The month of June at the homestead means more than sunshine and beautiful swimming weather, for the much-welcomed warming temperatures also mean the arrival of a less agreeable part of early summer: mosquitoes and blackflies. Although the abundance of bugs will soon taper off, were it not for the smudge pot, Homestead life during the first weeks in June would be much less pleasant.
Although smudging may be more commonly known as a spiritual ritual involving the burning of incense to purify or cleanse an area, here on the Homestead it serves the more physical purpose of driving away the mosquitoes and blackflies set on making those of us here their next meal. When burned at a slow smolder, the bark from poplar trees produces an acidic smoke, which very effectively drives away airborne pests, making it possible to enjoy evenings outdoors. Recently, the mosquitos have discovered the benefits of spending the otherwise too sunny afternoons in the shelter of our lodge, and cooking or spending time indoors means doing so with a cloud of mosquitoes buzzing incessantly in one’s ears. Here too the smudge is effective in subduing them, and after a good smoking out, the lodge is habitable for an hour or so.
The effectiveness of a smudge all depends on its construction and maintenance. A metal can, such as the type coffee is sold in, makes an ideal smudge pot. A handle is easily fashioned by puncturing two holes in the can and fitting in stiff wire. Before any of the poplar bark can be added, a small fire must be started in the bottom of the can with dry tinder and kindling. It’s important that the fire be well established. As soon as small pieces of bark, the size of playing cards, are set over the flames, a thick white smoke will begin to billow out from under them. This is the type of smoke that will drive the bugs away. The smudge should be fed periodically throughout its use, and although it’s important not to overfeed it initially, once a substantial bed of coals has been built up, bits of bark can be compressed in tightly. If the smudge should ignite, a makeshift lid used to temporarily cut off oxygen should return it to the desired slow-burn. A tiny douse of water may also do the trick, and this is especially helpful if the bark is already very dry to begin with. Because of the fire risk, a smudge should never be left unattended.
The art of the smudge is all about striking the balance of airflow; too little and not enough smoke will be produced – too much and the bark will catch fire and burn too quickly. There’s a distinct knack in learning to judge the smoke coming from a smudge and know what it needs, but it soon becomes second nature.