Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Rest Of The Story

A few months ago I did a post about hybrid oaks, and research conducted at Texas A&M by H. Ness. Nowhere could I find reference to his full first name. In my mind I started thinking of him as "Herman" Ness, for no good reason.

For a few months, while tied up with some major transitions in my work, I completely missed the fact that a reader posted a comment with (with apologies to Paul Harvey) the rest of the story:

"Mr. Ness's name was not 'Herman.' It was actually worse. It's Helge. He was from Norway an dit may have gone over better there than in Texas. Are you familiar with J. Russell Smith's Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture? That is where I learned about Mr. Ness's efforts. Only one other guy is mentioned by Smith as having attempted to breed oaks: Thomas Q. Mitchell. The only thing I could find that Mitchell had written was an article titled 'Consider the Acorn' in the Feb 1948 issue of Harper's magazine. You have to be a subscriber to access it. Anyway, I enjoyed your post and thought you might like knowing about 'Helge.'"

How cool is that?? Thank you for commenting!
Do I know about Tree Crops? If considering it to be my bible means I know about it, then yes I know about it.
I will try to track down a copy of the Thomas Q. Mitchell article in Harper's. I'll let you know if I put my hands on it.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Stalking The Wild Acorn

As an aspiring, would-be, wannabe, someday-gonna-be writer I draw strength and inspiration from stories like that of Euell Gibbons, author of the 1962 classic Stalking The Wild Asparagus. In the edition a friend loaned to me (yes, I will give it back... someday) there is a wonderful introduction written in 1968 by environmental writer John McPhee.

McPhee writes of Gibbons: "In the years that followed, Euell worked as a cowboy. He pulled cotton. He was for a long time a hobo. He worked in a shipyard. He combed beaches. The longest period during which he lived almost exclusively on wild food was five years. All the while, across the decades, he wished to be a writer. He produced long pieces of fiction, and he had no luck.

"Discouragement seemed to come to him with inordinate frequency, so he was not surprised. He passed the age of fifty with virtually nothing published. He saw himself as a total failure, and he had no difficulty discerning that others tended to agree. Finally, after listening to the advice of a literary agent, he sat down to try to combine his interests... he told everybody else how to gather and prepare wild food... He called his first book "Stalking The Wild Asparagus." It became a part of the beginnings of the ecological uplift, and it sold well enough to get onto the best-seller lists. In each succeeding year, it sold more copies that it had the year before."

I'm struck by the similarity with Brian Jacques, author of the Redwall series I talked about in the previous post. Among his many & varied careers: Longshoreman, stand-up comedian, truck driver and playwright.

I believe Michener wrote his first novel at 45. Perhaps that's the magic age where you finally have something to say. I think my background is just itinerant enough, and certainly eccentric enough, to finally have a tale to tell. Or at least retell.

Back to Gibbons. It is very telling that the guy who knew more about eating wild food - a guy who actually lived for long periods of time only on wild food, and therefore knows first hand the RATIO of effort-to-sustenance inherent in each food - devotes the first chapter about a specific foodstuff to the acorn:

"If we consider the whole sweep of his existence on earth, it seems likely that mankind has consumed many millions of tons more of acorns that he has of the cereal grains, which made their appearance only during the comparatively recent development of agriculture. It seems a pity that the food which nourished the childhood of our race is today nearly everywhere neglected and despised."

The chapter goes on to describe several means of preparing and eating acorns... which I'll try myself and cover in future posts.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Redwall Rodents Get It Right!

My kids are huge fans of the Redwall story series by Liverpool author Brian Jacques... but first they have to fight me to read them since I'm an even bigger fan. Jacques has created an idyllic world in which the peaceful inhabitants of Redwall Abbey - mice, moles, squirrels, otters and badgers - live in peace and harmony (at least when not under threat by marauding stoats, evil weasels or greedy rats... there are probably those who decry Jacques' stereotyping of these "vermin" as such!).

But mostly what these happy rodents do inside the Abbey is feast. Jacques himself was very young during the food rationing of WWII, and recalls being disappointed when the adventure stories he loved would refer to a "great feast" but give no description of the fare. In writing the Redwall series he set out to correct this oversight, and describes the animals' (mostly vegetarian with the occasional freshwater shrimp for the benefit of the otters) lavish meals.

Prominent among the "victuals" are acorns. In 2 successive pages very early in the first book in the series we get these passages:

Abbott Mortimer is asking head chef Friar Hugo if they have enough food for the assembled throng. "And nuts? We must not run short of nuts." To which Hugo replies, "You name them, we've got them. Even candied chestnuts and acorn crunch. We could feed the district for a year."

Yes, with chestnuts and acorns you could feed a district for a year... and for thousands of years people did!

And then on the following page: "Brother Alf remarked that Friar Hugo had excelled himself, as course after course was brought to the table. Tender freshwater shrimp garnished with cream and rose leaves, devilled barley pearls in acorn puree, apple and carrot chews, marinated cabbage stalks steeped in creamed white turnip with nutmeg."

I'd love to know if Jacques' inclusion of acorns as a prominent part of the Abbey diet is based more on his assumption that acorns are what these creatures would eat, or if it is based on knowledge - conscious or subconscious - that acorns are what all creatures did eat, and should eat?

And yes, now that you're hungry, there is a Redwall Cookbook.