Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Giving Thanks

Living in the shadows of St. Olaf College like we do it's natural that our street is largely populated current and retired St. Olaf professors. The most colorful of these was Gordon Rasmussen, who sadly passed away a couple of years ago.  One of a kind, Gordon was.  He grew up in a tiny town in South Dakota speaking mostly Norwegian.  He went on to master Latin, Greek and Hebrew and become a professor of religious studies.

The highlight of our Memorial Day Block Party was when Gordon would reminisce about his 50+ years on our street.  He once said that when they got married his wife, Char, didn't want to have any children, "so we compromised and only had seven."  Another time he told the story about how all the houses on the street were white and he wanted to paint his red.  He painted every other tier of siding red, turning the house into a candy cane.  He left it that way for most of the summer, and when he finally painted the whole house red all the neighbors were so relieved nobody was angry it wasn't white.

Another friend on the street is the swimming coach at St. Olaf (and college Hall of Fame inductee for his own swimming exploits while a student there).  He told me that Gordon used to come to open lap swim wearing a huge fluorescent pink swimsuit, "So I'll be easier to see on the bottom of the pool."

He and his wife Char would take a slow walk up and down the street every afternoon.  You could always tell Gordon was coming because he was preceded (depending on the wind) by a waft of cigar smoke.  Our conversation was always the same; even though his brilliant mind getting wrapped in the haze of dementia he still had a ready joke.
"Hi Gordon, how are you doing?"
Dramatic pause, puff on cigar, and then he'd assume a serious expression.
"I can't answer that question.  I'm Lutheran and we're not allowed to brag."

We all miss Gordon. I'd say "rest in peace," but I have a feeling resting in peace would bore him.  So I'll say Rest in joy.

All of this is a long, but hopefully mildly entertaining, way of saying that if I list all of the things I'm thankful for at this time I'm afraid it will sound too much like bragging.  But unlike Gordon, I'm going to do it anyway.  Because I'm not Lutheran. Or Norwegian.  Or remotely humble.

This has been a wonderful and remarkable year.

We had 2 children undergo surgery - neither serious and both highly successful

I made a change professionally that has led to the best and most successful year of my life.

I'm thankful for Alice, who fills my life with more grace and beauty and joy than anyone, especially me, deserves.  I'm thankful for three amazing children, and especially this year for little Nicholas who proved it's never too late to join a family and multiply its happiness (even while minimizing its sleep ;-)

And I'm grateful for you, the folks who drop in and take time from busy lives to read the words I need to write, for allowing me to do what I got into forestry to do, and for crediting me with more and deeper meaning than I'm probably capable of.

Thank you.  Best wishes one and all for a safe & happy Thanksgiving!

More People, More Trees

From ecological restoration, sustainability & balanoculture guru David Bainbridge:

Watch it.  And rejoice.

BTW here's the scoop on the tree frequently mentioned, Grevillea robusta, silky oak.  It's not really an oak, but we won't hold that against it.

Dotorimuk in NY Times

Some friends told me about this article about dotorimuk, a traditional Korean acorn jelly.

From the article:  "The truth is that homemade dotorimuk is more complicated than opening a box, but certainly easier than using the winnowing baskets of yore. And with acorns blanketing lawns across North America — including mine — a hyper-local dish was waiting right outside my door."

Hyper-local... I like it!

I have some acorn starch sent by another friend and have been meaning to make some dotorimuk.  Regular readers know not to hold their breath when I promise to cook something because it rarely happens on schedule... but I will try to do it over this long weekend.

Acorns Revive Pilgrims

I'm farther along in reading Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick (which I highly recommend), and continuing to look for acorn references.  It didn't take long.

After a harrowing first winter* during which more than half their number perished, the Pilgrims, with Squanto (who had previously been given a 6 year all-expenses paid tour of Europe... as a captive) acting as intermediary, struck an alliance of friendship with Massasoit, sachem of the Pokanoket people.

