Friday, October 29, 2010

Cemetery Oak Skeletons

(Click to enlarge)

City cemetery in nearby Dundas, MN on the Friday evening before Halloween.  I love this time of year because I love the form of leafless bur oak skeletons against the fall sky.

Looks like a good spot to spend Sunday night waiting for the Great Pumpkin.  I just hope that, unlike Linus, I have enough faith to earn a visit.  These oaks will definitely help.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Welcome New Readers!

I finally have the site set up with Google Analytics so that I can monitor traffic on the blog. The amazing thing is that there actually is some!  And it's growing! 

The interesting thing is that the #1 search term that brings people do this site is: acorns + poisonous, or the question are acorns poisonous?

The answer will be a quick primer into what this site is all about, and could, I hope, change your life.

No, acorns are not poisonous.  Not at all.  (Disclaimer: certain types of livestock should not eat too much of certain acorns - cattle, sheep and goats shouldn't eat white oak acorns, but they thrive on other types of acorns).  Acorn-fed pigs produce the highest quality pork and prosciutto in the world. Poultry love acorns.

More importantly, acorns are an extremely nourishing food for people.  Humankind thrived on a diet rich in acorns for hundreds of thousands of years. Every indication is that the acorn eating cultures of the past (all the way up through the late 19th / early 20th century in California and Oregon, parts of Spain and parts of Asia) have been among the best fed, happiest and most peaceful cultures ever to live.  The amount of man-hours expended per unit of nutrition was amazingly low, and therefore the amount of leisure time was incredibly high.  Giving these cultures incredible amounts of time to devote to activities such as fishing. And bocce ball.

When we first started cultivating cereal grain crops, we fed them to our animals and saved the acorns for ourselves.

Our fall from Grace (either literal of symbolic, depending on your religious bent) came when we stopped living on the fruit of the trees, and started living by the toil of our back and the sweat of our brow, when we started our annual war with the soil in which the plowshares are the swords.

In 1929 one of the great geniuses the United States ever produced, J. Russell Smith, wrote a book called Tree Crops, A Permanent Agriculture  in which he decried the destruction of soil (the true measure of a nation's wealth) in the production of annual grain crops, and eloquently argued for a system of agriculture based on woody perennial plants - trees and shrubs - which would produce more nourishment with less soil erosion (and as our awareness has grown in the meantime, less pollution and less consumption of fossil fuels).

Smith was almost entirely ignored.  His landmark book was quickly followed by the Dust Bowl (which he foreshadowed), the Great Depression, and World War II.  By the time WWII ended we had stockpiles of chemicals that could be converted to producing more and more corn and soybeans, and nobody wanted to hear about going back in time to a time when we lived high on acorns, chestnuts, and hazelnuts.

Smith's time has come.  And this blog is just one tiny part of making it happen. And now you are part of making it happen.

Eat acorns.  Some are sweet and can be eaten right off the tree.  Some are high in tannins and curl your toes if you eat them right off the tree.  It is easy to leach the tannins and prepare delicious breads, cookies and more.  I'm the world's worst cook, and I've done it.  I'll show you how if you stay tuned.

Plant oaks.  They grow much faster than you think, and will feed our children and our children's children.

Conserve oaks.  That doesn't mean we never cut one down. I am, first and foremost, a forester.  It means we manage, we regenerate successfully, we don't lose oaks to avoidable, preventable diseases, and we work together to find solutions to the disease and insect threats oaks face today.

So Welcome.  We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog.

Acorn Meals Forthcoming... Or else!

It's probably a good thing that I wasn't born a  Po-lik-lah (lower Klamath) woman.  Countless Po-lik-lah men and women were and are no doubt happy about this as well.  I would have been a dismal failure.  For me it's just one more thing to add to the ever-growing list of things at which I would be, or indeed have been, an utter, unmitigated disaster.  For the Po-lik-lah people I would have been dead weight, an unproductive body to feed.

