Friday, July 30, 2010

Acorn Crop Failure?

OK, time to get back to saving the world. It's always funny - in a heartbreakingly sad sort of way - that it's possible to be too busy to save the world. Business has been ridiculously good of late, which from a mundane perspective (paying the bills, feeding the children... the little things) is great, but has cut into my writing time.
Balance, Chris, balance.

I'm starting to read Gary Paul Nabhan's Coming Home to Eat, which chronicles the author's effort to spend a year eating only foods grown, fished or gathered within 200 miles of his Tucson home. The book holds a special interest for me, as a born-and-bred Minnesotan who lived in Tucson for three years and never was able to acclimate myself to desert life. Then again, within 200 miles of Tucson there's a lot more than desert. It's a matter of both altitude and attitude.

In one of those great coincidences you find every day if you're looking for them, after I picked up Nabhan's book at the library I was reading an article in Smithsonian magazine about the work of Joshua Tewksbury, who is doing fascinating research trying to determine why chiles are hot (other than the obvious reason of trying to embarrass Midwesterners at Tucson dinner parties)... and Gary Paul Nabhan is mentioned as a friend and collaborator of Tewksbury.

Me being (unfortunately) me, the first thing I did upon picking up the book was to turn to the index and look for passages about acorns. There is one listing, p141. I flipped to the page, eager for a story of an easy harvest, a season of nutritious meals, a parable for our times. Instead I read a story of... complete and total acorn crop failure.

Nabhan took a trip south of Tucson toward Nogales (thus going up in elevation) hoping for a harvest of acorns and chiltepines, the northernmost wild chili. But when he arrived he found that neither crop was ready to harvest. The chiltepines were still green and "not fiery enough for me," Nabhan writes (meaning they would probably set my tongue on fire) but there were no acorns to be seen. A late freeze and snowfall had caused a complete failure of the acorn crop that year.

For Nabhan the trip was not a total loss. On the way home he stopped and gathered a variety of wild greens. Upon arriving home he fixed a meal of grilled scallions and poblano chiles and hand washed greens heated in a sauce pan only long enough for them to wilt slightly. What follows is a brilliant piece of writing: "Their flavors were so fresh, so buzzed with their recent photosynthetic surge that my meal sizzled with sunshine. Within minutes of devouring them, I felt greener, as if I were on some folic acid high. I dreamed that night of having chlorophyll in my skin, as if I had become green as the Green Giant himself."

But, of course, we're not here to talk about greens, even when the writing is that good. We're here to talk about acorns as food, and in that context this passage in Nabhan's book is deeply troubling, especially when considered within the context of the question I have been asking: Why did mankind walk away from a life of acorn eating to take up the plowshare and grow grains?

This passage might give us a glimpse, at least, of how it might have happened in one place... and then another. A warm spring, causing the oaks to flower. A late frost. A freak snowstorm. The flowers are killed and the acorn crop is a total loss. Sure the locals were smart enough to have enough acorns stored up to survive a year without an acorn crop. But then it happened again, and maybe a third time. Running out of reserves for both people and livestock it is decided to plant some grain seeds next year as a back up plan, just in case. Then for a while there is both, grains and acorns. Archeological evidence suggests that in these cases people did the logical thing: fed the grain to their livestock and kept the acorns for themselves.

But from that point on, they were grain people. Tied to the land - to a particular piece of land to be defined as mine/not yours - to tend the crop. Building a new economy in which some control land and seed, and others must provide labor in exchange for a share of the harvest.

It didn't happen everywhere at once. Where it happened it was a gradual process spanning generations, so that no one even noticed a change was happening at all. It's interesting to speculate, as Michael Pollen does so eloquently, who was really using whom: Were humans using grains to gain control over land (and other humans) while (in theory) reducing risk of catastrophic food shortages, or were grains using humans to take over larger and larger portions of the Earth's surface and resources?

Just a glimpse. A complex puzzle. But in the answer the answer to my question of "Why?" is not nearly as important as the answer to the question: "How to we go back to a tree crop-based culture and economy?"

1 comment:

  1. Your approach to leaving a readily available source of sustenance out of a diet makes sense.

    Another possible avenue is religion - some religions won't eat pork and others won't eat meat.

    Also, there is culture - especially when a food is associated with poverty or is "out of style". For example, my grandmother used to make mincemeat pie - using venison or beef (depending on the season and what was left in the mason jars); these days, "mincemeat" pie has no meat in it. The only way for me to get real mincemeat pie is to go to an Amish community.

    Long ago, I read about an Australian or New Zealand (I think that's where it was) culture that lived by the sea but wouldn't eat anything from the sea; eventually, they died out. When the archaeologists studied the detritus, they found that the culture had originally eaten food from the sea but had, over time, stopped eating food from the sea and eventually, they perished. The archaeologists speculated that, for whatever reason, the culture had slowly removed different sea foods from the diet until they got nothing from the sea.

    Finally - consider these aphorisms. The way to a man's heart is through his stomach. An army marches on its stomach. The bible stating that man must support himself by the sweat on his brow. Control what a culture eats (and how much free time the culture has) and you control what that culture does.