Posts Tagged ‘succession’

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!

‘Austerity Countryside’ – Correspondence with Mark Fisher

September 14, 2010

Looking back at the various things I’ve written over the years I notice that a lot of the best stuff went into email and other written conversations with other people; the ideas discussed often never making it into public expression in these soapbox blogposts. The style of writing is also somehow freer, more direct and easy-flowing, even though I still spend lengthy periods preparing and crafting my responses. You also get a truer snapshot into whatever processes the correspondents were going through at the time, without the fear of making embarrassing trip-ups in the public eye… At least until some shmuck decides to publish them ;) At least until recently didn’t people pay good money to read the letters of men & women they admired? Put your deep conversations up into the public sphere!

Recently I’ve been corresponding with Mark Fisher, who has a website called ‘Self-Willed Land: Advocacy for Wild Land and Nature‘. I got in touch originally because I was looking for a sane analysis of the implications of the UK government’s proposed 40% cuts to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which threaten to sell off some of the National Nature Reserves (NNRs) to private, profit-oriented companies. I thought his response merited a wider audience, so I reproduce it here with his permission. Check out the Guardian link first if you haven’t already heard the story.

*****

Hello Mark

Long-time-reader-first-time-writer. I’m struggling with what to make of these new ‘budget cuts for the environment’. Here’s the Guardian article a friend showed to me with the warning ‘prepare to be outraged’, but I found myself strangely unmoved by the mainstream Greens quoted in the text. Sample from the statement sent to the government by ’25 leading conservation groups':

Reedbeds are dry and clogged with brambles; heathlands have vanished as scrub begins to take over. Wetlands have dwindled and rivers and canals have become clogged by invasive plants which threaten native species. The loss of money for wildlife-friendly farming has seen farmland birds resume their slide into extinction.

Then there was the usual bullshit towards the end about why we should care for the environment because it’s good for the economy (failing to recognise that an agricultural society is diametrically opposed to biodiversity practically by definition)… ‘You may well save a few pounds now but you will lose billions later’ – don’t these people know there’s a war on?? Don’t they understand the first thing about extractive ‘civilised’ economies? Pick a side already, Ahmed Djoghlaf!

I guess I’m fairly ignorant of the work these groups have done in the past and of the ‘successes’ they had thanks to their funding. I remembered you writing about the maintenance of heathland as an irrational, destructive process in some areas, and wondered whether other aspects of this kind of ‘conservation’ would be missed. I understand that privatisation has been a nightmare in every sector the Thatcherites and Blairites have introduced it over the last few decades. I just don’t bridle the way I’m supposed to when hearing about the Nightmare Takeover of brambles, scrub and invasive species. Can you help me articulate this different perspective?

Finally, assuming you do see a problem with these cuts, can you suggest a good way to fight them or point me toward any groups doing so in a non-capitulatory/compromising manner? The Guardian has been characteristically unhelpful in this regard (!) and none of my usual non-mainstream sources seem to be addressing the problem yet.

Yours sincerely, with thanks for all the great writing over the years
Ian

———

Hallo Ian

The key issue for me is the loss of opportunity if NNRs and the FC estate is sold off. It is not that I think they have any particular worth in terms of natural values at the moment, it is the fact that the kind of area protection of wildland that I would wish to see in Britain is much more easily realised if the land is in public ownership.

I have just finished a report for the Scottish Government on a review of the status and conservation of wildland in Europe. Everything I ever suspected about the crappiness of nature conservation in Britain is confirmed by contrast with the rest of Europe. I already knew it was crappy in comparison to N. America.

The basis of national protected area legislation across Europe is restriction on extractive activity, as well as public ownership. It is the difference between Primary, wild habitats that need no management intervention, and Secondary habitats that are only maintained through management intervention. It thus is about a separation of natural values from cultural values because the latter is inimical to the former. Public ownership takes away the burden on the land of having to give a monetary return. In Britain, the policy is maintenance of secondary habitats in multiple use areas, and the legislation – which is blind to ownership – is designed to ensure that happens, as is the UKBAP by the very choices for priorities within it that derive from Secondary habitats. A heath is a secondary habitat, and so is the other cherished landscape of the conservation industry – chalk grassland.

If we are ever to have substantial areas of Primary habitat other than the few scraps currently outside of extractive activity, then we need that public land as the land bank where the necessary ecological restoration can take place. Private ownership of land, even when supposedly in the benefical ownership of NGOs, always puts demands on it that cut cross non-intervention. Thus a private landowner will always want to make money out of their land, putting pressures on it that inevitably detract from wildness (even if it is just visitor services as a means of generating income), and the NGOs will want to “manage” the land for their single interest eg. birds, butterflies etc.

