Tuesday, June 22, 2010

California Dreamin'

I was just in California.
When not crusading to go "back to the future" and establish a modern balanoculture (culture of acorn eating) I sell horticultural and forestry growing supplies. Always have, always will. Coming up with ways to grow things better and help plants overcome the unique stresses they face in a modern world of uncertain climate, increased deer damage, and a plethora of exotic and invasive weeds and insects is what I do. It's in my blood.

The trip was fantastic in two respects. First it was a great reminder that even in these difficult times there is opportunity everywhere if you look hard enough (and many times even if you don't).

The second was to see the oak-dotted hillsides (with the grass dried to its summer golden brown) with new eyes, the eyes of a balanophage. It was in California among its many indigenous cultures that acorn eating survived the longest, well into the 20th century as common practice and to the present among those who are working so hard to preserve their traditional way of life.

I love the work I do in the vineyard & orchard industries, and the endless creativity and drive to do things better and more efficiently on the part of the farm managers I call on. But driving through California I see constant reminders that this industry is an artificial construct, the happy but temporary and ultimately unsustainable marriage of virtually unlimited sunlight and extremely limited irrigation. Turn off the water and within months you're back to desert with just the skeletons of grapevines or almond trees.

I see the fuel that goes into growing these crops, and the unbelievably hard work that it takes. I have immense respect for anyone who makes his or her living by growing crops.

But when I see the oaks on the hillsides of California I see both the past and what I hope will be the future. These oaks were actively tended by the Native Americans who relied on them for a large part of their diet, but since those oaks evolved to grow there they didn't require much work - just occasional burning to reduce competition and make acorns easier to gather come autumn. These oaks supported a very large population - a pre-European contact population that was, by all accounts, extremely healthy and well fed, and a population that could gather a huge percentage of its caloric and nutrients needs for the entire year in a few short weeks of work.

... and yet everyone I know in the horticulture industry works extremely hard and is constantly complaining that they never have enough time to do enough fishing or just plain relaxing.

The answer is right there, on those golden hillsides.

And if I could get me cell phone camera to talk to my email I'd have pictures to show you... I'll work on that tomorrow.

UPDATE: Here's one photo of an oak-dotted Central California hillside. Makes me hungry. Makes me long for a simpler life.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Oak Wilt Watch: So Far So Good

Quick update on the red oaks across the street that I have been concerned about: So far they look good, and it appears that the preventative fungicide injection done by S&S Tree Care is working.

Regular readers will remember that on May 22, 2009 - smack dab in the middle of the "danger zone" period for the spread of oak wilt - a hack fly-by-night "tree care" company pruned my neighbor's (a.k.a. nicest old lady in the world) gorgeous red oaks. I happened to be away at work that day and arrive home too late to stop the carnage.

As I feared, later in the summer one of those amazing trees, a 36" diameter beauty, succumbed to oak wilt. Unlike many fungal diseases oak wilt has a very inefficient method of spread from one area to another. In April, May and June spore mats - the reproductive phase of the disease - form on red oak trees that had been infected the previous year. These spore mats exude a sweet, fermenting smell that attracts an insect called the picnic beetle. The picnic beetles feed on the sweet exudate of the spore mat, and in the process fungal spores adhere to the insect. The the bug flies off in search of the next sweet, fermenting smell. It could be your potato salad at a family reunion, or it could be the sap flowing from a freshly wounded oak tree. If it's the latter, while feeding on the sap the fungal spores are spread to the new tree.

Like I said, very inefficient, very hit-or-miss. Were it not for unwitting homeowners and unscrupulous "tree care" companies the overall effect of oak wilt would be very limited.

However, once that one tree is infected with the fungus the disease now become deadly efficient in the way it spreads. First, it actually causes the tree to kill itself. Trees naturally for gums called tyloses to plug vascular (water and nutrient conducting) tissues containing a pathogen in an attempt to compartmentalize that pathogen and prevent its spread to other parts of tree. However, the oak wilt fungus spreads so quickly within the tree that very soon the tree plugs the vascular tissue around its entire circumference and literally starves or strangles itself to death in a futile attempt to block the spread of the fungus.

While spore mats form only on red oaks (red, black and northern pin), both red oaks and white oaks (including white, bur and swamp white) are susceptible. Once infected red oaks, as in the case of my neighbor's tree, can die in a matter of weeks. White oaks can survive for some years before finally succumbing to the disease.

Second, the fungus then exploits an amazing adaption of oaks: Oaks of like species for root grafts or unions with neighboring trees. Whether this is an amazing display or boreal socialism and an attempt to share the water and nutrients of a site to give its own species to spread and fill spaces that otherwise would not support oak growth, or an act of boreal parasitism enabling stronger individuals to rob the resources of surrounding trees, I'm not sure.

From the standpoint of the oak wilt fungus, however, what this adaptation does is provide a superhighway to spread to surrounding oak trees... in a hurry (I believe the rate of spread through the roots is about 20 feet per year).