Later that summer Governor William Bradford dispatches Stephen Hopkins and Edward Winslow to travel with Squanto to visit Massasoit with the goal of strengthening friendship.  Just a brief 40 mile two day hike.  At noon of the second day the group stops for a quick lunch of herring and boiled acorns... the 17th century version of fast food!  Except that this fast food won't kill you.

* Of course much of the reason that first winter was harrowing was that the Mayflower arrived in New England on November 11, 1620 just in time for winter.  Remember that this was the "little ice age" with much harsher winters, and it snowed just a few days after they arrived (sounds like Minnesota where we've had snow on the ground since November 13).  They had no shelter and were short of rations.  Not a recipe for success.  By spring 52 of the original 102 settlers would be dead.

The summer of 1620 went well.  After getting off to a bad start by stealing corn from the local Indians' cache and looting one of their graves, the Pilgrims were able to achieve friendly relations with several local sachems.  With Indian expertise and assistance they were able to grow a good crop of food, enough to see them through the winter ahead...

... until another ship arrives in November, 1621 with 37 more settlers sent by Mayflower "adventurer" (financier) Thomas Weston.  Not only does Weston send 37 more mouths to feed and bodies to house just before winter, he doesn't send them with any additional provisions.  Even better, the passengers carry a letter from Weston berating the Pilgrims for sending the Mayflower back the previous spring without enough saleable trade goods!

This time they send the ship back to England loaded with beaver pelts and other valuable goods.  I would have included a letter saying, "Dear Tom, Sorry the return voyage of the Mayflower was light on trade goods.  Providing a return on your investment must have slipped our minds, since the majority of us were busy dying.  Your humble servant, William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth Plantation (because Carver is dead)"

Can't wait to see how they make it through the winter of 1621/22.  All the sustenance they need had fallen from the oak and chestnut trees the month before.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Place For Hybrid Oaks

Whenever I hear of or come across a source for hybrid oaks I want to highlight it. Rhora's Nut Tree Farm & Nursery offers a large selection of hybrid oaks.  The descriptions lack the Latin names that an oak geek like me prefers to see, but most give the two parents.  An exception is Sargent Oak, which is an English (Q. robur) X chestnut (Q. prinus) cross.

The descriptions provide a window into what is possible with hybrid oaks, and shatter the myth of the "slow growing oak."  Even making an allowance for the hyperbole that oak enthusiasts in their zeal sometimes propagate, the growth and performance of these hybrid trees is staggering.  Acorns in 4 years. Acorns in 4 years.  Acorns in 5-8 years.  500 to 1000 lbs of acorns per tree.  800 to 1000 lbs of acorns per tree (that's 15+ bushels for those of you keeping score at home).

I know I have said this a million times, but... think of it!  These trees are the result of a single selection and cross.  The hybrid corn planted today is the culmination of 8000+ years of intensive selection, nearly 100 years of intensive hybridization (the primary goal of which is to produce patentable intellectual property that doesn't grow "true" from the seed it produces), and 20-30 years of genetic engineering. 

Give me oaks with their willingness and ability to "hybridize" (and as always I use the term loosely since I don't believe we're actually crossing any true species boundary when we cross, say, white oak with bur oak), and give me 8000 years and by the end of that time I'll have them doing everything but singing show tunes.  And that's only because I don't like show tunes.

In the meantime let's patronize the nurseries who are doing the yeoman's work of producing and selling hybrid oaks!

Acorns: How to trap a governor

I'm reading Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick - just in time for Thanksgiving (although the book is, of course, a complete debunking of the Thanksgiving story that was drilled into our heads as grade schoolers).