The Po-lik-lah (and forgive me if I'm using an outdated tribal designation - it's taken from the very old National Geographic article on acorns as an alternative food source linked to above) subsisted largely - and by all accounts extremely well - on a diet rich in acorns.  That means that for a Po-lik-lah woman much of her time would have been spent drying, cracking and pounding acorns into meal which was then baked as a cereal mush or made into a very nourishing bread.

Which brings us to me, the guy with a bajillion pounds of various and delicious acorns in the fridge and freezer, who hasn't found the time to crack, leach, dry and grind them into flour for all the great things I promised to bake.  In my defense, 1) I'd rather get a root canal than spend much time in food preparation (And I know whereof I speak; I have had a root canal.  It wasn't so bad.  The novacaine had very nearly started to take effect before he started drilling), and 2) the men and women of our indigenous acorn-eating cultures didn't have full time jobs on the side...

...which is, of course, the point, and which makes them a whole lot smarter than most of us, who spend our days working like crazy just to afford processed food we don't have time to cook grown from grains that destroy the soil while our hope for a better future (which looks strikingly like our past) languishes in the fridge waiting only to sustain my family and me.

Time for me to get cracking.

Sorry about that.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Shock troops of the prairie (and one lucky dog)

It's been a long time since I have read A Sand County Almanac, probably dating back to when I complained to my advisor that it wasn't required reading for a forestry degree at the University of Minnesota in the late 1980's.  Come to think of it, there wasn't a lot of required reading at all.  Required calculating. Required memorizing.  But very little required reading, and probably even less required thinking.

My favorite sections of SCA are, of course, "The Good Oak" and "Bur Oak."  I have always loved his description of the bur oak:  "Have you ever wondered why a thick crust of corky bark covers the whole tree, even to its smallest twigs? This cork is armor. Bur oaks were the shock troops sent by the invading forest to storm the prairie; fire is what they had to fight... Engineers did not discover insulation; they copied it from these old soldiers of the prairie war."

Leopold goes on to explain that when settlers plowed the prairie in the 1840's they deprived the prairie of its "immemorial ally: fire."  Most of the trees in Leopold's part of Wisconsin dated to the 1850's or so, when the balance of power in the prairie wars shifted from grass to trees.

But even that change was just one of many throughout the millenia; the moving front in the battle for ecotype supremacy shifted over time - sometimes the hardwood trees advanced as far north as Lake Superior, sometimes they retreated nearly to the Illinois border.  And European settlement surely wasn't the first wave of human impact that influenced the cover type in that area.

Of the bur oaks that pre-date the 1840's shift from prairie to plowed field and woodlot Leopold writes, "Thus, he who owns a veteran bur oak owns more than a tree. He owns a historical library, and a reserved seat in the theater of evolution.  To the discerning eye, his farm is labeled with the badge and symbol of the prairie war."

I have another, very strange connection with Aldo Leopold.  In the late 1990's we lived in Baraboo, Wisconsin.  Our next door neighbor was Aldo Leopold's great granddaughter.  At that time we owned - or, more accurately, were owned by - a sweet but utterly incorrigible chocolate lab named Maggie.  We were moving to Tucson, Arizona and would be living in an apartment for an undetermined but extended period of time.  We had chosen an apartment that accepted pets, but were dreading living with this 100 pound bundle of energy and mischievousness in a tiny apartment with two small children.  On the last day before we were to move our neighbor rang our doorbell, and asked if perhaps we might want to leave Maggie to live with her grandmother.  Nina Leopold. On the 1000+ acre "Sand County" farm. With another chocolate lab. And a pond to swim in.  We thought about it for approximately 1 nanosecond and said yes!

So we got to meet Nina Leopold Bradley, a very sweet lady, and see the Sand County farm.  We later received a letter from Nina saying that Maggie was doing great - she spent her days completely unleashed and free, and her nights sleeping snuggled with Nina's other lab. 