So from that one hit-or-miss infection an entire stand of red oaks or northern pin oaks or bur oaks can be wiped out.

There are two ways to stop the root zone spread of oak wilt to adjacent trees: Use of a deep vibratory plow to mechanically sever the root grafts, and injection of adjacent trees. In my neighbor's case the proximity of sidewalks, driveway and underground cables made trenching impossible.

My neighbor's red oaks are part of a line of 12 red oaks that span 5 front yards; they must have been planted by the homeowners at the same time and in perfect alignment. They stand about 23 feet apart on average.

S&S Tree injected a total of 4 trees, the 2 adjacent trees on either side of the infected tree. Some of these were in neighbor's yards, and so their approval was needed. Thankfully the neighbors have been incredibly cooperative.

What a hassle! All because one company that happened to own a truck and a chain saw decided to make a few extra bucks (actually I saw the invoice and it was a lot more than a few extra bucks - what a rip off!) at the expense of a sweet old lady.

Thank goodness for highly qualified tree care companies (with no quotation marks around tree care) like S&S Tree Care. And thank goodness the adjacent trees look good and it appears the damage was limited to that single tree. As bad as that is, it could have been a whole lot worse.

Click to enlarge. One of the trees adjacent to the dead and removed tree: so far so good.

The ID tag left on an injected tree by S&S Tree Care. Great work guys! Thanks for your expertise, and thanks for your fast service late last summer!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Eden Revisited

More from J. Russell Smith's brilliant essay "The Agriculture of the Garden of Eden..."

"Since we are all more or less lazy, and only some of us are religious, it is forsooth amazing that our efforts at being restored to Paradise have been limited so exclusively to the domain of religion. This is the more peculiar because the religion has to be taken on faith, while the agriculture of Paradise could be seen and felt and tasted, and that without labor. Even yet no one has striven to restore it for the relief of a weary world. It is high time the husbandman took up his Scripture."

Smith was an economic geographer, but you could be forgiven for thinking of him has an ecologist, a sociologist or even a theologian. His writings span all of these. (Which, come to think of it, is another reason why someone so brilliant become known only within small circles and has since been almost completely forgotten: People who are difficult to categorize seem to be easier to discount. Of course the other reason he is not more widely known is that he was decades ahead of his time in his thinking and writing.)

In the essay Smith goes on to describe Eden as Babylonian story, with Paradise being a date palm oasis in an otherwise blistering landscape. He laments, "How terrible was the expulsion! Within was shade, of which the scriptural writers speak so often and so appreciatively, because they had so little of it in their hot and arid landscape. Without, the shimmering heat, the withering sun, beating down... Into this they were driven to eat the herb of the field, which indeed they could not get without much sweat in their faces."

We humans, collectively, had paradise. We had a well-fed, peaceful, happy life among the trees, enjoying their shade, clothing and feeding ourselves with their bounty with little sweat and less toil.

What in God's name happened? It's a theme I keep coming back to, with no good answers.
Any thoughts?
I'll pick this theme up again tomorrow.

Acorn Bread Recipes

I'm deciding between two appealing recipes for acorn bread that I found online.
The first is this one: http://www.jackmtn.com/acornbread.html
Dan Fisher has a great introduction to and explanation of his acorn bread recipe, with some important quotes and points:
  • "In some areas of the country, even in recent history, acorns were a staple food for native peoples. Over the course of history it has been estimated that many more millions of tons of acorns have been consumed by humans than wheat, rice, and other grains."
  • "I used syrup from the trees in my woods instead of sugar. Not only do I enjoy the wild beauty and fiery colors of the maples and oaks that surround my farm, but I also savor the sweet acorn bread made from their nuts and sap. What better way is there to get to know the trees than to live under them and eat from their bounty?"
  • Of the tannic acid-rich water created by boiling acorns prior to making flour Fisher says: "The solution is antiviral and antiseptic. It can be used as a skin wash for rashes, skin irritations, burns, poison ivy, cuts, etc. It can be gargled for sore throats or taken as a mild tea for diarrhea and dysentery, or used externally on hemorrhoids." (Blogger's note: Apparently it works on several uncomfortable/embarrassing conditions that contain extra r's.)

Here's another one: http://www.grouprecipes.com/21418/vintage-and-native-american-acorn-bread.html

I think I'm going to make this second one, in part because I have a limited quantity of acorn flour at the moment, and in part because it's less sweet and what I really want if more of a "bread bread" (if that makes any sense) than a "dessert" or sweet bread.

But I'll make both eventually.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Paradise Lost II

More excerpts from J. Russell Smith's brilliant article "The Agriculture of the Garden of Eden..."

The lesson in brief is that crop-yielding trees may serve fundamental needs of great importance and make easier our hold upon life. We are newcomers to this continent. As Man's history goes, we came here but yesterday, and we are still strangers to the land and its best uses. We have found a land of trees which we have destroyed in order to apply and produce the crops we brought rather than those that were best suited to the land and to our present needs...

