Archive for the ‘Plant People’ Category

Giraffe Boy’s Big Day Out

May 19, 2012

Newly escaped from his cramped, low-ceilinged enclosure in the zoo for strange human/animal hybrids (where he subsisted on tasteless fodder, dispensed three times daily, and was prodded and laughed at by his visitors and keepers alike), Giraffe Boy looks to the trees of the English countryside for fleshy, succulent leaves, longing to stretch his long, slender neck up into the tall canopies and feast on the tastes and textures of his idealised motherland.

Well, he doesn’t mind starting out a little lower to the ground. Here he gets his teeth into the miniature jungle of Lime leaves, suckering from the base of a tall tree at the entrance to a local graveyard:

Mmm, soft and flannelly and soothing to the mouth and throat, only just emerged from their red buds. The Southern lowlands used to be full of Lime woods until they were cleared by the first farmers or herdsmen. Now they are nearly all planted specimens of the small-leaved, large-leaved or hybrid varieties. Later on in Summer the leaves get all sticky and sweet from aphids sucking on the sap and pooing out the sugary excess. Yum!

A little further on he finds a rare Wych Elm which he recognises from the thousands of small, flat-winged seeds (also edible) he saw earlier in the year:

Wych Elm seeds - Ulmus glabra

A deeper, richer, more mealy flavour. Thought to be the first elm to establish itself in the primeval woodland, and, like Lime, a large component of that ‘wildwood’. Beloved by livestock and susceptible to disease, so it has suffered and dwindled long in this land. Giraffe Boy grazes only where he can reach and leaves the rest of the tree to drink in light and air and produce its vital pollen and seeds.

Mmm, let’s try some more Lime. Higher up this time:

And now a venerable Silver Birch:

A bit more bitter, but refreshing, and it’s lovely to see the the slender tree sway and shiver in the wind. If he gets really hungry, Giraffe Boy can nibble through to the inner bark. The yellow catkins also have an interesting, polleny flavour. And if he gets cold he has heard that the flaky outer bark is really good for lighting fires (though his hooves make it difficult to make a friction ember). Here’s another one he found later on that day:


Ah, Beech. Some beautiful, tall specimens occasionally generous enough to lower branches down to a young Giraffe Boy’s height:

Best when young, soft and slightly hairy (older they get more tough and papery), the leaves have a delicious lemony tang, leaving the mouth feeling wonderful. Giraffe Boy likes to reach down and feast on the small, pointy brown nuts in the Autumn.

A little further on, Giraffe Boy finds a hedge of Hornbeam. He tastes the leaves, which have a rather strong, not entirely pleasant flavour. It looks similar to Beech, but the leaves have deeper grooves, more like the Wych Elm. Hmm, not sure about this one…

Later on he finds a full-grown tree with its curious knarly bark:

Ooh boy, here’s a lovely Hawthorn!

Both the flowers and the leaves taste delicious. Heady & aromatic, and sweet & nutty. ‘Bread and Cheese’ as the country children used to call them. Mind the thorns Giraffe Boy! They start out soft but toughen up to a sharp point later in the season, and you wouldn’t want to impale your tongue on one! Don’t eat too many of the flowers, either – you know how much you like to eat the sweet, red berries they turn into by Autumn-time!

Oh dear, Giraffe Boy seems to be suffering from a headache. No fear! Someone has been good enough to plant an ornamental Weeping Willow by the lake. A brief nibble releases the salicylic acid – present in all Willow species, and a precursor to aspirin – into Giraffe Boy’s body. In a little while he feels as right as rain (and appears to have discovered that he has thumbs):

Giraffe Boy doesn’t care if a tree isn’t ‘native’ to Britain. If it feeds or heals him well then he will accept it joyfully. After all, he and his long-necked, rough-tongued ancestors came to these shores in exactly the same way. Likewise, for obvious reasons, he doesn’t get all pompous about the genetic ‘purity’ of any weird or wonderful varieties, noticed and propagated by human individuals. Speaking of which, oh my goodness, would you look at this glorious Copper Beech – what a luscious feast for the senses (taste included)!

All the same, Giraffe Boy feels at most at home among the trees in English woodland.

But, oh no! What has happened here?

Our story ends in tragedy, for Giraffe Boy has eaten the deadly foliage of the Yew tree! Oh Giraffe Boy, you felt your freedom so sweetly, but you didn’t know that some plants refuse to be eaten by curious human/animal hybrids, and instead of sustaining life they bring death. Oh the high price of wisdom! What a sad fate befalls the wide-eyed and innocent!

I bid you all to learn from Giraffe Boy’s example. Stretch your necks high and escape into the wonderful wildness of trees, but take care not to dive too deeply or too quickly without reasonable confidence in your knowledge, and keep a gentle, loving regard for your own safety and well-being.

[Photo credit: HC]

Off you go, my beauties!

February 17, 2012

Here’s a … Something I threw together last night at around half past two in the morning, having spent the afternoon on a clandestine oak-planting mission. I really enjoyed getting into the perspective of these seedlings (which sprouted from acorns I harvested in the Autumn, potted in compost and placed on a South-facing windowsill, watering about once a week, or when the soil looked dry) – looking at the variables like light availability, soil quality, plant competitors, space to grow into etc. which differed considerably from site to site. I felt a bit like a parent checking out the local schools for my growing children and feeling the trepidation about all the hazards they might face as they did their best to establish themselves in the places I had chosen – a heavy burden of responsibility! I started to see the powerful hostility towards plants that grow without a permit (as it were) from the human occupiers of the landscape, so evident in the manicured gardens and close-cut lawns and even the parks, where every species and specimen has been pre-approved and allotted a certain space, the bounds of which it is not allowed to cross. I learned new respect for the hardships faced by all the wild, self-willed creatures that live over here – the guile and cunning they must employ every day simply to survive, the formidable challenge of finding a way to pry into hardened human hearts, fighting to turn individuals to their side so that they will spare the chancers they find and maybe even speak on their behalf to bring a measure of security to their lives.