So Maggie the impossible and incorrigible chocolate lab spent her remaining days in her - and my - idea of heaven, Aldo Leopold's farm.  Lucky dog.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tree Crop Lunch

Today's lunch:
Salami made from acorn fed pork
Hard apple cider

It doesn't get any better than that. J. Russell Smith and Johnny Appleseed would both be proud!

The Cat Who Didn't Eat Acorns

Every now and then for a light, fun read I pick up one of Lilian Jackson Braun's The Cat Who... mysteries.  Like the very appealing main character Jim Qwilleren, we have a Siamese cat who is either highly intelligent or completely insane - we haven't decided which.  These books are about the last place I'd expect to find anything acorn related.

Qwilleren often reads aloud to his two Siamese.  It's usually Shakespeare, sometimes Robert Louis Stevenson, sometimes Whitman.  But then in The Cat Who Said Cheese I came across this:

"On this occasion the selection was Stalking the Wild Asparagus.  Qwilleren often read about nature, and he had enjoyed Euell Gibbons's book, even though he had no desire to eat roasted acorns or boiled milkweed shoots."

It's funny how we dismiss certain foods out of hand as being "too wild," when a) we were sustained by them for hundreds of thousands of years, b) they are so much better for us than what we now prefer to eat, and c) eating them would be so much more sustaining for our planet than what we now eat.

Qwill is a really cool guy, but his clueless about acorns.  His attitude on acorns just means more for us who know better!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

All Blather No Results

I used to be a huge sports fan. Not anymore. These days I take a "bread and circuses" view of sports' role in our culture; sports are the circuses; corn-syrup laced processed food is the new bread.

I do follow the Twins throughout the summer, and to a lesser degree the trials and tribulations of my alma mater the University of Minnesota.  In a ten, now eleven, soon to be twelve team Big 10 Conference the Golden Gophers have not been to the Rose Bowl since something like 1962.  Nearly fifty years of football incompetence punctuated by moments of near mediocrity. 

This past Sunday marked a new low: they fired head coach Tim Brewster in the middle of the season.  I have felt sorry for most of the procession of coaches who have held that unenviable job (with the exception of Lou Holtz who will live in infamy for bringing the Gophers to the cusp of borderline respectability and then bolting when the Golden Dome of Notre Dame came calling; the letter I received from my best friend about Holtz's departure is a literary classic, with a single expletive laden sentence spanning more than two pages).  Some have started the job with great confidence and bombast.  Others have taken a more low key approach.  All have tried valiently.  All have failed.

Brewster now joins Holtz as the only other coach I don't have any sympathy for.  Others before him have been "full of it," but Brewster brought pompous pronouncements to a whole new level. He claimed the program was "light years" ahead of  where it had been under his predecessor (who once won 10 games in a season), and then proceded to lose to South Dakota and Northern Illinois.  He promised a trip to the Rose Bowl, but delivered 6 Big Ten victories in three seasons.  Or was it 5?  Does it matter?  According to him his 1 or 2 win teams were always a few plays away from being undefeated.

I am in sales.  I have learned something important in the 21 years I have been selling forestry and horticultural supplies.  The guy who is full of it, who talks (and talks and talks and talks) a big game is not the guy who sells the most (or who, in sports parlance, wins).  The quiet guy who concentrates on solving problems and getting things done is the guy who sells the most - the guy who wins.  Because he's the guy (or gal) people enjoy working with and is the guy (or gal) they can count on.

I'm blessed to be working with - employed by, employed with, and selling to - an amazing assortment of "anti-Brewsters" spanning a wide array of enterprises.  That includes all of you.  People who don't have to talk a lot, but spend their time doing amazing things that are literally changing the world while others spend their time on bread and circuses.

By the way, other than being completely full of it and in way over his head Tim Brewster seems like a decent guy (unlike many others of his ilk).  I don't wish him ill at all.  Now he has the absolute best job in the world: Fired College Coach.  All of the money, none of the work!

