Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Wealth of Nations, the Fall of Empires

At some point in the not-so-distant future, when historians set out to chronicle the Fall of the American Empire, they would do well to reference this post*.

Last week I spoke to a tree tube customer in Georgia.  Among other farming enterprises, he grows pecans.  He told me that many farmers in his area are ripping out pecan groves – perfectly good and highly profitable pecan groves – to install center pivot irrigation systems and switch to corn (that would be maize to you, Ian ;-)

Why?  Because at today’s corn prices it is even more lucrative than pecans (and, I'm guessing, because they are getting great incentives/loans to purchase all of the necessary equipment).  And why are corn prices so high?  Yes, in part it’s because of last year’s Midwestern drought.  But in large part high corn prices are due to the ethanol – in the words of my customer – “boondoggle.”

We have created a system of perverse incentives under which it makes sense to rip out a highly productive perennial woody crop which requires very little in the way of energy inputs and results in very little soil contamination/erosion, and replace it with an annual cereal crop that requires huge inputs of fossil fuels (both in the form of plowing/planting/spraying/harvesting and in the form of fertilizers/herbicides/pesticides) and results in massive soil erosion… to grow a crop intended to replace those very same fossil fuels in the tanks of our cars and trucks.

That groaning sound you just heard is the sound of the brilliant J. Russell Smith, author of Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, spinning in his grave.  Smith advocated replacing annual crops that expose our precious soil – the true wealth of this or any nation – to erosion and depletion with perennial woody crops, especially on highly erodible hillsides.  Tree Crops was originally published in 1929.  Keep that in mind as you read the following quotes:

“Forest – field – plow – desert – that is the cycle of the hills under most plow agricultures…” p4 of the 1950 edition.

“Plowing corn is the most efficient known way for destroying the farm that is not made of level land.  Corn, the killer of continents, is one of the worst enemies of the human future.” p4.

“We in America have another factor of destruction that is almost new to the white race – the thunderstorm.  South Europe has a rainless summer.  North Europe has a light rainfall that comes in gentle showers.  The United States has the rippling torrent that follows the downpour of the thunderstorm.  When the American heavens open and pour two inches of rain in an hour into a hilly cornfield, there may result many times as much erosion as results from two hundred inches of gentle British or German rain falling on the wheat and grass.” pp4-5.

“In this way we have already destroyed the homelands fit for the sustenance of millions.  We need an enlarged definition of treason.  Some people should not be allowed to sing ‘My Country.’  They are destroying it too rapidly.” p6.

“Must we continue to depend primarily upon the type of agriculture handed to us by primitive woman**?... Present day methods of cultivation but dimly recall the sharpened stick in the hand of primitive woman.  But we still depend chiefly on her crops, and sad to relate, our methods of which we are so proud are infinitely more destructive of soil than were those of the planting stick in the hands of Great-Grandmother ninety-nine generations ago.” p12.

It has been much, much too long since I have quoted from the Holy Verses of Tree Crops.  As always it feels both good and deeply saddening.  Good, that there was once a man among us of such piercing foresight and almost Biblical eloquence.  Saddening, to see how little his words have been heeded.

I don’t know how many gallons of fossil fuel are consumed in order to produce a gallon of ethanol.  Do you?  Please add your comments.  I would say that the ethanol “boondoggle” is the perfect example of the Law of Unintended Consequences (a program meant to reduce reliance upon fossil fuels that a) increases reliance on fossil fuels, b) puts more and more acres under the plow, c) raises corn prices to the point where it makes sense to rip up Brazilian rainforest and plant corn), but I believe that would be giving lawmakers too much credit for having good intentions in the first place.  It’s sheer, rapacious stupidity.

Meanwhile we fight about the marginal tax rate on the top 2% of income earners in this country.  Good grief.  See historians?  This is how the American Empire fell.

How to fight it?  With your wallet and with your stomach.  Buy pecans.  Eat walnuts.  Eat pistachios.  And most of all, eat acorns.  Eat anything that does not require ripping up the ground year after year.

* Note to historians in the future:  To aid in the accuracy of your footnote citations the correct spelling is “S-i-e-m-s.  You're welcome.”