It is argued that ecological restoration will reduce biodiversity and make landscapes inaccessible – the Nightmare Takeover of brambles, scrub and invasive species. These critcisms are firmly rooted in the ideology of the conservation industry and the expoiters of land. That some other reality can exist is never allowed as it cuts across their vested interests. This is the dead hand that holds back any better prospect for wild nature in Britain. The fact that it is just prejudice is never pointed out. I will be writing shortly about the locations in England I have been to recently where human intervention was withdrawn or has not been a factor. They give the lie to this prejudice. It is of course, not in the interests of private land owners or the conservation industry for this other reality to be acknowledge because it will reduce their incomes – Higher Level Stewardship subsidy for private landowners, and all the public funding that the conservation industry hoovers in each year. For the latter, it also takes away their reason for being. Personally, I believe any funding cuts to the conservation industry can only be goods news. As to the farmers, there is no evidence of the rate of compliance with stewardship schemes, and so the funding they get doesn’t achieve what it is supposed to do anyway.

There is no coalition of people supporting the realisation of Primary habitats in Britain. I wish there was. That there are people with similar views is shown by some of the comments on articles in the Guardian. A Wildland Network was set up in 2005, but it fizzled out because it was split between those that wanted to take an uncompromising stand, and those that that didn’t really have any comitment to change. There are individual projects where there are people with some inspiring vision, such as Trees for Life and Carrifran Wildwood in Scotland. There are individual action groups who are fed up with the way the conservation industry is destroying their local wild nature. One of the most articulate is the Blacka Blogger (see http://theblackamoorsite.blogspot.com/). I helped set up a Wildland Research Institute in Leeds University as the means to do the work to provide evidence for a policy base for wildland in Britain. The Scottish Gov. report and its recommendations for Scotland is the first major outcome from that, and we will be bringing out a second report with a greater European focus. The latter has got us an invite to talk to the Environment Directorate in Brussels, which confirms what other people in Britain have recently found that continental Europe is a much more fertile ground for wildland policy.

Unfortunately, there is nothing in any of that which has sufficient edge for it to forestall an impending sell-off. But then again, there is no guarantee that there will be a change in nature policy that will seize the opportunity provided by public land for a national system of protected areas that is worth its name.

Hope this helps.

Cheers

Mark

*****

continued in the comments…

Dock seed and other badass weeds

September 7, 2010

Okay, let’s talk really disturbed ground. There’s a patch of ground just the other side of the local park which until recently played host to a small group of rescued horses. Here they are looking cold during the snows last winter:

They were pretty despondent and unresponsive generally, and despite the entertainment of a sign instructing passersby not to feed them as they were on ‘a stricked diet’ I think their effect on the land was pretty negative over all (not that I blame them for it). Over the course of about half a year they stripped the ground of all greenery and trampled it to bare dirt.

Yet, a couple of months after they were moved on, have a look:

At this stage you can see:

  • Ragwort (the clump of yellow flowers in the top center-right) – apparently toxic to livestock but good for cinnabar moths (who borrow its toxic properties to render themselves inedible too) and other insects. The fact that farmers don’t like it may be reflected in its alternative names: ‘Stinking Nanny/Ninny/Willy, Staggerwort, Dog Standard, Cankerwort, Stammerwort and Mare’s Fart’ (Wikipedia). I think it looks pretty, and noticed it growing everywhere over the summer months – it seemed especially fond of roadsides… No known uses that I’m immediately interested in following up.
  • Fat Hen (the flower/seed-whitened stalks waving in the center-right foreground) – I’m fairly confident in this identification, but I’ve been wrong before with this plant. Also known as White Goosefoot, relative of Quinoa and used extensively as a food plant in the past (and currently in Asia and Africa). Expect to see a post about making flour from the seeds later on when they’ve fully ripened. I’ve read that in central Europe ‘up to 50 per cent of all weed seeds present in the soil are those of fat hen’ (The Illustrated Guide to Edible Plants – Dagmar Lánská). Wikipedia provide the intriguing information that ‘[i]t is one of the more robust and competitive weeds, capable of producing crop losses of up to 13% in corn, 25% in soybeans, and 48% in sugar beets at an average plant distribution’ and furthermore that ‘[i]t is difficult to control with chemical means’. Did I tell you about seed bombs already?

Earlier and elsewhere nearby there was stacks of Yarrow, some Clover and the ubiquitous Plantains and Nettles low over the ground, most of which still remain alongside thistles, pretty white-flowering Bindweed, some tall grasses whose names I don’t know, Hogweed (whose tall, seed-laden corpses you can see on the ‘horizon’ above) and:

  • Mugwort, one of my favourite plants to rub between fingers and smell, whose flowers and leaves I’ve dried and stripped from the stalk to make a powerfully aromatic tea which is supposed to give you lucid dreams (although mine haven’t seemed particularly out-of-the-ordinary even after drinking a strong 1,5l pot of the stuff just before bedtime). PFAF warn that it ‘should never be used by pregnant women, especially in their first trimester, since it can cause a miscarriage’. First Ways had a nice post on the mischevious personality of the plant recently – clearly one I’ll have to keep a close eye on… 10 out of 10 for crazy medicinal applications:- apparently the Chinese use(d) it to successfully correct breech births!