The trouble is that we have not taken tree crops seriously. In the autumn we go forth with our children and gather a few nuts as a kind of an outing, but it is little more important in our eyes that the collecting of pretty pebbles, and it has no appreciable influence on the family budget or the family's nutrition.

Next time... Eden in the oasis, and bringing the oasis to North America!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Acorn Bread Forecast...

Getting a little ambitious later this week... I'll be attempting acorn bread for the first time.

Actually, bread is one thing I know how to do. Our kids have become total "bread snobs" and refuse to eat store bought bread except under extreme duress. At ages 11 and 8 they are dedicated label readers (my daughter actually knows what TBHQ stands for and can spell it... and of course remind me that it's the same thing as lighter fluid). "Look at all the chemicals in this bread, Papa! Ewww, how can you eat it?"

I was raised on Wonder Bread and I turned out... um... well, now that you mention it I see their point!

I have become the "DK" of the house: Designated Kneader. I'll be putting my hard-earned kneading skills to work making some acorn bread.

Next week we'll get even more adventurous, making a Korean acorn jelly called dotori muk from acorn starch. Food channel, here we come!

Paradise Lost

Correspondent and friend of Oak Watch David Olsen emailed a wonderful article to me, "The Agriculture Of The Garden Of Eden" by J. Russell Smith (more famously author of Tree Crops, A Permanent Agriculture and hero of this blog).

My own thinking has been returning again and again to the concept of a "paradise lost;" a time when humankind was nourished largely by tree crops, and particularly by acorns. There is plenty of archaeological evidence of this: Mortars and pestles found at sites that pre-date The Age Of Grains (What were they grinding? Acorn flour!), evidence that even once people began growing grains these were primarily used as animal fodder while humans continued to eat acorns.

And, by all indications, these acorn-eating cultures - these balanocultures - were among the most prosperous cultures the world has known. To paraphrase Dire Straits, they got their protein for nothing and their fat for free - or close to it.

Of course, as I'm finding so often, no sooner do I think something than I find out that J. Russell Smith a) thought of it long before I did, b) brought greater clarity of thought to the idea, and c) expressed it more eloquently than I ever could.

Paradise lost? Smith goes back to the original paradise lost, Eden, to explore the idea of a time when humankind lived largely on tree crops rather than working themselves and soil to death growing annual grain crops:

The story of the Garden of Eden has been extrensively used by those who would influence human action. But strange to say, one of its most evident lessons appears to have been overlooked. It is for the farmer (emphasis mine) that the well-known drama has the plainest teaching of all. The race has been subjected to needless toil because the agriculturist has left this part of the Scripture entirely to the theologians... we can agree that the agriculture of the Garden was good, because it supported the race comfortably and without labor... The inhabitants of the Garden of Eden plainly lived without toil. They were born to that leisure for which we strive fiercely in this work-a-day world. So far as man was concerned, the sting of the expulsion was the fact that he had to go forth and eat bread in the sweat of his face... The offender... was driven forth from the Garden that was full of trees. The trees had made it Paradise.

I'd love to simply reprint the whole article here. I have already probably overstepped the bounds of "fair use" by quoting this much directly from the text, but a) it's too brilliant not to do so, and b) my goal here is not to claim credit for Smith's brilliance but to make it known to a wider audience.

J. Russell Smith was decades ahead of his time. Sometimes the cost of being that far ahead in your thinking is to be forgotten by the time your ideas finally occur to lesser minds like mine and become a reality.

More from the Garden of Eden coming soon...

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Cookies Devoured...

... and deemed delicious! We made acorn cookies last night, this time with commercially available Korean acorn flour (if having a friend purchase the flour in an Asian market in California and mailing it to Minnesota can be termed "commercially available").

I substitued agave for the pure maple syrup I used in a previous batch of acorn cookies. Here's the recipe we used:

Preheat to 350 for 15 minutes

1/2 cup butter (local organic)
1/2 cup agave
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp almond extract
2 eggs (local farmer's market)
1/2 cup acorn flour
1-1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl.
Melt the butter then add the agave. Add the rest of the wet ingredients to the butter/agave mixture.
Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients.

At this point I noticed a couple of things:

1. The resulting batter could easily double as a very effective construction adhesive - very sticky!
2. Like last time I tried this recipe, it need a little extra flour - about 1-1/2 tbs.

I dropped spoonfuls of batter onto a parchment paper lined air bake cookie sheet, and baked for about 13-15 minutes.

They turned out great! They have a much more "cake like" texture than the cookies I made last fall from acorn flour I ground myself, which makes sense because the Korean flour is extremely finely ground (just trying to measure a half cup results in a cloud of acorn flour dust!).

My son wanted to bring them to school for his teachers, so that's definitely a vote of approval.

In separate posts I'll discuss in more detail the acorn flour and acorn starch sent to me by Dr. David Bainbridge, and I'll look more in-depth at what these simple cookies can mean in the big scheme of things. Math might be involved.