** Smith’s reference to “primitive woman” – while probably historically accurate in terms of the first cultivators of the soil and sowers of grain seeds – is also metaphorical.  In other writings Smith believed that the Genesis story in which man and woman were cast out from Eden to live by the sweat of their brow literally recalls mankind’s transition from living off the natural bounty of tree crops like acorns to its ever-increasing reliance upon annual grain crops.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Really smart woodpeckers

Last week I was driving on Las Pilitas Road outside of Santa Margarita, CA and I came across a holey oak (in my mind all oaks are Holy, but only some are holey):

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Of course I had to get out of the truck and take a closer look:
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An acorn is stuffed into many of these holes.  This is the work of acorn woodpeckers - a bird that is native to California and the southwest, not the Midwest where I come from.  These industrious little dudes create "granary trees" by drilling holes in the bark of oak trees and cramming - and I do mean cramming - acorns into them.  The acorns are pounded in so tightly that squirrels and jays can't dislodge them.  As the acorns dry out, shrink, and become loose in their nooks, the clever acorn woodpeckers cram them into smaller holes.

At least someone understands the value of acorns as a food source.

Two great tastes that taste great together...

 ... acorns and pizza.

Actually this photo (apologies for the sickly lighting...) combines four of my favorite things:  Christmas, acorns, pizza and oak wood.

It is tree decorating night at Casa de Siems.  That means music, food and memories.  No, our Christmas tree is not an oak.  Although I lobbied for that.  Again.  And lost.  Again.

By food, I mean pizza.  And pizza at our house means homemade crust with 1 cup of the white flour replaced with acorn flour.  We pre-bake the crust, then add the toppings (after much heated debate) and bake for another 6-7 minutes or so.  The only downside of acorn flour pizza crust is that it's much more filling and satisfying than regular crust... which sounds all well and good until you consider the horrible consequences of that:  It means eating less pizza!

My other favorite thing is the oak table upon which the pizza crust is resting.  Sickly lighting aside this is our one truly prized possession - a quarter-sawn white oak table made in Lake City, Minnesota in 1900.  We found it at an antique store in suburban Minneapolis about eight years ago.  We went in looking for a couple of small wall decorations.  We walked out with a 2-ton (estimated weight, based on having moved it several times) of gorgeous oak.  It's a circular table about 52 inches in diameter with leaves that expand it to nearly 100 inches in length, and with five massive columnar legs.

Update:  I didn't get this posted yesterday afternoon, so the trimming of the tree has come and gone.  Summary:  Tree... gorgeous.  Snacks... plentiful.  Music... excellent (avoiding the putrid Paul McCartney Christmas ditty "Wonderful Christmas Time" helped in that; honestly, what was Sir Paul thinking??).  Pizza... delicious.

I'm still full.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

I wouldn't mind food preparation in this setting

Yesterday I visited the site of a very cool oak restoration project near Springville, CA - a project in which I'm privileged to be playing a small role, supplying tree tubes to protect the newly planted acorns from getting eaten by deer and/or trampled by cattle. 

A creek runs through the 330 acre property and all along the creek, wherever there is a stone outcropping, there are mortars carved out of the bedrock.

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In simpler - and I will always contend it's not overly-romanticizing things to say better - times, folks sat on these stones grinding acorns in these mortars (foreground, filled with rain water) overlooking, and listening to, this beautiful creek.  It was BYOP - Bring Your Own Pestle.

I loathe cooking.  The kitchen is like a prison for me, with too much happening at once in an enclosed space, and with meal time always corresponding to a time when I'd rather just be talking with my family about the events of the day without interruption from timers, food processors and boiling-over pots of pasta.

Or maybe, as my family contends, it's because the same guy who can juggle 50 different things at work can't handle having food cooking on more than one burner at once.

But I could sit for hours - days - in this spot preparing food for the coming year.  The creek, of course, played a vital role in the process.  Shelled acorns would have been placed in baskets in the creek, allowing the water to leach the bitter tannins from the them.

Oh yes, and if you look in the other directions you see this:

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Then this (turning your head a bit):
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And finally this:
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 And this is on a "bad" day - foggy and overcast.  Two days earlier this place was bathed in golden sunlight.  Two weeks from now the grass will be green and vibrant.

Yes, even a kitchen-hating dude like me could get used to food preparation - gathering and grinding a years' worth of sustenance within a week or two of work - in a place like this.

And yes, in speaking with the US Department Fish & Wildlife guy who is supervising the project (is it just me or do these guys keep getting younger and smarter?) this area would have been much more heavily covered with oaks - primarily blue oaks (Quercus douglasii) in pre-settlement times.  Most were cut down for firewood, building materials, and to grow more grass for cattle (although the success of this is debatable - studies show that the grass growing in the shade of oaks is more more nutrient-rich).