Me being me, I read any history of early settlement looking for references to reliance on acorns as a food source.  In Mayflower acorns are conspicuous mostly by their absence (about which more below).  The only reference to acorns so far is actually pretty hilarious.  Shortly after landing at Plymouth Harbor a scouting parting is walking through the woods.  They come across an ingenious snare set by the Indians. A sapling is bent over, and tied to the sapling is a rope lasso, the loop of which lays flat on the ground and encircles a pile of acorns - bait for deer.  While those at the head of the column of Pilgrims are marveling at the ingenuity of the deer trap, William Bradford - soon to be named governor of Plymouth Plantation, a position he would hold for 35 years - blunders up, steps in the trap, and is promptly hoisted off the ground by his ankle... and earns the respect of the others (and of me) by good naturedly commenting on both the skill with which the trap was made and his own clumsiness in getting trapped.

The religious separatists who landed in Plymouth were by no means entering a untouched wilderness.  The area had been, until very recently, home to thousands of people. The Pilgrims walked into the equivalent of an outdoor morgue; a plague, probably Bubonic Plague spread southward from European fishing settlements in Maine, had decimated the population in the years prior to the Pilgrim's arrival.

As a practical matter this meant that the Pilgrims were able to simply take over and plant fields that had been cleared by others.  But what interested me was this:  those fields, in which Native Americans had grown corn, squash and beans, were almost completely depleted of their nutrients and could only produce a decent crop with the addition of copious amounts of fertilizer - in this case fish.

I found it interesting that there, in the shadows of towering oaks and chestnut trees which rained down nutrition in the billions of tons, the indigenous people had over the course of centuries become more and more reliant upon crops that damage and deplete the land... land which once depleted would need to be replaced with other land cleared for the purpose of farming, a process which would inevitably create conflict between adjacent tribes or groups.

And so history repeats itself.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Valley Oak Leaves

Still catching up on the random photos I shot while traveling in California last week... 

(Click to enlarge - but it will be blurry)

This valley oak leaf came from the fast growing (but poorly photographed) valley oak I mentioned in a previous post:

Planted as an acorn 5 growing seasons ago, now 20 feet tall.  The leaf shown above was typical in size for this tree... which is to say tiny:

Adorable little thing isn't it?  As you can see from the photograph above, the total leaf surface area of that young but fast growing valley oak is relatively small.  You wouldn't think by looking at it that it would have the photosynthetic surface area necessary to fuel that kind of growth.  But what these leaves lack in surface area they make up for in thickness; they are little power packs of energy.

As with all oak "species" (a term regular readers know that I use loosely since I view the entire oak genus as a single species with a continuum of traits, rather than as hundreds of species with thousands of hybrids), there is an enormous amount of variation in valley oak leaf size and morphology:

I collected the larger leaf from a valley oak just a few miles away (and yes, I still owe you the story behind that tree).  Think those two fully developed, late-season leaves can't be from the same "species"?  Think again.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Recruiting Wars... a question of priorities

Boy does this story take me back to the days when, as a highly-touted "blue chip" high school forestry prospect, several forestry schools were recruiting me for my 4.4 second dash through a dichotomous key and my 800 lb. peavey roll

My dad told University of Minnesota representatives that, "it was going to take more than a scholarship" to get me to wear maroon and gold, and that the forestry school dean was, "going to have to put a smile on his  face*."

I won't go into the sordid details here, but let's just say that money changed hands and leave it at that.  I wouldn't want the U of M to have to vacate the Midwestern Foresters Conclave victories it earned during that time.

My point - and I do have one - is about priorities.  I was no prize addition to anyone's forestry school.  But there are young men and women who are prizes - who could become the next Leopold, the next Carson, the next Goodall.  There are brilliant young people who find it more and more difficult to pay for the education that would allow them to make an impact, to literally change the world.

Meanwhile, if you can throw a football or shoot a basketball you can (allegedly) command a 6 figure income... as a college student getting a free education!!  The argument has always been that having highly ranked basketball and football teams a) carries the financial water for all of the other sports, b) puts alumnae in a more giving mood.  Well, as for a), according to USA Today only 14 universities had self supporting athletics programs in 2009.  Yes the high profile sports turned a profit, but not enough of a profit to support the non-revenue sports (that, among other things, attract accomplished young people actually interested in academics in addition to athletics).  As for b), shame on alumni who make their giving contingent upon touchdowns and three pointers.