It’s crazy how little space you can find in densely populated suburban developments where you can say with some confidence that a sapling won’t get strimmed, mowed, pulled up or cut down before it can reach maturity. I only found a few places, mainly around abandoned buildings, informal dumping sites and other areas that had obviously been ‘neglected’ (by humans) for many years. I’m also spreading the word to people who might actively want an oak tree somewhere on their property, and have a plan to offer seedlings to places with ‘oak’ in their names but no evidence of trees nearby. It’ll be interesting to see if any of it takes root (har har). Already I’m getting a nice feeling of connection and groundedness thinking of the places where ‘my’ seedlings are growing, fantasising about what their future might hold, making plans to visit and help with their upkeep, watering, weeding etc… Anyway, here ya go:

*****

Usually, as I go out and about on my way, I find myself looking at the empty spaces in the sky, trying to force fickle memory to conjure the vibrant beings that once filled them with explosions of greens and browns, roughs and smooths, thicknesses whiplike to sturdy and massive, all stretching outward, upward to fill a void of need; to fulfill a desire of plenty. But fighting to remember I am stumped, and it is so easy to let go and adjust to a newly impoverished reality.

Today, instead of reading loss and pain in these gaps I saw potential, promise. I began to look with the sight of the seedlings, buzzing away excitedly, snug by my side. They want a broken canopy and the greater strength of sunlight that follows, feeding their growth (amassing sap, sucker, bark, branch, cambium and heartwood) up into the space they’re destined to fill. Such an awesome power contained in so small a body: the power to suck and blow, to draw up and transpire, to push down and roar up with the greatest strength I’ve seen on this Earth… The trees could reclaim the empty skies and heal these sickly desert-neighbourhoods so quickly. We can help them at first (if still convinced that we know best) but really all we need to do is stand back and let them hurl their bodies into the forms and patterns of their own choosing.

Speed and health, my little ones! I want someday to swing up into your rugged, green-staining arms and stoop to gather the tender fruits around your thickening trunks before old age finally topples me and I must lie down to merge alike with the bugs, the shrooms and the deep richness of the soil.

Balanophagy for Beginners

November 4, 2011

‘Balanophagy is the practice of eating acorns. Acorns are more than just food for birds, squirrels, and hogs. They have been used for food by millions of humans over the ages. Acorns compare favorably in nutrition with common grains, though acorns contain more fat. (That was not a bad thing during most of human history.) If you have any ancestry among people of the northern hemisphere, there is a reasonable chance that you have some ancestors who ate acorns.’ – Kelli Kallenborn

‘The oak tree, today revered primarily for its beauty, may once have been the central food bearer around which entire societies (balanocultures) built their diet and lifestyle. Recent evidence shows that tools used for grinding and pounding food existed long before corn became popular and may have been used to process acorns into meal. Factors such as the domestication of goats and the burning of oaks for fuel may have contributed to the movement away from balanoculture. By the end of this century severe crises in agriculture world-wide may make a return to some modified form of balanoculture a viable alternative.’ – David Bainbridge (apparent coiner of the term)

So, Bill, you say that the European ‘Dark Ages were ages of forest culture'; that

[…] the trees were highly valued, highly selected, had high yields. You paid for the use of land based on the richness of the tree crop. From the forest, they derived all their bread, all their butter. The butter was made out of beechnuts — highly selected beechnuts. There are still casks and casks of beechnut butter in Europe, buried in the peat, still in good condition. All the bread and cakes in Tuscany and Sardinia and a few other places are still made from chestnuts. Corsican muffins are made of chestnuts, not wheat flour. All the bread was made from the trees, and all the butter was made from the trees. There are your basics.

In your American southwest, the pinion pine nut is a staple Indian food. In one day a family of six can gather thirty bushels of pine nuts, and that’s a year’s supply. In South America, six trees support a family of Indians. Those great supports are a source of staple food. One white oak, in its year, will provide staple food for about six families. A good old American chestnut — how many pounds did we get off one of those trees? At least four or five hundred pounds. There’s a couple of families’ food for a year, with no hacking and digging and sowing and reaping and threshing. Just dash out in autumn, gather the nuts and stack them away. […]

When the forests were managed for their yield and their food equivalence, they were highly managed. Now there are only a few remnants of this in the world, in Portugal, and southern France. In Portugal, you can still find highly selected, highly managed oak trees, often grafted, and olives. The pigs and the goats and the people live together in a very simple little 4,000 yard area in which nobody is racking around with plows. In that economic situation, there is no need for an industrial revolution.

A few of these tree ecologies still remain up on steep mountain slopes, where it has been difficult to get up there to cut the trees down for boat building and industrial uses. The whole of Europe, Poland, and the northern areas once were managed for a tree crop, and the forest supplied all the needs of the people. (from Bill Mollison’s design course, ‘Forests in Permaculture’)

This sounds pretty good to me – something akin to the ‘better reasons’ for preserving woodland I started looking for last December. What state do we find Quercus Robur, the mighty Pedunculate or English Oak – our national emblem – today in ‘the most wooded county in England’ (Surrey – 22.4% coverage, compared to a 11.8% UK average, 8.4% for England and 14.1% for the South East)?

Mostly I find stand-alone specimens like this glorious creature (who I believe substantially outdates the ‘development’ now grown around him) in agricultural fields, parks, suburban street corners, some gardens. I don’t know that many places where they’ve been allowed to get together and form communities like they used to. A few golf courses, perhaps, and some patches here & there in the parks and on downland. Beech tends to predominate nowadays near where I live, although I’m told we used to have much more Oak woodland before the ship-builders and iron-smelting industrialists got their way. (Interestingly, current expert opinion suggests that actually Small-Leaved Lime was the most common tree in the Southern Lowland areas of the prehistoric, post-ice-age ‘Wildwood’ of the British Isles, while the big Oak forests lay to the West and to the North.) But now we don’t use them for anything. We get timber mostly from overseas sources, and even then we rarely use it for building, fuel, toolmaking or any other of the myriad uses which the forest was once put to. So the survivors of centuries of over-exploitation are allowed breathe a sigh of relief, look pretty, grow massive and provide for the 400+ associated species of insect, bird and mammal which we’re willing to tolerate. And yet, perhaps I’m just projecting my own insecurity, but to me they look slightly uneasy – “If the humans aren’t getting anything from us why would they think twice about chopping us down on the flimsiest of pretexts and, especially when times get hard, for the most marginal short-term gain?” I think we need to use – in fact depend on – the trees in order to really safeguard their future. Probably ours too.