All of the grass you see is non-native - European annual grasses that replaced the native perennial vegetation, and then got its seasons flip-flopped; it turns golden brown in summer and greens up in winter.  Or what passes for winter in California.  Said the native Minnesotan.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

What do you see?

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Here's what I see:  possibilities. 

I see mast.  (And by clicking I see an awesome blog.)

I see a simpler, more harmonious time.

I see fodder.

I see the future.

I see dinner.

Blue oak (Quercus douglasii) acorns, Springville, CA.

What do you see?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Acorn Trees

I absolutely love the way my southern customers for tree tubes invariably refer to the oak seedlings they are planting as "acorn trees."  (Well, for the sake of dialectic accuracy they say it more like "a-kern trees.")

Referring to oaks as acorn trees is incredibly profound, in my estimation.  It's a recognition - conscious or subconscious - of why they are planting the trees, that they truly value the fruit the trees will produce.  Granted, my customers are thinking more in terms of the food the acorn trees will produce for wildlife rather than for people, but they are a heck of a lot farther down the road of (re)thinking of acorns as food than most people.

After all, other food-producing trees are referred to by the food they produce - even black walnut and black cherry, which are generally speaking more prized for their wood than as a food source - are named in recognition of their fruit.

I need to do a little etymological research on the origins of the word oak, and since I haven't read Oak, The Frame of Civilization for at least a year that would be a good place to start (be sure to order a copy for the oak-lover in your family, just in time for the holidays!).  I seem to recall that the name oak derives more from its acorns than its wood, but I'll check on that.

Regardless, in modern English the term oak does not have a food connotation of any kind.  More's the pity. 

If oaks were commonly referred to as acorn trees I think it would change the way in which people view them; they would shift in the public consciousness from being viewed as pretty but "slow growing" trees that eventually produce useful wood, to what they should be:  A source of nourishment, The Staff of Life. (That eventually produce useful wood; I am a forester, after all.)

So let's start here and now:  I'm going to start referring to oaks as acorn trees (that being the Yankee pronunciation I was born to) whenever it won't create confusion.  Please feel free to do likewise - acorn trees or a-kern trees, it's up to you - and we'll start a movement!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Mistletoe in 2 parts

This California white/valley oak (Q. lobata) was the subject of a recent post - it's the one that sadly also serves as a fence post.

But, man, it's an awesome tree.  I love this time of year here in California when the white and blue oaks lose their leaves, revealing huge masses of mistletoe - something I didn't grow up seeing in my native Minnesota.

One my way home from my daily sales rounds yesterday (which only included the fulfillment of everything I set out to do in my career in the course of two short but spine-tinglingly cool meetings - one with a nursery ready to revolutionize and industry and one with an amazing guy working to restore native California oaks and other trees in the face of difficult economic, political and environmental conditions; other than that it was a pretty nondescript day) I just had to stop and take pictures of this tree from two different angles.

Mistletoe in the moonlight:

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Mistletoe at sunset:

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I wish I had gotten there about 12.3 minutes earlier. Better yet, I wish I knew how to use a camera in a way that those 12.3 minutes wouldn't have mattered.

Have an awesome Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Oak Abuse - This just in: Oak trees grow

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 In this part of California - San Luis Obispo County - oaks generally grow singly or in small clumps on the north/northwest exposures of grassy hillsides.

However I frequently drive through one valley on Hwy 41 just east of Atascadero where the oaks - California white and California coast oaks - form a fairly dense woods and provide a shady haven for grazing cattle - the coolest cows in the county.

Where there are cattle, of course, there is barbed wire.  But this is a slightly different spin on my frequent "oak as a fence post" posts; here the oaks generally weren't used as fence posts.  Surprisingly, for fence posts the ranchers actually used... wait for it... fence posts!  But what they also must have done was run the barbed wire about a millimeter away from the oaks along the fence line.

The oaks grew into into the barbed wire.  Or vice versa.  Either way, we're talking about dozens and dozens of trees over a 1 mile stretch of fence, now with deeply embedded barbed wire.

On the scale of arboreal crimes (with 10 being the intentional poisoning of ancient oaks on the campus of a college football rival - see Auburn University oak trees - or the pruning of Minnesota oaks during oak wilt season by "tree care" companies that know better), this probably rates about a 2.  But it still bugs me.  It's pretty easily avoided.  It doesn't really harm the tree, but it sure as heck doesn't help it either.  And someday, when the barbed wire has broken or rusted off and the wire embedded in the tree is not visible, someone is going to sidle up to the tree with a chain saw and get a very nasty surprise.

