, I will store it in plastic boxes in a storage unit inland, where the humidity is less. Contact me at: bigsurtapes@sbcglobal.net if you want to try my type of California cane. You can also write me at: PO Box 168, Tomales, CA 94971. I don’t advertise it as “the gold”. The gold may be found within the batch of cane you get from me. It is the softer, musical cane prized by pipers the world over. Many will use no other. It is not from the same sources as the Sampson cane. It is a different animal. Over 2/3 of my harvest is softer cane. Not all California cane is the same and not all of it can be called “the gold”.

            Cane should not be stored directly in contact with a cardboard box; cardboard contains acid which can change the hardness of the cane where it is in contact. Place a plastic bag in the box first or use plastic storage bins. Do not close up the bag or bin but allow air to circulate around your stored cane. I have soft cane which was harvested 12 to 20 years ago which has not hardened much over time. Hard cane will keep getting harder over time.

            I encourage anyone who lives where cane grows to search it out and try to find useable sources. Over the years some have. Joseph Smith found good cane in Florida. The So. Calif. Piper’s Club found good soft cane near San Juan Capistrano. Michael O’Donovan found useable cane in Los Angeles. Joseph Sampson jumped on the bandwagon and is harvesting and selling cane from around the Ventura area. Someone brought me a cigar box of drone sized cane at the So. Cal. tionol a few years back that he thought was phragmites. It turned out to be all small Arundo Donax. I do not recall where that cane came from, but I would like to get more of it. There are rare stands of small tubed Arundo Donax that grow from less than 1/8 inch to almost a half inch in diameter growing straight up from the rhizomes. There is no large cane in these stands. There is a lot of phragmites around. It is mostly not useable for reeds. Keep your eyes open and investigate any cane you find. You just might find a premium source.

Cane is the soul of the instrument

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