Since we’re talking about Balanophagy  – ‘a compound formed from the Greek roots βάλανος (bálanos = acorn) and φαγεῖν (phageîn, infinitive of ἔφαγον, used as 2nd aorist of ἐσθίω, meaning to eat’ (source) – let’s look at some of the edible uses of the the Oak tree’s fruit, the humble acorn.

Here’s William Cobbett writing in the early 19th century about one form of Balanophagy previously widespread among European peasantry – processing acorns and other woodland nut-masts through pigs:

The only good purpose that these forests answer is that of furnishing a place of being to labourers’ families on their skirts; and here their cottages are very neat, and the people look hearty and well, just as they do round the forests in Hampshire. Every cottage has a pig or two. These graze in the forest, and, in the fall, eat acorns and beech-nuts and the seed of the ash; for these last, as well as the others, are very full of oil, and a pig that is put to his shifts will pick the seed very nicely out from the husks. Some of these foresters keep cows, and all of them have bits of ground, cribbed, of course, at different times, from the forest: and to what better use can the ground be put? (source – ‘Rural Ride’, Forest of Dean nr. Bollitree, Nov. 14th, cited in Roger Deakin’s Wildwood, p.131)

A more intensive version of this still survives in the Portuguese practice of montado (aka dehesa in Spain) whereby:

Oak tree forests were gradually thinned out and the land was ploughed to provide room for livestock grazing. The oak trees that remained grew larger and produced more acorns, which in turn provided additional food for the grazing animals. To further enhance acorn production, the trees were periodically pruned, and the trimmings were then used as fuel or fodder for the animals. (link)

This works out better for the land than conventional agriculture because the trees ‘protect against soil erosion by decreasing the amount of water runoff as they absorb rainfall; their roots reach nutrients deep in the soil and bring them up closer to the surface, making them accessible to other vegetation; and they also prevent desertification by enhancing the structural complexity of the landscape’ while at the same time maintaining habitat for wildlife. The pigs also presumably get a taste of their wild ancestry which they seem to like, judging by average weight gains of 30kg after living with the trees for one season between October and January.

La Dehesa

Did the peasants ever cut out the middle man, as it were, and eat the acorns directly themselves? In ‘An Iberian perspective on Upper Paleolithic plant consumption‘ Jonathan A. Haws writes:

In his book, “Prehistoric Europe: The Economic Basis” (1952), Grahame Clark discussed prehistoric acorn consumption in the Mediterranean. Citing the geographer, Strabo, he noted the Lusitanians, in what is now Portugal, were observed to eat bread made of ground acorns for three-quarters of the year. Although in later times acorn flour was milled and made into “famine breads” when grains were scarce, many people appear to have subsisted off acorns for centuries (Jørgensen, 1977). Numerous citations from classical sources suggest acorns were viewed as the basis for all of civilization (Clark, 1952; Mason, 1995; Vencl, 1996; Sieso and Gómez, 2002). In fact, the genus name  “Quercus” is derived from two Celtic words meaning “beautiful tree” suggesting its importance in early times (Sánchez Arroyo, 1999). Acorn-eating, or balanophagy, survives today in Iberia where sweets are made from acorns. In Algarve, people eat raw acorns from the evergreen oaks. On Sardinia, local people still gather acorns and process them using traditional methods. Acorns are mixed with a special iron-rich clay and boiled to absorb the tannins (Johns, 1990). In the western Rif of Morocco, acorns are eaten raw, toasted, soaked in water or sun-dried (Peña, 2000). (pp.55-6)

I find it intriguing to speculate that montado/dehesa practices may have hung over from the subsistence economies of earlier cultures. Did the new farmers learn the techniques from the hunter-gatherer peoples they supplanted (viz. Indians teaching the first European colonists how to grow corn)? Or perhaps these were the same people, doing their best to hang on to the proven old ways while the Neolithic revolution swept through them? Haws lays out some tantalising possible scenarios of earlier practices:

Hunter-gatherers incorporating simple forest management techniques such as pruning, burning or possibly intentional planting could have created improved foraging areas for wild boar, deer, chamois and even wild aurochs. Spring pruning in the dehesa /montado is the primary method for increasing acorn yields per tree however this would be difficult if not impossible to detect archaeologically. There is evidence of prehistoric fire management of European woodlands by people during the Mesolithic (Mellars, 1976; Mason, 2000). Much of this burning has been perceived as a means of encouraging new growth for browse to support deer and other ungulates. However, as Mason (2000) points out, burning can encourage the proliferation of desirable forest species for human subsistence. In this case, fire may have been used as a tool to manage oaks or other fruit / nut-bearing vegetation. Fire may permit more light to reach the crown thus increasing acorn yield for individual trees (Mason, 2000). Comparisons between Holm oaks in managed stands and natural forests showed that unmanaged trees are generally shorter, found closer together and have smaller canopies (Pulidoet al., 2001). (pp.58-9)

Other extant Balanocultures show similar evidence of burning, pruning and other extensive management to maximise acorn production. In her 2005 book, Tending the Wild, Kat Anderson builds a picture of techniques used by Indians in California, some still within living memory. Acorns provided a ‘principle staple’ for the people there, with records of charred shell remains going back at least 10,000 years (p.287). This sounds like fun:

Individuals of many tribes harvested acorns by climbing the trees and cutting the limbs, a process Galen Clark recorded among the Yosemite Miwok: “In order to get the necessary supply [of acorns] early in the season, before ripe enough to fall, the ends of the branches of the oak trees were pruned off to get the acorns, thus keeping the branches well cut back and not subject to being broken down by heavy snows in the winter and the trees badly disfigured, as is the case since the practice has been stopped.” The Mono elder Lydia Beecher remembered the former pruning of oaks: “My grandpa Jack Littlefield would climb black oak trees and cut the branches off—just the tips so that many more acorns would grow the next year” (p.139)

As with practically all the other plant communities they ‘tended’, the Indians used fire to manage Oak trees. Apparently this served various purposes such as: helping to facilitate gathering, suppressing pests and diseases, encouraging the growth of long, flexible new shoots (useful for basketry etc.), keeping forest debris levels down so fires wouldn’t rage out of control, and fostering the growth of edible grasses, herbs and mushrooms between the trees (pp.288-9). As ‘Klamath River Jack from Del Norte County’ put it:

Fire burn up old acorn that fall on ground. Old acorn on ground have lots of worm; no burn old acorn, no burn old bark, old leaves, bugs and worms come more every year…. Indian burn every year just same, so keep all ground clean, no bark, no dead leaf, no old wood on ground, no old wood on brush, so no bug can stay to eat leaf and no worm can stay to eat berry and acorn. Not much on ground to make hot fire so never hurt big trees, where fire burn. (p.146)

As late as 1991 ‘Rosalie Bethel, Nork Fork Mono’ could still recall her elder’s stories from the 1800s:

Burning was in the fall of the year when the plants were all dried up when it was going to rain. They’d burn areas when they could see it’s in need. If the brush was too high and too brushy it gets out of control. If the shrubs got two to four feet in height it would be time to burn. They’d burn every two years. Both men and women would set the fires. The flames wouldn’t get very high. It wouldn’t burn the trees, only the shrubs. (p.177)

The resulting ‘Oak Savanna‘ habitats look strikingly similar to the Iberian landscapes pictured above, and were often compared to parkland by early European observers (p.175):

http://oaksavannas.org/photos/savanna-unit12b-0312.jpg

As well as the fact that, ‘Open country is much easier to travel in than country with thick underbrush; it is easier to find game and harder for enemies to sneak up on the camp’ (p.288), fire management would only leave the oldest, most productive trees standing and leave enough space for rounded canopies with more access to the sun (p.179). As I’ve observed over here when on the hunt for acorns and beechnuts, trees in the middle of woodland tend not to crop very heavily, whereas those in clearings, on edges or out on their own are much more likely to carpet the ground with large, sound nuts. Even on individual trees I’ve noticed that the best pickings are usually found on the South-facing (or open-canopy) side. This makes sense from the tree’s point of view too: What’s the point of dropping seeds in the middle of a shady wood? You’re far more likely to succeed in propagating your kind on the edge of the forest or where a fallen tree opens a clearing, allowing more sun in to increase the chances of germination and/or swift, healthy growth.

Unfortunately (for me) there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of evidence for acorn consumption in pre-agricultural Northern Europe. The abstract of the Mason paper, ‘Fire and Mesolithic subsistence — managing oaks for acorns in northwest Europe?‘ cited by Haws above (anyone got access to the full article?), particularly the number of question marks in the subheadings, suggests a fair amount of conjecture, though the attempt to ‘to extend and apply the model for Mesolithic burning suggested by Moore (in 1996) to two pollen and microcharcoal sequences from Mesolithic Britain’ sounds fascinating. Haws notes:

In the Near East there is solid evidence that acorns were used as food as early as 19,000 bp at Ohalo II (Kislevet al ., 1992). At La Sarga, an Epipaleolithic site in València, a painted rock art scene shows several figures collecting acorns as they fall from the tree (Fortea and Aura, 1987). However, inadequate recovery techniques and/or preservation biases inhibit an understanding of the role acorns may have played in European hunter-gatherer subsistence. (ibid. p.56)

I’m still not clear on how far back acorn remains are found in the archaeological records of the more Northern regions, though. In a 2000 dissertation, ‘Food production and food procurement in the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age’, Anne Evelyne de Hingh writes that:

Finds of concentrations of charred acorns are not at all exceptional and occur from the Mesolithic through to historic times throughout Europe. In Northern France, acorns are found from the Mesolithic up until the Middle Ages (Marinval/Ruas 1991, 420). Several authors have listed (pre- )historic finds of acorns in Europe (see e.g. Knörzer 1972; Karg/Haas 1996)’ (from chapter 11, ‘The collection of wild plants: risk reduction?’, p.200 – pdf)

However the table she provides only lists finds back as far as ‘Neolithic’ digs. Now, farming arrived in Greece around 6500 BC, spreading North and West to the British Isles by 4000 BC, yet archaeologists reckon Mesolithic hunter-gatherer cultures continued to occupy land unsuitable for cultivation (eg: mountainous areas), in some places living alongside agriculturalists for upwards of 1,000 years (source: Wikipedia). One way or another it seems the early farmers either acquired or maintained the knowledge of how to subsist on acorns:

Archaeological evidence for the roasting of acorns is known from the German Rhineland. A pit dating from the Late Bronze Age and doubtlessly intended for roasting activities is known from Moers-Hülsdonk in the German Rhineland (Knörzer 1972). The large pit (4 metres wide and 2,4 metres deep) produced burnt loam and other traces of fire in the filling as well as a red-burnt floor surface. Charred remains of apple, hazelnut and large quantities of acorns were found inside the pit. All evidence points towards the interpretation of a roasting or drying pit for the roasting of acorns and other fruits. (p.200)

Interestingly the Northern Europeans all seemed to have preferred this roasting technique (possibly soaking in water or a lye of wood ash beforehand):

The finds of carbonised acorns from our samples consist solely of kernels, often split into halves. […] This proves that in Northwest European prehistory, acorns were roasted before consumption, which contrasts with North American traditional communities for example, where they were cooked or rinsed (p.201)

Where did this knowledge come from? Maybe they sought help from the people in the hills during times of famine? Or maybe crop failures occurred often enough to ensure that these cultures remembered – and continued to practice – their own old ways? I don’t suppose we’ll ever know… De Hingh is of the opinion that ‘The principal role of Quercus in the agricultural regimes of prehistoric communities should be found in its properties as “reserved food”, which can be eaten in cases of an emergency, like major harvest failures.’ (p.201) So the peasants still maintained relationships with the trees, relying on them to diversify their subsistence base as a ‘risk buffering’ strategy.