What does this have to do with oaks?  Nothing. And everything.  Oaks just perform, but without the showy bombast of other trees.  They grow faster than everyone thinks they do, and are simply, quietly waiting for their chance to feed the world. 

A strained (to the point of being tortored) analogy to be sure and a long way to go to make a very vague point, but I enjoyed it.

Slow Growing Oaks? Not Where I Come From

I just realized something (OK I should narrow that down because the sheer number of things I don't realize, or realize long after most people do, could - and in fact does - fill libraries).

My town of Northfield, MN was ravaged by Dutch elm disease in the late 1970's and early 1980's.  That means most of our boulevard trees date to around that time.  To Northfield's great credit a relatively small percentage of those replacement boulevard trees are green ash, especially as compared to other Minnesota cities.  The temptation in the early 80's to plant seedless green ash cultivars was great: no mess, "fast growth" and tolerance of the poor growing conditions that often exist between sidewalk and curb.  Everyone knew the risks of repeating the boulevard monoculture mistake of American elms, but all too many places went ahead and got ash-happy anyway.  And yes, with the arrival of the Emerald Ash Borer they will learn yet another hard lesson.

Even more to Northfield's credit is the relatively high percentage of oak trees that were planted on the boulevards to replace the elms.  Red oak, swamp white, white, bur and the occasional pin oak.  And they did a great job of mixing species on each block.

That means that in many, many instances oaks are planted next to sugar maples, red maples, lindens, hackberries and green ash trees - and that they were all planted at nearly the same time.  What a great way to put the old "slow growing oak" canard to the test!  What an idiot I am for not thinking about this 5 years ago when I first moved here!  So if oaks really are slow growing then the neighboring trees planted at the same time would be way taller by this time, right?

(Click to enlarge)

Wrong. Here's a typical Northfield boulevard, in this case looking west up toward the Old Main building on the St. Olaf College campus (the sledding hill that begins at Old Main is the site of my annual near-demise experiences).  In order you are seeing: northern red oak, sugar maple, green ash, northern red oak, little leaf linden.  If the green ash is the tallest it's only by the smallest of margins; perhaps 12 to 18 inches when viewed by my (admittedly biased) naked eye.  The next two tallest are the red oaks, then the sugar maple, then the linden. 

Now that I'm looking at our boulevard plantings in this way, I'm seeing this pattern repeated time and time again.  Oaks of all species (and in some cases indeterminate or in-between species) planted along side trees that have reputations for much faster growth - and the oaks are as tall if not taller.

It's frustrating that people continue to think of oaks as being slow growing, despite the evidence that's all around us if we only look and think.  Then again, I'm supposedly an urban forester and it took me five years to look and think... and see.

J. Russell Smith said oaks should sue poets for damages, for always and erroneously using them as a metaphor for slowness.  Of course suing a poet for damages is as potentially lucrative as suing a forester for damages.  Two words come to mind:  Blood and turnip.

Monday, October 18, 2010

L-O-N-G Leaves

(Click to enlarge)

I was out walking these morning with the little one in the stroller and I saw these on the ground... then looked up into a whole tree of these:

(Click to enlarge)

I pretty much knew what it had to be (the leaf on the right in the uppermost photo starts to give some clues), but that sure isn't the way the leaves looked in my college Dendrology book.  Nowhere in a taxonomy of oaks in Minnesota are you going to find the phrase, "leaf sinuses (indentations) 3 inches long, with 3 lobes spanning a leaf stem of 12 to 14 inches."

But this being 2010 and this being the internet, it took about three and half seconds to find a guy that had taken virtually the identical photograph.

Yes, if you put a gun to my head (not a suggestion mind you, just a metaphor) and forced me to choose a species I'd say it's a bur oak.  But I'd also say there is no way that this is 100% bur oak.  It crossed with something somewhere along the line.

