Thursday, September 20, 2012

Acorns as currency

I looked here but I can't find the currency exchange rate that really matters. Namely, the all-important exchange rate between California black oak (Q. kelloggii) acorns and Mono Lake alkali fly pupae.

At least it would be all-important if you were either a Yokut with eastern Sierra-gathered acorns to trade or a Kutzadika'a living in the Mono Basin (near what is now Lee Vining, CA).  In fact, the issue was quite possibly one of life and death.

In early August we camped just west of Yosemite on the Merced River, in Yosemite itself, and then east of Yosemite near Mono Lake - kind of an 'in the footsteps of Muir' vacation.

We visited Mono Basin Scenic Area and Mono Lake.  Way, way, way cool.  Mono Lake is a remarkable place that people of course did their very best to destroy (while others committed themselves - happily successfully - to saving it).

Mono Lake is one of the oldest lakes in North America.  It is at least 760,000 years old.  Several springs and creeks feed the lake, but there is no outlet - except via evaporation.  Mineral laden water goes in, water evaporates, and the result is a lake with a mineral content that exceeds 10%.  Heck, even I - a.k.a. Chris "The Boat Anchor" Siems - could float in water like that!

No fish can live in those conditions, but the lake is massively productive biologically.  Millions of brine shrimp draw gulls and other migratory birds by the hundreds of thousands.  They mostly nest on the lake's two volcanic islands.  That successful breeding strategy hit a bit of a snag when the City of Los Angeles inserted a massive drinking straw into the lake and drew down the level by more than half, leaving a convenient land bridge for predators out to the islands-turned-peninsulas.  Thankfully the water has risen and the islands are islands once again.

Proving once again that indigenous people rarely get to name themselves (see also Indians, Papago), the Kutzadika'a are often referred to as the Mono people.  Mono is a shortened and bastardized version of Monache, which in the Yokut language means "fly eaters" and was the name by which the Yokuts who guided the first white explorers to the area called them - not the name the people called themselves.

Of course the Kutzakika'a probably referred to the Yokut by some derisive term meaning acorn eaters, so maybe it all evens out in the end.  Whatever that term was (and I'll try to find out) I would wear it as a badge of honor!

Mono Lake also produces tons upon tons of alkali flies.  Which, not surprisingly, produce tons and tons of alkali pupae.  Which are incredibly rich in minerals and protein.  Which I saw in profusion floating on the surface of the water, easily had just for the skimming.

And which, I'm embarrassed to say, I was too much of a wuss to try.  My excuse was that I was afraid that our 2 year old would copy me, and since he had just puked all over his car seat and clothes 20 minutes before (something I'm pretty sure John Muir never had to contend with in his travels) I didn't think that adding fly pupae to his digestive system seemed like an especially great idea. I promise I will sample the local fare on our next visit.  Any food comprised of 10% salt is probably A-OK in my book.

But of course the story that captured my attention is the idea that acorns were considered so important a foodstuff that they were regularly traded and were treated as currency in their own right.

After the trip I read a fantastic biography of John Muir, of course combing it - in vain as it turned out in this case - for references to Muir's own consumption of acorns during his Sierra wanderings (Muir is said to have referred to the acorn cakes eaten by local indigenous people as the most nutritious and sustaining food he knew of).  Muir didn't have a lot of good things to say about the health and cleanliness of the Yokut people he met in and around Yosemite.

One could interpret that to mean that an acorn and alkali fly diet is not particularly healthful.

One could also interpret that to mean it's a little tough to be on the top of your game when 90% of your population and most of what you have held to be Holy and true has been lost to disease and colonization.

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