Oaks are food.  Oaks are heat.  Oaks are beauty.  Oaks are shade.  Oaks are structures.

But oaks - living oaks - should never be fence posts.

Went to a soccer game...

 … and an acorn fight broke out.

We spent last Saturday at a soccer tournament in Templeton, CA (yes, as a matter of fact my son did score another goal, thanks for asking – and yes, it was left-footed, as he will tell you ad infinitum even if you don’t ask).

Between matches, the boys discovered enough of these to feed a medium-sized village for a year (which, of course, they did in simpler/better times):

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California white oak (Q. lobata) acorns – BIG ones.  Big, pointy ones.

And the boys did what 11 year old boys would naturally do:  Someone yelled “acorn fight!” and they started chucking them at each other.  Acorns: Staff of Life, handy projectile.

Except one kid, who gingerly picked up an acorn and looked in amazement at the tiny radicle that had started to sprout from it.  You could see the mental wheels turning:  So this is where an oak tree comes from.  He showed it to his dad, then saw I was watching the scene and he showed it to me.  I asked if he planned to plant it and he said yes.  We wrapped it in a t-shirt for safe transport home, and I’m happy to report that by the time of the team pizza party (my favorite part of every soccer season) later that evening the acorn had been safely planted in a pot.  Very cool.

No, that wasn’t my kid.  He was too busy becoming an acorn Gatling gun to notice things like sprouting radicles.  Proving, of course, that the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Friday, November 9, 2012

It's the drip line, people!

A few weeks ago a wrote about how heartened I was to see more and more construction projects with protective fences set up around the drip line of oak trees in order to protect the root zones from soil compaction and grade changes.

Well, the last few construction sites I have seen... not so much.

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Above: Mid-state Fairgrounds, Paso Robles, CA.  Below: Hwy 46 east of Paso Robles.  In both cases California white oak (Quercus lobata) - also called valley oak.

Granted there are mitigating circumstances and the construction crews might be doing the best they can under limiting circumstances.  The tree above is located in a roughly paved parking area and the fence marks the perimeter of the area of bare soil around the tree.  Despite the tough growing conditions this is obviously one heck of a healthy tree.  To some degree the pavement is probably serving the same function as mulch film - holding moisture in the soil.  Rip up the pavement and I guarantee you find a ton of feeder roots immediately beneath it.  So my fear is they are going to do just that:  Rip up the pavement and the feeder roots beneath, the compact the soil in the process of re-paving the area.  I hope I'm wrong.

No matter what, why wouldn't they have put the construction fence at the drip line or beyond?  Answer: Because the Mid-state Fair is in August when it's hot as Hades in Paso Robles and everyone wants to park in the shade.

In the lower photo the tree is on the shoulder of a soon-to-be-widened highway, and a fence, private property and a vineyard lane on the other side.  This photo is taken looking east.  No way you can fence out to the drip line to the north (road) or south (fence/vineyard lane).  And you don't really have to, since the road shoulder and the vineyard lane have probably limited root growth in those directions for years.

But you could, in order to compensate, extend the fenced area east and west to the drip line - or even far beyond the drip line.  There's no law (although sadly there's probably a CalTrans spec) that says tree protection fencing needs to be erected in a circle.  Most of the root growth of this great tree has been going out from the tree to the east and west.  Why not protect those roots from construction damage?

I keep a mental catalog of at-risk construction site oaks and follow them for years to see how they fare post construction.  I'll keep watching these in the years ahead.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

How to lose an election

I try to keep Oak Watch non-political.  That's not because I am apolitical.  I have deeply held political beliefs - many of them diametrically opposed to each other.  In the presidential elections from 2000 to 2008 I voted for candidates from three different political parties, each time with what I truly believed to be the long term best interest of the country at heart.  And because it amused me.

My avoidance of political commentary is primarily because the ebb and flow of politics has little effect on what's really important here:  Reawakening the masses to a basic appreciation of oaks as the Staff of Life and the need to convert from our soil-killing reliance on annual cereal crops back to a - in the words of the brilliant J. Russell Smith - permanent agriculture of food grown on perennial woody plants (e.g. acorns).

I think the only political comment I have made on this blog is when I mentioned that had Dewey really defeated Truman - as the morning dailies originally claimed he had - Dewey was planning to appoint J. Russell Smith to the post of Secretary of Agriculture. If only...

But I can't resist playing the pundit for a moment here.  I was wrong: I predicted a popular vote defeat but electoral college victory for President Obama.  There are some lessons here.

