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?