Ask yourself this:  when is that last time you placed your faith in an athlete or a team and weren't disappointed - by scandal, by lack of effort, by lack of professionalism... but just plain stupidity?

Universities that somehow couldn't maintain the hybrid oak trials of Helge Ness, or the long term forest research of others, can somehow field money losing football programs with national pretensions.

As for me, from here on out I'm putting my faith in oaks... and the heroes who plant and nurture them.

* Anyone who knows my dad knows what a fundamentally kind person he is, and therefore realizes how hilarious the idea of him shaking down college recruiters actually is.  Turns out the Univ of Minnesota did put a smile on his face - by taking me off his hands just for the cost of tuition!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Pictures of the day 2

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Arboreal perfection.  This tree has a remarkable story to tell, and I'll tell it soon.

Then again, every old oak has an amazing story to tell. The only question is whether we happen to know the story or not.

Pictures of the day

Time is short this morning, and I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep, so I'll leave you with a couple of photos from my recent California wonderings.

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This old soldier has been through the wars - fire, lightening, cattle - but still clings tenaciously to life.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

You Be The Judge

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Stale dinner roll or oak gall cut open?

And yes, to answer your question, I did taste it.  Very tannic.  With a hint of pumpernickel. 

Genesis As History

We know that for thousands of years mankind subsisted primarily - and by all indications happily & healthily - on acorns as a primary source of food.  From time to time I attempt to answer the question: Why did we stop?  Why did we start instead to do battle with the soil every year rather than being content with the bounty falling on us from above?

Well it turns out that these dudes called Gideons put Bibles in hotel rooms so that secular humanist acorn lovers can search for clues at the very Beginning: The book of Genesis.  What a coincidence! This is hardly a novel idea; J. Russell Smith wrote a brilliant essay nearly 70 years ago about Agriculture in the Garden of Eden.  But I had never gone back to the original words.  So here they are.

1:29 And God said, "See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every trees whose fruit yields seed; for you it shall be for food.

1:30 "Also, to every beast of the earth, to every bird of the air, the earth, in which there is life, I have given every herb for food"; and it was so.

2:8 The Lord God planted a Garden eastward of Eden*, and there He put the man whom He had formed.

(The East of Eden reference is a bit eerie, since just a couple hours ago I drove past the spot where James Dean crashed his Porsche and died.)

2:9 And out of the ground the Lord God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.  The tree of life (an oak, no doubt - Ed.) was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (probably a 'Crimson King' Norway Maple - just kidding) was there also.

2:15  And the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it.
2:16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely it,
2:17 but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die."

Of course we know what happened next.  For Eve's part womankind was punished with painful childbirth and with, well, men.

3:17 Then to Adam He said, "Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you saying, 'You shall not eat of it,' Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.
3:18 Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you and you shall eat the herb of the field
3:19 In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread til you return to the ground for out of it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you shall return."

2:22 Then the Lord God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of Us to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever"-
2:23 Therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to til the ground from which he was taken.
2:24 So He drove out the man and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden and a flaming sword which turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.

Wow, it really is all there.
In the Beginning - if not of the world at least of humankind's collective memory and oral history - humankind, symbolized by Adam and Eve, lived happily in the Garden (forest really) of Eden, eating the "fruit," meaning also nuts, for time beyond reckoning.
Humankind, not content to live in Paradise in leisure and plenty, then tries to acquire the knowledge and power of God.
We are cast out from the forest and onto the plains, cursed to till the soil and live by the sweat of our toil.
The Fall from Grace, the eating of the forbidden fruit, was, of course, not a single event, but a series of events over time.  Did we overuse and exploit (fail to "tend") the Eden we were given, forcing us to search for food elsewhere? Did we multiply beyond the number that could be sustained by the forest?  Did we fight among our selves until some groups were driven from Eden and forced to draw food from the soil of the plains? Given the history of humankind these things all seem likely.  However I also believe - and this is closer to the idea of humankind trying to become Gods - that cultivation of annual grain crops allowed for a stratification of society that allowed some people to wield power over others in a way that communal gathering of the bounty of Eden did not.