I love this line from the Dirt Doctor web site I linked to:

NATURAL HABITAT AND PREFERRED SITE: Bur oak is a resident of the tall grass prairie from north Central Texas to Central Texas. It will adapt to a wide range of garden and landscape conditions.

Such a great Texas-centric definition of the range of bur oak!  What? You mean bur oak's range extends beyond the borders of Texas?  (Yes, it has the largest range of any North American oak.)  What? You mean there are trees beyond the borders of Texas?  Classic.

Perfect Pin Oak

(Click to enlarge)

Pin oak (Quercus palustris) is not native to this area, yet it is frequently planted as a street tree.  It's not hard to see why: Its architecture looks like it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  Or vice versa.  The problem is that pin oak generally doesn't grow well here in Minnesota.  Our soils are too high in pH and this acid loving tree becomes chlorotic for want of iron.  Most Minnesotans probably think pin oaks are supposed to have yellow leaves with green veins! 

The pin oak down the street from me is the exception.  It's utterly perfect.  In summer its leaves are a deep glossy green.  In fall in turns a dark purple/maroon.  And remind me to take a picture of it in winter - its form is amazing.

It's easily one of my top 500 favorite oak trees within a 10 mile radius.  And that's saying something!

And no, I didn't get any acorns from it this year.  Because I am an idiot.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Wanted: Oregon White Oak Acorns

A reader is looking for Oregon white oak acorns to plant, and apparently the crop in the northern Willamette Valley is poor this year.  They need about 200 or so.  Can anyone help?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Deer eat better than we do

There are two great ironies in my life. The first is that I don’t hunt. The second is my given name, but that’s another story for another day. Why is it ironic that I don’t hunt? One reason is that my father was advertising manager for Federal Cartridge for several years. But by the time dad joined Federal when I was in sixth or seventh grade my primary concern in life was spending as much time as humanly possible on a basketball court, especially in autumn as the basketball season approached – although I did enjoy the occasional duck or pheasant he brought home from “business” trips.

It’s ironic as well because I am in favor of hunting both as a means of gathering food and as a means of connecting to the natural world on a much deeper level. In an age when humankind is more disconnected than ever from our food chain, the immediacy of hunting your own food stands in stark relief. Yes, the animal pays the ultimate price in the transaction, but he has lived the life that he was meant to live. Our enormous disconnect from our food chain, our tendency to focus only on the price of our food, and our willful ignorance of our where our meat comes from has made possible the hideous cruelties perpetrated on livestock in order to convert them into cheap calories… and the resulting abuse of our land to produce the corn that is force-fed to animals who were never meant to eat it.

I have found, however, that if you don’t grow up hunting it’s difficult to get started later in life. That, and I’m such a complete flake that I don’t completely trust myself with a firearm. Or, for that matter, a boomerang.

When I’m not on my oaken soap box, I spend my days selling treeshelters (aka tree tubes) to tree planters who want to protect their newly planted seedlings from animal damage, as well as accelerate growth. At the risk of sounding arrogant (and yes it is possible to grow a tree "the old fashioned" way), becoming my customer is a measure of how much a person cares about the trees he or she is planting. Guess who a huge chunk of my customers are? You got it: Hunters.

Hunters also put a lot more thought into what they plant than most folks do - where it will grow well, what the resulting acorns, nuts or fruits will taste like and what time of year they will ripen and drop, when it will begin producing a food crop, etc. I mentioned recently that I had visited an Oak Utopia.  That place was Mossy Oak's Nativ Nurseries in West Point, MS.  Their greenhouse is one part of my idea of heaven (and yes that directly contradicts what I said about my given name).  These are people who can identify naturally occurring hybrid oaks* - in a region with a huge diversity of oak species.  Cripes, I live in a place with about 6 native oak species and I'm lucky if I can even tell the "pure bloods" apart.  It's amazingly cool to see a tray of seedlings grown from the acorns of a single hybrid oak, and see when they are just inches tall the full range of characteristics ranging from one parent to the other and everything in between.  It's like seeing one of Ness's or Cottam's experiments (search this blog for more info), previously relegated to grainy black and white photos from long-forgotten studies, come to life.