It appears that the best way to lose an election is to say that people who oppose you do so only because they want to sponge off the government; to cast yourselves as the party of doers and your opponents as the party of takers.  It seems like a handy way to feel better about yourself - "we're building this country and they are just leeching off of our hard work" - but it's probably not a particularly effective way to endear yourself to a rather large chunk of the electorate.

It also might be just a tad disingenuous in that one of our biggest welfare programs pays farmers to grow annual crops that pulverize and poison the soil - the real wellspring and source of this nation's wealth.  It speaks to a political truism:  If I get money from the government it's an incentive.  If someone else does it's a hand out.

From here the way forward for Republicans is clear:  They must nominate a young, born again, fiscally conservative, gay Latino woman.

I am expecting a phone call from Karl Rove any minute to serve as his adviser for 2016 (and I am guessing he'd enjoy that call a lot more than the, "Son, what did you do with the $100 million check we wrote to you to win the election for us?" calls he received the other night).

Oak Abuse: Oak as fencepost #437

This kind of thing really steams my bean:

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 California white oak (Quercus lobata), Highway 41 near Creston, CA.

I get it.  You're building a fence and come to an oak tree and you think, "Cool, it's like a giant pre-pounded fence post but with leaves."  And I know that a couple of fence staples and some barbed wire aren't going to kill the tree (unless you're wounding the tree during oak wilt season in the Upper Midwest, April 15 - June 15).

But I hate what it says about how we think about trees - as if they are, well, fence posts with leaves.

This one takes the idea a step farther: Oak as gate post.  Perfect!  A monster oak tree right where I want to put a gate!  Besides the fact that by definition vehicles will now be driving over and compacting the soil in the root zone, there's another problem with this:  Gates must be hinged vertically.  Oak tree trunks are conical.  How do we resolve this geometrical conundrum?  Easy - by gauging out the buttressed base of the tree to create a cavity in which the base of the gate will rest.

Ouch. This is somewhat - OK, a lot - less benign that just pounding some nails into a tree to string some barbed wire.  This is creating a nasty wound almost sure to become the entry point for fungal pathogens, not to mention a handy pooling spot for the moisture that will help feed those decay fungi.

Would it have been that hard to drive a fence post 10 feet away?  I think not.

Am I advocating cutting down another tree somewhere to make a fence post to drive 10 feet away from this tree instead of gauging this living tree in order to hinge the gate?  Yes.  Yes I am.

I believe it is a much "kinder" cut to harvest a tree with a specific purpose or use in mind (and then to replant or otherwise foster the regeneration of the piece of land from which the tree was harvested), than to subject a living tree to the indignity - and shortened life - of using it as a fence post.  Or clothesline pole.  Or flag pole.  Or etc.

But that's just me.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween

Getting ready for an evening of tricks and treats.  And no, sadly, I'm not handing out acorns.

My 8th grade daughter is getting ready to trick or treat.  Sheesh, in my day 8th graders didn't trick or treat.  We egged houses and smashed pumpkins.

I don't know what's wrong with kids today.

Have fun and be safe.

Friday, October 12, 2012


I sometimes forgot to check and respond to comments.  Now that I'm getting more of them (thanks and keep them coming!) I promise to get better at that. There have been some great comments recently.

In response to the article I wrote for Mossy Oak's Gamekeepers magazine, in which I said the deer that get oak trees planted for their benefit eat better than people do and in which I speculated as to why humankind stopped eating acorns after relying on them for untold millennia, thefuturefarm commented:

Bill Mollison (father of permaculture) gives another reason that we moved away from tree crops. Paraphrasing, he says that trees were getting cut down for war and building by large governments and armies, so people moved to food sources that could produce every year and avoid the risk of planting something that would take years to produce and be attractive building material for others. He gives the example of Ireland, which he claims was a forested people till England decided they needed the wood.

 I think that's absolutely true (not surprising since Mollison is a genius).  Further I also believe that governments found that forcing people to rely on annual food crops kept them busy, exhausted and easier to control as compared to a diet of acorns, which kept them nourished with a lot of free time on their hands.

In response to my post on advances I have been seeing in protecting construction site trees, Tony Salmeron of Tree Service Hendersonville NC

 Hahahaha, I loved the snippet at the end. Very funny. You're putting a hell of a lot of effort into saving them, extremely honorable. Thank you for doing a huge part for our ecosystems and environment, every step counts.

A quadruple "ha" - Thanks Tony.  Thanks for reading and stop back often.