This association of acorn-eating with famine and ‘hard times’ lives on in the European imagination. Most of the wild food literature talks about ground, roasted acorns being used as a coffee substitute when importing the real stuff got too difficult (eg: during WW2), although one American source suggests that this practice was invented by ‘industrial economists’ of the 19th Century French Consulate who, rather ironically, marketed it as ‘indigenous coffee’. There are also many references to peasants eating acorns during later famines, though these practices sound much more desperate, perhaps owing to the progressive deforestation of Europe, if not the loss of the old knowledge. Here’s a snapshot provided by a letter from the Governor of the Province of the Dauphine to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the Minister of Finances for King Louis XIV during the French famine of 1675:

Sir, — I can no longer delay in letting you know the poverty to which I see this province reduced; commerce here is absolutely at a standstill, and from all quarters people come to me to let the king know how impossible it is for them to pay the taxes. It is asserted — and I speak to you because I am well informed thereon — that the greater part of the peasants of the said province have lived during the winter only upon bread made from acorns and roots, and that at the present time they may be seen eating the grass of the fields and the bark of the trees. (from The Economic Transition in India by Theodore Morison, p.101 – link)

No commerce, no taxes, subsisting entirely on foraged foods? Sounds like my kind of heaven! It doesn’t look like the peasants had much fun at the time, though… Here’s an account of the earlier 1528 famine:

The stock of provisions was already so far consumed in the first year that people made bread of acorns, and sought with avidity all kinds of harmless roots, merely to appease hunger. These miserable sufferers wandered about, houseless and more like corpses than living beings, and finally, failing even to excite commiseration, perished on dunghills or in out-houses. The larger towns shut their gates against them, and the various charitable institutions proved, of necessity, insufficient to afford relief in this frightful extremity (Justus Friedrich Carl Hecker – The Epidemics of the Middle Ages, p.219 – thanks, e-books!)

(Though in this instance they may have been suffering of ‘trousse galant’ – erroneously attributed to acorn consumption but actually thought to refer to a form cholera that killed young men – rather than simple starvation.) All of which provides the lesson that you can’t reintroduce a foraging culture at the drop of a hat when your crops fail and expect to support the same population levels for any length of time, especially if the ‘wild’ lands have been depleted by the various impacts of that same population. There has to be a wild food tradition already in place, preferably with management practices already established for maximising yields. As Mark Fisher impressed upon me, we urgently need to restore the ‘devastated landscape’ before sustainable human use becomes possible.

Indeed, shifting our subsistence strategy away from the annual grains and towards perennial plants and trees as the permaculture people suggest strikes me as an obvious first step towards ecosystem restoration without compromising the human food supply. Both Iberian and Californian sylvicultural landscapes host wide diversities of plant and animal life – including endangered species – all while producing human food on land often considered too marginal to support full-scale agriculture. In fact many of the sources I’ve come across compare yields from Oak and other nut trees favourably with those obtained from the common grains, with the bonus that they don’t require yearly ploughing or monocropping (two factors which eventually deplete the soil of essential nutrients) or, in more recent times, regular fertilisation and the chemical extermination of wildlife (aka ‘weeds’ and ‘pests’) with fossil fuel derivatives. In a 1984 Mother Earth News article, ‘Acorns: The Grain That Grows on Trees‘, David Bainbridge made the comparison between Corn and Oak species in terms of blunt productivity:

Corn yields generally range from 2,500 to 10,000 pounds per acre. In comparison, acorn yields in natural forests have been recorded as high as 2,000 pounds per acre from the live oak (Q. virginiana), and—in a good year—I’ve recorded black oak (Q. velutina) yields per tree that would amount to more than 6,000 pounds per acre in a pure stand. And J. Russel Smith, in Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, cited an individual oak that produced a full ton of acorns annually. If a 100-foot spread is assumed for that tree, it seems possible that a yield of 10,000 pounds of acorns per acre could be achieved.

Of course this doesn’t account for all the other productive uses an Oak tree can be put to. I never saw a house built out of the withered remains of harvested corn… Also, if you reinstate Indian-style practices of encouraging the growth of seed-bearing flowers, perennial herbs and other edible plants under the Oaks you can further ramp up food production for years when the trees don’t crop so heavily (Anderson, pp.177-9).

Putting all of this information together you start to wonder how agriculture ever got started in the first place. (As ‘Leavergirl’ noted in a recent overview: ‘In the old days, anthropologists used to ask what took humans so long to become farmers. Now they are asking, what forced our ancestors into this difficult way of life when life as foragers was generally plentiful enough, healthier, and full of leisure compared to the new lifestyle?’) Farmers have spent centuries working hard with their domesticated plants in an effort to maximise the human food they produce, and this has translated into the work-until-you-drop modern insanity of growing economic production at the maximum possible rate, environmental & human costs be damned. But if forager cultures approached similar levels of productivity for thousands of years with a fraction of the effort, surely our end-results-obsessed culture would opt for more intensified versions of their practices rather than sticking with a model that eats the ecology and then fails every other year before finally collapsing in on itself? It doesn’t make sense, given the mantras we hear repeated every day. Unless those in charge are really less interested in total yields than they are in controlling the surpluses and concentrating the subsequent wealth & power… In which case I guess the superior storability (and in the globalised age, transportability) of grains might just give them the edge.