* Then again, perhaps I'm giving them too much credit, since I'm convinced that a huge percentage of oaks standing in the would are hybrids to one degree or another - it might actually be more challenging to identify oaks that aren't hybrids!  I do know, however, that Mossy Oak's guys have more innate tree-craft in their pinky fingers than I'll ever have, and than all of the taxonomists I have met put together.

Those of us dedicated to the idea of a permanent agriculture based on woody perennial tree/shrub crops can learn an awful lot from hunters:

Hunters plant oaks.
Hunters understand the value of and actively seek out hybrid oaks.
Hunters take the extraordinary steps required to grow a certain tree in a certain place for a certain purpose, in this age of record deer populations (there's two or three layers of irony in there if you look hard enough) and invasive weed competitors.

In 2006 comedian Jeff Foxworthy made the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA).  It was hilarious.  In a take-off of his famous "... you might be a redneck" routine Foxworthy lists a number of ways to know if "... you might be a quality deer manager."  One of those ways:  If your deer eat better than your family does.

A funny line to be sure, but sadly it's also a lot truer than Foxworthy even realized.  Deer who are have available to them a diet rich in acorns, chestnuts, tree fruits and perennial grasses (in addition to corn and soybeans) do in fact eat a whole lot better than most of our families do.  And the people who plant those trees, shrubs and grasses do a lot more good than simply growing big deer.

My work with tree tubes over the course of 21 years has kind of put me in the cat bird's seat overlooking the world of tree planting (with the exception of large scale conifer forestry).  It seems to me that hunters come the closest to fulfilling J. Russell Smith's vision of a food supply based largely on tree crops.

But when you think about it, that should really come as no surprise, since hunters are much more closely linked to their food chain - a food chain humans much are better evolved for and suited to as compared to the super market food chain of today.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Acorn Exchange

I'd like to start an Oak Watch acorn exchange.  It is exciting to get acorns in the mail (at least for oak geeks like us!) to try out and compare.  I have several acorns ready to trade:

Oregon white oak
English oak, PA seed source, Swedish parentage
English oak, OR seed source, parentrage unknown
Northern red oak, Northfield MN from mature red oaks saved from oak wilt by S&S Tree Care
Northern red oak, large acorns from a very fast growing young tree
Sawtooth oak, southern seed source, parentage unknown

Let's make a deal!  Dwarf chinkapin, Gambel, Garry and Emory oak are the top 4 of my (very long) wish list.  Let us know in comments if you have acorns to trade or acorns your looking for.

Acorns in the mail

My 4 favorite words are: Acorns in the mail.  These beauties are sawtooth oak* (Quercus acutissima) from a buddy down South.  These have several futures:  some will be planted next spring, some will be eaten very soon, some will be analyzed for nutritional content.

In the short term all will be fridged, much to the chagrin of my family (who operate under the bizarre assumption that refrigerators are for food storage and were not invented for the sole purpose of stratifying acorns; sheesh).

I have never in my life been so anxious for the arrival of spring, which is a bit depressing since it's only October 8 and I have about 9 months of winter to go.  In part that's because every winter, as a result of some promise I don't actually remember making, my kids get to choose a sledding hill for me to go down and a jump for me to go off.  So far it has worked out OK; I haven't actually broken any bones (contrary to what I thought at impact) and my kids get a new story they can laugh about all summer ("Papa I never knew you could fly that far, ha ha ha.  I  thought you probably broke your arm, ha ha ha").  But I'm not getting any younger, and the jumps keep getting bigger.  So if I stop posting sometime about January 20, it's because I'm in traction somewhere.