Following my post on taste tested some Gambel oak acorns sent to me by a friend, Darin commented:

Those are nice Gambel acorns, I collect Gambel, gray, and muehlenburgii. You eat the acorns thats great, I like to grow oak trees but have not ate any yet. I can gather nice muehlenbergii acorns in Phoenix AZ and send you some. I enjoy trading acorns to grow plants but it might be fun to try to eat some.

 Unfortunately I am currently in a climate which, at a nearly constant 60 degrees with fog half the day, suits me perfectly it is not great for most oaks.  I also have limited space for growing oaks.

However Darin's comment is a reminder that I have been wanting to set up an acorn exchange for my many readers who enjoy trading acorns for both growing and eating.  Watch for a post next week!

Finally, thefuturefarm is on to me:

Sounds to me like someone is stalling from their oak gall ink post obligation :-)

 Well intentioned promises broken by overwork and short attention span are the specialty of Oak Watch!  However, I owe you guys two things:  Oak gall ink and roasted Gambel acorns.  I "promise" to do both within 2 weeks.

Everyone: thanks so much for reading.  Your comments mean the world to me.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

This is awesome: A new Oak Watch hero!

I spend a lot of time in my truck visiting customers.  I generally click back and forth between sports talk radio (even though I can’t remember the last time I watched an entire non-Olympic sporting event on TV) and public radio.  It’s a sort of intellectual whiplash, going from endless, cliché-ridden discussions on whether players of a barbaric sport should be fined or suspended for openly discussing and rewarding barbarism and other pressing topics of the day, to in-depth discussions of issues of minor importance like health care, terrorism, current and pending economic meltdowns, etc.

Yesterday I was smart/lucky/annoyed enough to switch away from the 1,892,732nd discussion and analysis of the most overrated backup quarterback in the history of football in time to hear the single most important story in the history of public radio:  A 15 minute story on my local Central Coast CA public radio station about a very cool woman in nearby Atascadero who every autumn gathers, processes and bakes acorns.  When asked why she goes to the trouble to do this every year, Cathie Asdel said (and I'm paraphrasing in the manner of someone taking notes while driving 65 miles an hour on a curving highway) "If everything we eat is pre-packaged, how important are we?"  Cathie gathers, processing, bakes and eats acorns to regain a sense of connection with the Earth.  She said, "We need to love and use the things in our environment in order to appreciate them."

I hope to meet Cathie very soon.

The story was on KCBX radio.  Yesterday they had a link to some (typewritten - I love it!) instructions from Cathie on making acorn meal and a few recipes.  I no longer see it on the KCBX web site, but luckily I clicked the link last night.

Here it is.  Enjoy.

Perhaps it would behoove me to spend a little less time listening to inane sports chatter and a little more time listening to public radio.  Then again, listening to inane chatter has its advantages.  Years ago a hugely popular Minneapolis morning drive radio show was making fun of a guy who, according to some article or other, carried a horse chestnut in his pocket for good luck.  The hosts assumed that a horse chestnut was the equine equivalent of a cow pie, and therefore thought this story was ha-ha hilarious.  In those pre-email/twitter/facebook days (God, those were the days!) I sent a fax blasting their stupidity.  They read my fax on the air and soundly blasted me for being such a spoil sport tree dweeb.  But since they read my letter on the air I also won free tickets to see Jeff Foxworthy.  Not bad!

I wonder what they'd say about a guy who often carries acorns in his pocket - not so much for luck but as a reminder of what's important.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Gamekeepers: Deer Eat Better Than We Do

The good folks at Mossy Oak publish a magazine called Gamekeepers.  It must have been a proverbial "slow news day," because for some reason I am sure they will come to regret they published an article written by me.

I have written before about how a growing number of hunters truly have it right, and are providing food for wildlife in a way that is much more efficient and sustainable than the myriad ways in which we feed ourselves: They are planting permanent "food plots" of nut- and fruit-bearing trees.  They are also much more diligent and careful than most landscape or timber tree planters when it comes to protecting and tending their young trees in order to achieve optimal growth.  In short, hunters planting oaks for deer and turkey habitat are growing those oaks faster than most farmers grow corn.  I will be spotlighting the amazing results of one particular hunter/tree planter in an upcoming post.

I find the name of the magazine - Gamekeepers - both apt and ironic.  Wikipedia defines a game keeper as:

... a person who manages an area of countryside to make sure there is enough game for shooting, or fish for angling, and who actively manages areas of woodland, moorland, waterway or farmland for the benefit of game birds, deer, fish and wildlife in general.
Typically, a gamekeeper is employed by a landowner, and often in the UK by a country estate, to prevent poaching, to rear and release game birds such as pheasants and partridge, eradicate pests, encourage and manage wild red grouse, and to control predators such as foxes, to manage habitats to suit game, and to monitor the health of the game.