Intriguingly, various scholars have begun to posit that agriculture began among acorn-eating cultures – that the whole project of Civilisation got started when people turned their backs on the trees. This article, for instance, explores the contention that the ‘Natufian’ culture in the Levant, East of the Mediterranean Sea subsisted on acorns in a similar way to California Indians (they had a similar climate and distribution of forests) before shifting into one of the major global starting points for the agricultural revolution. (Check out this equally interesting reply, which challenges the original on various points.) Here’s David Bainbridge again, writing in another paper I wish I had full access to, ‘The Rise of Agriculture: A New Perspective‘:

Interest in and research into the origin and development of agriculture has increased sharply in the last twenty years, yet all of these studies have missed the common link between the areas where agriculture may have begun-the acorn. All three areas considered of significance to date-the Middle East, middle China, and Mexico-are, or were once, characterized by oak woodlands. The experience in California, where ethnographers and anthropologists have been able to study a fully developed balanoculture (from the Greek balanos-acorn) reveals the primacy of acorn use and the complex interaction between people and oak woodlands. The California balanoculture was in fact a very successful agroforestry system that prospered for thousands of years. Balanoculture provided the stable communities necessary for agriculture to develop. The lower time and work cost associated with acorn use suggests agriculture may have evolved as acorns became more scarce from the decline in the oak woodlands brought about by the adverse human impacts resulting from overgrazing, fuel cutting and cutting for timber, and field burning, exacerbated by climatic fluctuation. A reevaluation of the record is in order: agriculture may perhaps be better considered a regressive rather than a progressive evolutionary event.

It occurs to me that a grain-based culture would have a short-term competitive edge over a tree-based culture simply because it doesn’t take so long to establish. If a farming tribe wanted to conquer their balanocultural neighbours, they could cut down their trees, sow seed and be done in a year. If the acorn-eaters wanted to fight back, sure they could burn the wheatfields easily enough, but they’d have to wait several decades before new saplings started to fruit heavily enough to support them again.

Clearly the farmers can’t continue like this forever. You can only fight the inborn tendency of all living beings (including your own – why do rich people spend their lives cutting down the forests of poorer regions in the name of ‘development’ but insist on coming home to immerse themselves in acres of prime hunting woodland?) for so long. Certainly in temperate Europe the land wants to turn into forest – it’s our ‘climax ecology’. No wonder grain farming takes so much effort… Leave even the most completely altered environment alone for an average human lifetime and the various successional stages will revert it to woodland by the end, so long as the necessary seeds still exist and can get in from somewhere. The second we let up on our revolution the Great Rollback begins.

The 18th Century French writer François-René de Chateaubriand wrote that ‘Forests precede civilizations and deserts follow them’. I’d like to see this tide reversed and Civilisation pushed back into the desert of its own sick imagination. I’d like to see human beings allied to this irrepressible riot of diverse lifeforms, reclaiming the continent for our own.

*****

Some ideas for reinstating Balanocultures:

  • Quit throwing acorns away! I know plenty of people who just rake them up from their gardens or driveways and stick them in compost bins for the council to tow away. That’s food you’re wasting! I don’t know what happens to them in the ‘Community Recycling Centres’, but I bet they don’t get ‘recycled’ back into human stomachs, except maybe indirectly through compost. I’m not a fan of big centralised solutions, but if individuals haven’t got the time to organise this among themselves would it be too hard for these Centres (we used to call them ‘Dumps’) to separate out the acorns and maybe sell them on as feed to local pig- or chicken-farmers?
  • Look at what Oaks you have around you with a view to returning them to management. I’ve often seen farm or pasture fields in England with huge oaks in them (someone told me there was a law about this dating back to shipbuilding times), and I know a few suburban developments that kept the old trees from preceding land uses:These are already in prime conditions for heavy acorn cropping – rounded canopy, not too crowded, open to the sun – and I’ve found that they do in fact produce far more acorns of better quality than most trees in conventional woodland. I’d say they need a few more brothers and sisters though… Also, I don’t suppose they like being surrounded by all that concrete (acorns bruise like apples, especially if they land on hard surfaces). Even when grasses grow at the base, the habit of raking/blowing/’tidying’ away the annual leaf litter robs the tree of the nutrients it depends on from its own self-generated ‘mulch’. Either leave the leaves be, or you could consider introducing small-scale burns in Autumn/Winter which would release the nutrients much faster and allow other plants to grow from the ashes. Sure, you’d get an unsightly black scorch-mark for a while, but think of all the other interesting plants you could get growing in the place of yet-another-boring-lawn by the start of the next season.
  • Get in touch with your inner squirrel and start storing, processing and eating acorns yourself (more on how to do this in a subsequent post) – link your fate co-dependently with the trees.
  • Preserve the f*&%ing forests! When it gets too expensive to pour massive amounts of petroleum-based energy on the fields, and we run out of imperial leverage on the other countries who we rely on to supply our needs, Britain’s crops will fail and famines will return with a vengeance. This will open up more space for agro-forestry techniques to step in and take up the task of food production, but how much time will these take to get established? Far quicker & easier to step up management on existing trees than to wait for new ones to grow to maturity. This won’t work if we already cut them down for ‘necessities’ like free newspapers, biomass, office/toilet-paper etc…
  • Spread the word!

Fascism in the garden

May 23, 2011

[***May 31st updates in bold***]


(The Forest Swastika)

I’ve touched before on the ‘curious parallels’ between the language people use when speaking about so-called invasive species and the ‘language of racism and genocide’, especially when you compare it to tabloid-style attitudes toward immigrants ‘stealing all the jobs of our native-borns’. It has also become increasingly apparent to me – as I work in the gardens of acquaintances and friends of the family doing all the ‘necessary’ but physically taxing tasks of mowing, weeding, pruning, trimming, and as I continue to work with a volunteer conservation group manipulating local habitats in an effort to replace ‘unwanted’ with ‘wanted’ plant & animal species – that the prevalent cultural attitudes and subsequent actions toward those we term ‘weeds’ closely resemble the irrationality, fear, prejudice and blind hatred so often evident in acts of genocide. Even dictionary definitions, faithfully reflecting cultural values, practically froth at the mouth at these plant ‘mongrel races’. For example:

weed

–noun
1. a valueless plant growing wild, especially one that grows on cultivated ground to the exclusion or injury of the desired crop.
2. any undesirable or troublesome plant, especially one that grows profusely where it is not wanted: The vacant lot was covered with weeds. (source)