However it happened, we now know the cost.  The difficulty is getting back to Eden.  Especially with those pesky cherubim and that flaming sword guarding the east entrance.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Omnivore Who Has Solved His Dilemma

That line, from the About page of Hank Shaw's extremely cool blog Honest Food, is one of my favorite lines of all time.  Which makes sense because his is one of my favorite blogs of all time.

Reader/commenter/friend Eric recently asked about acorn recipes.  Here are three from Honest Food.  I'm embarrassed to say I haven't tried any of them, but I plan to soon (possibly at gunpoint since with all the acorns I've been hoarding our refrigerator now has room only for a quart of milk and the subject of my favorite Minnesota joke* tucked way in the back).

Someone please give these a try and we'll compare notes: (I better not attempt this - if I successfully produced acorn pasta my family might keel over from shock)

* It is said that the refrigerator of every aging Minnesota couple contains the same bottle of Tabasco sauce they bought when they first got married; it was needed for some recipe or it was thought to be an staple condiment in the well-stocked fridge.  And then it was never used again.  It probably hasn't even been a liquid for more than a decade.

And I will make extra acorn flour.  If you're interested I'd be happy to send you a cup or so.  Acorn weevils no extra charge!  Just kidding.  I do plan to charge for them.

Seriously.  Let me know if you'd like some acorn flour, and I will send some.

The Choice

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I know that California has rules limiting the removal of mature oaks from vineyards and other ag fields, although I don't know the details.  I should know, and I certainly should look them up... tomorrow.

For tonight I'd like to think that the vineyard owner made a choice to keep this oak, even though it stands smack in the middle of a vineyard row.  And even though its presence and its shade reduces the yield of that part of the vineyard.  That he or she chose to keep the oak knowing full well it will be there long after the vineyard has been planted to new varieties three times, and probably after the vineyard is abandoned due to lack of water for irrigation.

Another cool thing; in the photo it looks like there are two trunks.  The one to the left is the trunk.  To the right is a grape vine that's using the oak as a trellis. 

This little vignette just got me thinking about how we all make choices - in what we eat, what we plant, the volunteer seedlings we rip up - that influence the number of oaks in this world.  They are trying to sustain us as they did for millenia, and all too often they are seen as an anachronism or quaint inconvenience. 

Slow Growing Oak Myth Shattered - Part 43

(Click to enlarge)
OK so Ansel Adams I'm not.  This is as bad a photograph of an oak as you'll ever see.  With apologies to Kilmer, I think that I shall never take a picture as lovely as an oak.  (Then again, Kilmer should have apologized to decent poets everywhere and been dragged before an international tribunal and charged with torturing metaphors.) 

As a great man (I think it was Rod Stewart) once said every picture tells a story, and luckily the story behind this picture is a lot better than the picture itself.  (Yikes, I don't think ol' Rod could get away with those lyrics in 2010!)

This is a valley oak (Quercus lobata) that is nearly 20 feet tall.  It was planted as an acorn in the spring of 2006, which means that it is now coming to the end of its fifth growing season.  For those of you keeping score at home, that's 4 feet of growth per year... starting from an acorn!

We need to overcome this ridiculous myth - ironically promulgated by poets (and I use that term loosely) like Kilmer - that oaks grow slowly.  They.  Do.  Not.

Oak Gall du Jour

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I hate, hate, hate business travel.  I hate flying.  I hate being away from my family.
There are only two things that make business travel tolerable:  Meeting customers face to face and working together to solve their problems, and seeing new oak trees - or at least oak trees I don't see very often.

Valley Oak.  Central California.  That is one awesome oak gall.  And to think that wasps are somehow, through some unfathomable combination of witchcraft and alchemy, able to get the oak to manufacture this home for them.