The magazine title is apt in the sense that there is a growing number of folks who take a very active role in making their land as attractive and nourishing as possible for wildlife.  This generally means managing for game species like deer, turkeys, grouse, pheasants, etc. but the "unintended" consequence of this management is a huge amount of habitat for non-game species.  And from personal experience I know that even the most hard-bitten deer hunter takes tremendous pride in the multitude of non-game species his or her land supports.

And, as I say, people growing food for humans could learn an awful lot from the way that these intensive wildlife habitat managers - these gamekeepers - are growing food for wildlife.

It is ironic from a historical standpoint.  As per the Wiki definition, the game keeper was typically the dude in the employ of the local aristocrat charged with keeping the riff raff from "poaching" the earl or duke's game.  Well now the descendents of that riff raff, transported across the pond, are all aristocrats (which also means that none are aristocrats) and are all lords of their own manors, managing their own land for wildlife.  And that is a very good thing.

There is no online version of Gamekeepers.  The publishers were kind enough to give me permission to reprint the article here on this humble blog.  Here it is:

How to eat as good as your deer
Making acorns a part of your diet

By Christian Siems

Jeff Foxworthy is a very funny man, and a few years ago he delivered a very funny keynote address at the Quality Deer Management Convention.  He spoke about his lifelong love of deer, and how he admires QDMA experts in the same way many folks admire Hollywood stars.  Toward the end of his talk Foxworthy told a series of  “… you might be a quality deer manager” jokes along the lines of the “… you might be a redneck” jokes for which he is famous.  I really liked this one:  “If your deer have new bedding but your wife doesn’t, you might be a quality deer manager.” 

But this is the joke that really struck a chord with me:  “If your deer eat better than your children do, you might be a quality deer manager.”  Another laugh-out-loud line to be sure.  But I doubt Foxworthy realized how true his words were; deer really do eat better than people do, for this simple reason:

Deer eat acorns, and we don’t.

Acorns were once the Staff of Life for humankind.  Humans have consumed more acorns than wheat, rice and corn combined.  Acorns remained a dietary staple until very recently in parts of Europe (in parts of Spain and France acorns accounted for 20% of caloric intake until the late 19th century), parts of Asia (notably Korea), and California among the indigenous people.  The naturalist John Muir called the dry acorn cakes eaten by the local native people, "the most compact and strength giving food" he had ever used.  I might be romanticizing a bit here, but it is my belief that the healthiest, happiest and most peaceful people who have ever lived on Earth were acorn-eaters. 

Why did we humans eat acorns?  The answer is easy.   Acorns are incredibly nutritious and easy to gather.  Acorns are rich in protein, amino acids, carbohydrates, but most importantly fat.  People once inherently understood that fat is an essential nutrient, back before dietary geniuses told us that fat is evil (and before we all got fat trying to avoid eating fat).  Communities who subsisted largely on acorns could gather a year’s worth of nutrition in just a few days of work.  In my research I have noticed that European regions that rely heavily on tree crops (these days it’s more likely walnuts and chestnuts than acorns) have an awful lot of leisure time on their hands.  Bocce ball is huge among nut eating cultures.  So is sitting in the shade, drinking coffee and chatting.  For hours.

I have also found a study from Korea suggesting that eating sawtooth oak (Quercus acutissima) acorns can delay the onset of dementia.  You realize what this means, of course:  With the widespread planting of sawtooth oak for wildlife habitat, our deer and wild turkeys have better memories than we do.  Then again, hunters already know that.

Why did we stop eating acorns?  That answer is considerably more complicated.  An acorn diet was truly “easy street” in terms of nutritional value per man hour expended.  So why break our backs working the soil to produce annual grain crops instead?  Two dueling groups of anthropologists (and trust me, there’s nothing more fierce and scary than a dueling anthropologist) have filled a lot of research papers trying to explain the transition from acorn to agriculture.  One group claims that annual crop agriculture made permanent settlements – a.k.a. “civilization” – possible.  The other group claims that permanent settlements over-taxed local acorn resources causing catastrophic food shortages that necessitated the development of annual crops.

Either way, it’s our great loss, both in terms of health and in terms of energy expended (both human and fuel) per calorie consumed.  It’s time to rediscover the benefits of adding acorns to our diet.