Ouch! ‘Valueless’, ‘undesirable’, ‘troublesome’, ‘not wanted’ according to who? Ah, I see: according to the one who invested his energy in cultivating the ground; who expects to maximise the return from his ‘desired crop’. The definition is written from the point of view of the farmer/gardener. Of course: he has chosen to fight a war (of extermination, no less) and, as we all know, the victor gets to write the histories – and definitions, it would seem – as best suits his self-image and ongoing propaganda purposes. I imagine the plants in question would describe themselves rather differently…

Anyway, what I didn’t realise was that at least one person had already arrived at this analogy between weed-killing and genocide, only they had come to it from rather the opposite direction. Here’s the quote that was waiting for me near the end of Derrick Jensen’s book, The Culture of Make Believe, which I finally got round to finishing the other day:

The fundamental metaphor of National Socialism as it related to the world around it was the garden, not the wild forest. One of the most important Nazi ideologists, R.W. Darré, made clear the relationship between gardening and genocide: “He who leaves the plants in a garden to themselves will soon find to his surprise that the garden is overgrown by weeds and that even the basic character of the plants has changed. If therefore the garden is to remain the breeding ground for the plants, if, in other words, it is to lift itself above the harsh rule of natural forces, then the forming will of a gardener is necessary, a gardener who, by providing suitable conditions for growing, or by keeping harmful influences away, or by both together, carefully tends what needs tending and ruthlessly eliminates the weeds which would deprive the better plants of nutrition, air, light, and sun. . . . Thus we are facing the realization that questions of breeding are not trivial for political thought, but that they have to be at the center of all considerations, and that their answers must follow from the spiritual, from the ideological attitude of a people. We must even assert that a people can only reach spiritual and moral equilibrium if a well-conceived breeding plan stands at the very center of its culture.” (pp.589-90)

Jensen comments that ‘We still believe in the metaphor of the garden’. In fact it’s a reality – I was in a garden center just last week and an advertisement for the latest brand of herbicide came over the tannoy, bristling with Darré’s justifications for ‘ruthlessly [eliminating]’ weeds/lesser races which still have the audacity to ‘deprive the better plants of nutrition, air, light, and sun’, basically ‘stealing’ – using for their own independent purposes – the resources which we ourselves wanted to appropriate for our favoured crops.

The best-selling herbicide worldwide ‘since at least 1980′ is agro-bio-tech giant Monsanto’s Roundup, based on the patented active ingredient Glyphosate. It seems between 1996 and 2009 the company was accused and finally convicted of false advertising, having claimed, among other things, that:

  • Glyphosate is less toxic to rats than table salt
  •  “Roundup can be used where kids and pets’ll play and breaks down into natural material.” This ad depicts a person with his head in the ground and a pet dog standing in an area which has been treated with Roundup.
  • You can feel good about using herbicides by Monsanto. They carry a toxicity category rating of ‘practically non-toxic’ as it pertains to mammals, birds and fish. (source)

In fact Roundup comes with a whole host of toxic effects for animals, including humans, and entire ecosystems (see Wikipedia page linked above for details), but what interests me more is that nobody’s complaining about the avowed intent of the product, explicitly stated in the same adverts, namely: to kill plants. It’s not the same one I heard in the garden center, but if you can stomach it have a look at this Roundup infomercial, which I’m guessing has been specifically targeted for a UK audience. I predict future generations will find this shocking and disgusting:

With Roundup rest easy knowing that your problem weeds will soon have died, right down to their roots, so they can never come back.

Right down to the roots!! (Can you hear the repressed hatred behind the announcer’s calm delivery?) Then, necessary cleansing rituals performed, the Brave New Briton can return to his civilised activity of ‘[relaxing] with a tea and the Sunday papers’, secure in the knowledge that his ‘enjoyment’ won’t be ‘spoilt’ by ‘unwanted weeds […] which look unsightly and compete with our treasured plants.’

It’s Genesis all over: We, the farming cultures, have eaten at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and consequently feel able to take over the gods’ (or, if you prefer, evolution’s) work of deciding who shall live and who shall die.* We take it for granted that we have the right – indeed, the obligation – to take these matters into our own hands, and we feel compelled to continue even when the results prove manifestly catastrophic for the biosphere and for ourselves.

And it’s a war we’ve chosen to fight. Biocidal poisons used to further the Green Revolution in the mid 20th century came directly from the re-tooled factories of World War Two. I always remember the sequence of visuals in this episode of Bill Mollison’s ‘Global Gardener’ series (watch from 15:35):

[16:48] I came from traditional farming families and we’d cared for soils for over 200 years, but in the period from 1950 to 1990 most of those soils were destroyed. In 1951 I saw the first chainsaw, in 1953 we saw the modern tractor arrive, by 1954 many farms were pouring phosphate all over their fields. We didn’t have to worry about the soil any more. We were in charge of fertility. In the 50’s, therefore, we declared war on the soil. We were using just that equipment we would have used had we gone to war: heavy machinery, crawler [?] tractors, biocides, poison gas, the lot.

Daniel Quinn made the point this way, referring to Isaiah 2:4:

[…] what you see in this business of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks is not people turning from war to peace but rather people turning from one war to another war–from an inTRAspecies war to an inTERspecies war. From the conquest of nations to the conquest of nature–the mythological war that the people of our particular culture have been waging here for the past ten thousand years.

The plowshare has always been understood by the people of our culture as the sword they follow across the face of the earth. They followed it out of the Fertile Crescent eastward to India and China, they followed it northward into Europe, and finally they followed it westward into the New World. (link)

For me, the distinctions between tractors and tanks, cropdusters and fighter-bombers, or DDT/Agent Orange/Roundup and Zyklon B have been blurred ever since.