Just another way that oaks sustain life.  Just another oaken miracle.

And as I've discussed before oak galls yielded the permanent - to the point of being eternal - ink with which so many masterworks were penned.  Bach's Concertos.  Leonardo's drawings.  The ink will last forever.  Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the paper though which oak gall ink gradually eats.

Which is another way that oaks sustain life in the form of job security.  For document conservators ;-)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Great Primer on Acorn Prep

Eli Sangor, one of the moderators of the University of Minnesota Extension's excellent My Minnesota Woods discussion board, contibuted a post to a thread on acorns as food that I started a while ago.  Eli's post gave a link to this site, which gives one of the best overviews and primers on processing acorns for food. 

Some great excerpts (bold text added by me) from the blog post Eli links to:

"Acorns are THE most consumed human food source in history. Are you listening? That means that, as a species, we’ve eaten acorns more than corn, more than wheat, more than rice."

"And, as I learned, there are many reasons why they’re an awesome food source:
1. Acorns are incredibly healthy, and they’ll fill you up quick.
2. Oak trees have enormous yields – one tree will create up to 200-300 pounds of edible acorn goodness in a season.
3. Oak trees are hardy as hell.
4. Oak trees grow all over the world.
5. Acorns are deeeee-licious."

"Step Five: Consummation...
This step was pretty awesome. We each packed up a cup of acorn flour to take home, and with the rest we made acorn dumplings (which looked exactly like poo), acorn pizza crust and an acorn loaf, somewhat the same consistency as banana bread. We were going to make pancakes, but everyone was full. We also talked about ways to work acorn flour into everyday recipes replacing some of the white flour content with acorn flour for greater protein and nutrition generally. Julie regaled us with stories of their other successes, including acorn muffins, acorn waffles, and an acorny topping for apple crisp. Yum."

(Looking "exactly like poo" is probably not something we balanophages want to tout moving forward.  Deeeee-licious is probably a little more helpful.)

Yum indeed.  Good motivation for me to get grinding on my own stockpile of acorny goodness waiting in the fridge!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Pledge Getting Closer
OK gang, the pledge drive sponsored by Mast Tree Network to plant 20 oaks by December 31 is getting closer to its goal, but still needs more folks to make the leap and take the pledge over the top!

I know that regular readers of this blog plant a ton of oak trees.  It shouldn't be hard to make this happen. 

It can be this simple:  Plant some acorns this fall and protect it from animal damage over the winter, with wire mesh or with a plastic tree tube*.  Yes! Amazingly enough tall oaks from little acorns do grow.  It's amazing how easy it is to forget this simple fact.

If you're looking for a good source of seedlings to plant, here are some great ideas:
Oikos Tree Crops - great selection of hybrid and species oaks (among many other things)
Mossy Oak Nativ Nurseries - high quality (super charged!) hybrid oaks and others - mostly for the southeast but remarkably cold hardy.
St. Lawrence Nurseries - Founder Fred Ashworth was a pioneer in selecting & breeding oaks, and his bur oak selection (page 30 of the catalog) is the only I have seen that specifically mentions how sweet the acorns are for eating.

... so click on the link above for Mast Tree Network... go for the pledge, stay for the great information!

* Full disclosure:  I am in the business of selling tree tubes, so I have a vested interest in promoting them, but I sell them and promote them because I believe in them.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Darn Them!

There is a group of people that is selfishly conspiring to prevent me from blogging, people whose insidious demands have taken up huge swaths of my time.  I am speaking, of course, of my customers.  Sheesh.  It's been a never-ending "I want to order this," and "I need a bunch of those," and all of the corresponding and annoying paperwork that comes with processing orders.

It is a wonderful problem to have!  But there are times when your job gets in the way of your work.

I'll be picking up the pace of post this week - a backlog of topics to cover, a request for some recipes (so I'll be posting a ton of links) and an attempt at cooking later in the week.

Hope you had a great Halloween!