The Far North is Famine Land, the world over, and to it we must look for examples of what men can subsist on when driven to the last extremity.
In all northern countries, within the tree limit, it is customary, in starving times, to mix with the scanty hoard of flour the ground bark of trees. It is possible to support life even with bark alone. The Jesuit missionary Nicollet reported, more than two centuries ago, that an acquaintance of his, a French Indian-agent, lived seven weeks on bark alone, and the Relations of the order, in Canada, contain many instances of a like expedient. Those were hard times in New France! Such an experience as this was dismissed with a single sentence, quite as a matter of course: "An eelskin was deemed a sumptuous supper; I had used one for mending a robe, but hunger obliged me to unstitch and eat it." Another brother says: "The bark of the oak, birch, linden, and that of other trees, when well cooked and pounded, and then put into the water in which fish had been boiled, or else mixed with fish-oil, made some excellent stews." Again: "they [the Indians] dried by a fire the bark of green oak, then they pounded it and made it into a porridge." It seems that the human stomach can stand a lot of tannin, if it has to do so.
The young shoots of spruce and tamarack, the inner bark (in spring) of pine, spruce, and hemlock, young leaf-stems of beech, hickory and other trees, the buds of poplar, maple and wild rose, and the young leaves and flowers of basswood are nutritious; but these can be had only, of course, in spring. Far better than oak bark are the inner barks of alder, quaking aspen, basswood, birch, sweet bay, cotton-wood, slippery elm (this especially is nutritious), white elm, pignut hickory, yellow locust, striped maple, poplar, and sassafras. The Chippewas boil the thick, sweetish bark of the shrubby bittersweet or staff-tree (Celastrus scandens) and use it for food. Young saplings of white cedar have a sweet pith of pleasant flavor which the Ojibways used in making soup.
The following entry in the diary of Sir John Franklin sounds naive, when stripped of its context, but there is a world of grim pathos back of it: "There was no tripe de roche, so we drank tea and ate some of our shoes for supper." The rock tripe here referred to (Umbilicaria arctica or Dillenii) is one of several edible lichens that grow on rocks and are extensively used as human food in lands beyond the arctic tree limit. Reindeer moss (Cladonia rangiferina) and the* well-known Iceland moss (Cetraris J.celandica) are other examples. These are starchy, and, after being boiled for two or three hours, form a gelatinous mass that is digestible, though repulsive in appearance, one of the early Jesuits likening it to the slime of snails, and another admitting that "it is necessary to close one's eyes to eat it".