And if we’re starting to think of plants as people in this way, maybe we can also begin to look at ourselves as plants; ourselves in the employ of the Master Gardener. How did your school or higher education experiences, for instance, compare to life in a plant nursery, with every effort on the part of your keepers geared towards maximising your value at the point of sale? An extract from a poem I wrote a year ago:

…They had me trained, they had me staked, they had me pruned and brutalised ever-constant to wring the greatest possible harvest from my twisted form. So for them I would provide no fruit; I would send forth no shoot – I reserved all my growing for where they could not see. They could not touch me, reaching through the starving soils, growing strong, growing hard and deep and long at the root…

Back in Culture of Make Believe we read more about the garden metaphor:

There are useful species, off of which we can turn a buck, and, there are species in the way. Likewise, there are useful people—those who are instrumental, productive—and, there are those who clutter up land we could otherwise use. (p.590)

and previously:

Within our culture there are tremendous pressures on people to be “high-functioning,” to be “productive,” to “realize their potential.” When I finished my degree in physics, which I did not enjoy, then bailed partway through a graduate degree in economics, which I enjoyed just as little, and took up beekeeping, the father of one of my friends decried the waste of my potential. Never mind that I was happy. When he later learned that I was a writer, he was mollified. At least I was, in his worldview, producing. (p.513)

This is so true it hurts. Even beekeeping is an ‘instrumental, productive’ way for a human plant to occupy itself, looked at from the economic perspective (the arbiter of all value in our culture) whereby bees provide a service by pollinating our crops. So the lifestyle / business model is tolerated, as are the bees. For now.

This shit makes me so sick I can hardly speak. It’s why last year I wrote (personal correspondence) that ‘all ways of making a living that don’t kill the planet have been (are still being) systematically uprooted to ensnare people in centralised modes of production.’ It’s why the year before I drew this cartoon of Nazi parents persuading their child to enter the deathcamp economy. What other option does the boy – silent, head bowed under the weight of lies – have?

I don’t want to grow for Them or their life-ending agenda.
If I grow I want to do it for Me & Mine.

Fortunately there exist ways of relating to other plants & animals in mutually beneficial ways that don’t involve a constant war-footing. As Ken Fern wrote in the Plants For A Future book:

For so many people, growing plants is a constant battle against all the setbacks nature throws at us. It really need not be like this. Instead of fighting against her and always complaining about our lot we would do better by trying to work with her. Nature is self-regulating and, when left to her own devices, finds a balance between the various species of plants and animals. A natural woodland receives no artificial fertilisers, fungicides or herbicides yet its lush growth feeds a wide range of mammals, birds and insects. There are fluctuations in the populations of different species but the overall picture is one of balance. (pp.5-6, online preview)

I’ve noticed this in myself as well. Like Jean Liedloff pointing out that children are naturally sociable (duh); like Ran Prieur writing that ‘after many years of activities that were forced’ it can take ‘years before you can build up the life inside you to an intensity where it can drive projects that you actually enjoy and finish’ – it’s so obvious: The plants want to grow. All the shouting, all the worrying, all the external input over the years intended (perhaps sometimes with the best of intentions) to encourage, to foster, to guide, ultimately to control my development, and eventually I just wilted under the constant pressure, stress and strain. Now, fiercely guarding the growths that, miraculously and to my surprise and wonder, still manage to arise from me, I feel like telling it this way: The plants grow best when you leave them the fuck alone. Maybe there will be opportunities for mutually supporting relationships in the future, but for now hands off!

Let’s finish with more from Derrick Jensen, here describing how things used to be and (by extension) how they might start to look once again if things take a turn for the better:

It is significant that oftentimes when Europeans searched for Indian gardens to destroy, they could not readily tell what was garden and what was forest (not that, ultimately, this stopped the Europeans, as, in time, they destroyed them both). To not see the world in strictly utilitarian terms is not to cease having preferences. It is merely to see that—and sometimes how—things (or, rather, beings) fit together, how they move in short and long patterns of rhythm and consequence. And it is to attempt to fit oneself into those patterns, taking care to not upset the sometimes delicate balance that must remain between those one considers friends and those one considers honored enemies. Hitler did not understand this, and, for the most part, neither do we. (Make Believe pp.590-1)

I think that’s where the plants will take us, if we can allow ourselves to follow.

***

Epilogue

***

An experiment: Watch what happens inside you when you read these words: Kike, Wog, Nigger, Paki, Pikey, Gyppo, Chink, Gook, Queer, Faggot, Spastic, Retard, Chav, Slut, Whore. Have you ever used any of these or been on the receiving end of one of them? How did it feel? Funny? Neutral/descriptive? Spiteful? Normal? Scathing? Belittling? Physically traumatic? Now ask yourself about the historical relationships implied by these words. Now think about where you fit into these relationships, both during your formative experiences in the past and in your current state in the present. How does where you’re coming from affect your reaction? Some of these words have acquired new significances or gone out of common parlance due to association with historical events (eg: the Jewish holocaust) assertive cultural movements (eg: civil rights) or otherwise changed social circumstances. Others, not.

Now try this one: Weed.

My understanding of prejudice is that it arises to fulfill a specific purpose: to block the senses and otherwise erect barriers which impede the spontaneous emergence of relationships when this proves expedient in the pursuit of other social goals. Thus the dehumanisation of the enemy during wartime (the depersonification of others in inTERspecies wars). Thus the biting epithets used to put down the natives and lower classes and the deference and glorification accorded to the upper/aspirational classes – all to make sure people ‘know their place’ and stick to their given roles. Thus the cold language of bureaucracy and ‘regrettable necessity’ when a culture feels the urge to exterminate those it can find no ‘use’ for; to destroy that in which it sees no value. These situations require the death of empathy: you have to kill the Other inside yourself before you can do the same in the outside world. If we started to view ‘weeds’ as individuals in their own right, with their own unique lifestories and personalities, could we continue to kill them in droves so callously, so thoughtlessly, so absent-mindedly in the blind pursuit of our insane Master-Race-1,000-Year-Reich goals? Of course not.

All the more reason to do it, says I!

—————

* – see chapter 9 of Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael (online)


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