If you eat acorns raw you will notice that after an initial sweet, nutty, sometimes buttery taste your tongue will quickly start to go numb, as though you have been sucking on boot leather for an hour (I’m guessing here – I haven’t actually sucked on boot leather, and anyways it wasn’t for a whole hour).  That’s the tannins you are tasting – tannins which, coincidentally, are used in tanning leather.  Luckily those tannins are water soluble and are easily removed.

Instructions for making acorn flour (borrowing heavily from an awesome web site – a must for all sportsmen who love food –

1) Gather acorns.  Acorns from the white oak group (bur oak, swamp chestnut oak, overcup oak, etc. – the ones with the rounded leaf tips) tend to be less tannic, but that’s a generalization.  Try various types of acorns, from various trees; you’ll notice enormous variation in sweetness between acorns of the same species, with some that can be eaten right off the tree and some that really curl your toes.

2) Shell the acorns.  The high tech tools I use most often to do this:  A hammer (pounding the top of the acorn where the cap used to be) and my teeth.  Don’t tell my dentist.

3) Leach the tannins.  Grind the raw acorn nutmeats into fine meal – a coffee grinder works, or you can go “old school” with a mortar and pestle.  Mix 1 cup of the meal for every 3 cups of cold water, and pour into a glass jar with a lid.  Once each day shake the mixture, wait 12 hours, pour off the water (and dissolved tannins), and replace the water.  Repeat for 1 to 2 weeks until the flour has lost its tannic bitterness.

4) Dry the flour.  Pour the acorn/water mixture into a cheesecloth strainer and gently squeeze out the water.  Spread the flour in a thin layer on a cookie sheet and place in an oven with the temperature set as low as it will go (a food dehydrator also works).  Dry the flour, mixing from time to time.  When completely dry put it in a blender with a dry blade and grind into flour.  Sift through a fine mesh sieve to remove any lingering large pieces.

5) Store finished flour in the fridge.

Another way to leach and save a larger quantity of acorns is to boil the nutmeats whole, changing water each time it darkens (repeat 3 to 6 times, until the acorns taste like chestnuts).  Then dry the acorns in a 300 degree oven for approximately 30 minutes.  Roasting in this way brings out the sugars and helps preserve the acorns.  These acorn pieces can be eaten whole, oiled and salted, or added to soups and sauces.


Acorn flour can be substituted for a portion of the wheat flour in most baking recipes.  At my house we substitute a cup of acorn flour for one of the three cups of flour in our favorite bread recipe.  We also substitute ½ cup of acorn flour for wheat flour when we make pizza dough.  In both cases the result has a mild nutty flavor, is less “carby,” and is a lot more satisfying.  Here are a couple of specific recipes I have made and really like:

Acorn Maple Syrup Cookies

Preheat to 350 degrees

1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp almond extract
2 eggs
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 syrup.  Add the rest of the wet ingredients to the butter/syrup mixture.  Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients.  I sometimes find I need to add 1 to 2 more tablespoons of wheat flour if the dough is too gloppy (to use a technical culinary term).  Drop spoonfuls onto a parchment lined cookie sheet and bake for 13 to 15 minutes.

Acorn Walnut Bread (adapted from

Preheat oven to 350 degrees
1 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
3/4 cup acorn flour
1/4 cup milk
1 cup maple syrup
1 cup applesauce
1/2 cup crumbled black walnuts
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/8 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 eggs (great reason to double the recipe!)
Mix flours and baking powder in small bowl. Combine milk, maple syrup, applesauce, vegetable oil and eggs in large mixing bowl. Mix well and stir in dry ingredients…adding black walnuts at the end. Pour into small, buttered bread pan and bake for roughly 45 minutes.

You get the idea:  Anything you can bake becomes tastier, healthier and more satisfying when you substitute acorn flour for a portion of the white flour.  After eating you will be amazed how long you feel full. 

Adding acorns to your diet is good for your health, but it can also be good for your hunting.  Viewing your oak trees as a food source forces you to be more in tune with when the acorns from various trees tend to drop (early or late), and how much competition there is from wildlife for the acorns of certain trees.  You will begin to view your property in much the same way that deer and turkeys view it, which in turn will help you better understand their dietary needs and movements.


Christian Siems is a forester with Wilson Forestry Supply and author of the blog  Chris collaborates with Mossy Oak’s Nativ Nurseries on tree tubes for protecting oak seedlings from deer browse, so they grow faster and produce acorns (for deer and people) sooner.  Chris welcomes your questions and ideas about eating acorns and can be reached at