But mostly I'm anxious for spring so I can get planting.  Nothing makes winter seem longer than having acorns starting to germinate in the fridge.

* Remind me soon that it's time to have a little discussion (and by that I mean multi-sided audience participation!) about native versus non-native oaks.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Still there and ready to be used again...

In The Omnivore's Dilemma author Michael Pollan goes morel hunting on National Forest land somewhere in the Sierra. He loses his way and accidentally ends up on private forest land. A company forester tells him he's welcome to continue hunting morels - so long as Pollan agrees to tell people that logging companies aren't always evil.  After dutifully (and with what is either a hint of sarcasm on Pollan's part or of knee jerk self defensiveness on my part) stating "Logging companies aren't always evil," Pollan goes on to write:

"The forester, evidently thrilled to have someone to talk to (editor's note: we're just thrilled to have someone listen to us!), told me to keep an eye out along the creek - it was called Beaver Creek - for large boulders with blackened hollows scooped out of them to make bowls. It seems the Washoe Indians would wash and mash acorns in these bowls and then bake them into a kind of flat bread.

"I never did find one of the Indian bowls, but hearing about them made me realize that this forest had been part of a human food chain for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. The Indians understood that you could work out relations with wild species that didn't necessarily involve bringing them under your roof. Oaks have always refused the domestic bargain, clinging to their bitterness in the face of countless human efforts to domesticate them. But the Indians found a way to live off these trees even so, by devising a way to detoxify the acorns."

Michael Pollan is one of my heroes, and it's fantastic to have acorns as human food mentioned in one of the best-selling and best-written books on diet and where our food comes from to be written in the last 25 years.  But even so I have several bones to pick with Pollan about this passage:

1. Oaks have not refused the domestic bargain, and many are not bitter.  If humankind would invest 1/1,000.000th of the time and energy in selectively breeding oaks that has been devoted to corn over the last 8,000 years we'd have acorns so sweet you'd get tooth decay upon first bite. 

2. There have not been countless human efforts to domesticate them.  There have been periodic efforts by a small number of visionaries (Ness, Cottam, Ashworth and others) who were largely viewed as crackpots or oddities during their own time, and whose work was largely forgotten when they were gone.

3. Most all, Pollan didn't gather or serve acorns in any form as part of the Foraging Food Chain meal he prepared at the end of the book.  Yes he did serve a wild pig he hunted himself & whose diet consisted largely of acorns, but not acorns themselves.

Even for the man who has done more than anyone to reconnect Americans to our food eating past & traditions, acorns don't seem to be taken seriously enough to become part of the modern dinner table.

That is about to change.

UPDATE: I just realized I didn't do a very good job of tying the post to the title I gave to it... shockingly, I strayed from my original point.  I meant to say that the mortar and pestles carved from stone by indigenous people throught the west are still there, ready to grind acorns again.

Acorns Fed Lewis & Clark

Excerpted from William Clark's expedition journal, as excerpted here:

"We got from those people a few pounded roots, fish and acorns of the white oak. Those acorns they make use of as food, and inform us they procure them of the natives who live near the falls below, which place they all describe by the term Timm."

By "those people" Clark was referring to the Yakama (the preferred spelling of the Nation) and the Wanapam near present day Yakima, WA.  Acorn meal was probably a welcome change from the Corp of Discovery's typical diet of meat, meat and meat. With meat for dessert.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Oak du Jour

Pressed for time today, with promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep, so I'll leave you with this (click to enlarge).  Plant & nurture more oaks today, so we'll have more of these tomorrow.

Most importantly for today:  Win Twins!!!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Making Acorn Flour

I found this terrific blog post on making acorn flour.  It's a little different than the process I have used before; I have typically roughly ground the shelled acorns and then leached in boiling water, a la Euell Gibbons, dried them and then finely ground them.  This post suggests finely grinding them first and then leaching with warm tap water.  Makes sense since a lot more surface area will be exposed to the water - should speed the process considerably.

I'm looking forward to giving it a try later this week.  I'll be working with red oak which I've never done before, so rapid leaching of tannins will be important.  (J. Russell Smith theorized that ultimately high tannin acorns would be more valuable as a food crops because leaching tannins is relatively easy and yields a marketable by-product... but I don't intend to do any tanning in my back yard this fall.)

Monday, October 4, 2010


A guy at the airport last night was reading the latest issue of Scientific American. The cover story was, "Human Evolution Is Not Over."

And here I thought that the Earth's 4.5 billion years of existence and hundreds of millions of years of evolution culminated with... me.

I am sure the article is not nearly as inane as the headline, and that it makes valid points about the ways in which natural selection is at work within the human population without us thinking about it in those terms or being aware of it.  (Luckily for me - although decidedly not for my sons - baldness doesn't set in until after we have found the person who against all odds and reason became my life's partner.)

However one thing is certain regarding human evolution:  We sure haven't evolved as fast as our diet has changed.  The cultivation of grains is about 10,000 years old - the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms.  The complete corn-ification of our diet is less than 50 years old.  I was just reading in The Omnivore's Dilemma that the ratio of Omega-3 fatty acids (from fish and grass fed animals) to Omega-6 fatty acids (from grains) has changed in a relatively short period of time from 1:1 to 1:10.  Many people (including me) believe that this change is an underlying cause of the complex of diseases considered to be "Western diseases":  Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, etc.

We are what we eat.  And we are what what we eat eats.  Say that five times fast.  And we're meant to eat nuts, predominantly acorns, and we're meant to eat animals that eat acorns and perennial grasses.

Maybe the sign that humans are truly evolving is when we realize what our slavery to cereal crops has done to our planet and ourselves, and go back to food production systems that are "less evolved."

Happiness is...

Followers!  Thank you to Oak Watch's recent new followers, although I have to admit I find the term a bit embarrassing.  Knowing some of the site's followers, some personally and some by correspondence, it's really me who follows and draws inspiration from them rather than the other way around.

We're on to something here.  Things are changing.  This site views these changes in the way humans relate to the land and our food through the prism of oak trees.

Thanks for finding me, and thanks for following.  I love comments and I always answer emails... maybe not right away, but eventually and I deeply value the correspondences I have with several readers.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Happy Birthday

Happy 1st Birthday
Nicholas Charles Siems

We love you so much
(even though your mother didn't let me name you Quercus M. Siems like I wanted to!)

10 bonus points for guessing would the M would have stood for!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Word of the day...

... is pannage.  From wiki:

Pannage is the practice of turning out domestic pigs in a wood or forest, in order that they may feed on fallen acorns, beechmast, chestnuts or other nuts. Historically, it was a right or privilege granted to local people on common land or in royal forests. Pannage is no longer carried out in most areas, but is still observed in the New Forest of Southern England, where it is also known as common of mast. It is still an important part of the forest ecology, and helps the husbandry of the other New Forest livestock – pigs can safely eat acorns as a large part of their diet, whereas excessive amounts may be poisonous to ponies and cattle.

I love the term "common of mast" - and I know someone else will love that term as well!

I also love the painting in the upper right of the Wikipedia post; the one guy looks like John Daly swinging a 3 iron.

Compare and Contrast

Here's the photo I mentioned last post.
Foreground: Overplanted unprofitable crop ready for harvest; overly cheap calories we eat mostly in the form of meat, sweeteners and additives - all to our detriment, and all because food science has found ways to cram 200 more calories a day of it down our maws, exploiting our natural cravings for sweetness and fat.
Background: Ignored and forgotten crop available for easy harvest.

Yes, it was an unbelievably gorgeous day.  Drove all day and didn't see a single cloud, falls colors were beautiful.  A welcome change from the recent deluges.