But the real champion in the photo: the incredible forest of red-brown Dock*, gone so conspicuously to seed. Thanks to Emily Porter who tipped me off to the potential of the seed as flour without having to bother with separating the chaff (a nearly impossible feat so far as I could make out):

I once ground them up, including most of the chaff, and mixed them with regular flour to make biscuits. They had a great taste, reminiscent of buckwheat, which makes [sense] being that they are in the buckwheat family. And you know what? I don’t think it really hurts if you eat the chaff. It’s just extra fiber, not much different from oat bran muffins or the psyllium husk that is in all those products to make you “regular”. (link)

I found harvesting really easy – just grab hold at the bottom of a stem and pull your hand up, cupping the plant matter (and any unsuspecting insects or arachnids) in the palm as you go, then dump into a reasonably sound plastic bag. After drying them in a shallow tin, allowing said creepy crawlers to escape, I decided to try mixing the seeds/chaff in with other flours to make bread. First I gave my digestive system a head start by attacking them with a mortar & pestle:

(Processing left-to-right with spare stalks, grass seeds, misc. etc deposited in the top blue bowl. The small pyramid-shaped rust-red seeds impacted quite heavily on the mortar, but gradually pulverised into a whitish meal. I didn’t get too obssessive about mashing every last one.) Then I threw slightly more than a cupful of the resulting gruel into the bread machine, along with 1 cup ryeflour and 2 cups regular white flour and the usual amounts of sugar, salt, oil, yeast and warm water, plus some sunflower seeds for texture. I had to add more flour to get the right consistency – a lot of air went in with the dock seed cup. Here’s the result, three hours later (I know, I know – I got the slaves to make it for me. I’ll learn how to bake it myself eventually, promise!):

H reliably confirmed that it did have the same kind of flavour and texture as buckwheat (I’d never knowingly tried it before). Initially I was worried that it was going to have the same bitterness as the rest of the plant (the raw seeds have quite a tang to them too), but in the end I liked the taste – sort of mellow, dark & heavy, combining well with the rye and adding a nice chewy/crunchiness to get the molars and jaw muscles working. I don’t know how much nutrition my body took from it (probably more than from the white flour†), but it seemed to ‘sit’ nicely, leaving me feeling full and, yes, coming out quite comfortably at the other end too.

So. Get friendly with these weeds! They’ll be among your first allies when the concrete and tarmac begins to break up (or after you tear it up yourself), and if you can find a home in the ‘waste’ land where they grow and thrive, then there’s nowhere you can’t live!‡

——————-

* – Pretty sure I identified it correctly as the broad-leaved variety, but I haven’t seen any toxicity warnings for the seeds of any of the other common varieties, and they can probably be used in the same way.

† – ‘Be Kind to Your Grains…And Your Grains Will Be Kind To You‘:

Even orthodox nutritionists now recognize that white flour is an empty food, supplying calories for energy but none of the bodybuilding materials that abound in the germ and the bran of whole grains.

‡ – Maybe Antarctica.

Getting Intimate

May 24, 2010

via Ran, a great Sharon Astyk piece, going over a lot of the ground I’m trying to cover here: ‘Getting Intimate With My Weeds‘. This in particular sounds familiar:

As the soils heal and grow, some of those that do best in disturbed and disrupted sites are beginning to fade away.

Working to undisturb the disturbance… Preparing the way for those-who-come after… She also sees humans as ‘a weedy species':

We too like disturbance, crop up in prolific numbers and invade new habitats without regard for the natives.

(Though as a good Quinnian I balk at the reference to an all-encompassing ‘humanity’ and am beginning to wonder if the many cultures of our species mightn’t be better suited to properly established, Old Growth communities.)

Great quotes on invasive species from Edible Forest Gardens author David Jacke:

If you understand succession ecology, you will understand that there’s no way a plant or animal alone can be responsible for the way it behaves. Invasion is only possible in the context of a certain kind of ecosystem situation. The first cause of succession is the availability of a site or niche. If there’s no site or niche available, no invasion can occur…. If invasion is not succession then what the hell is it? [...] most plants that are considered invasive are disturbance adapted species. (original link)

I had an interesting dinnerparty conversation where I picked up on some people badmouthing an ‘invasive species’ and continued their line of thought with tricksy earnestness: “Yeah those damn foreigners coming over and stealing all the jobs of our native-borns. They should all go back where they came from before they get what’s coming to them” to expose the curious parallels with the language of racism and genocide. I think I managed to make it thought-provoking rather than snide and sarcastic – though some were clearly baffled rather than enlightened…

Anyway, I feel like Astyk has given me the opportunity to confess what a newbie I am to all this: it’s only been about a year and a half since I started to pay proper attention to plants and I’ve made slow progress. Astyk is way ahead of me in terms of direct experience and nuance tempered by reality. I’ve come to (descended to?) a lot of this from headspace and philosophising based on things I’ve read that made sense to me – ‘made sense’ while my actual senses gathered dust on the bookshelf (thanks DA) – so consider yourselves warned: I may at times spill over into groundless ideology and become one of Bill Mollison’s (and the soil’s) enemies:

I can easily teach people to be gardeners, and from them, once they know how to garden, you’ll get a philosopher. But I could never teach people to be philosophers – and if I did, you could never make a gardener out of them.

When you get deep ecologists who are philosophers, and they drive cars and take newspapers and don’t grow their own vegetables, in fact they’re not deep ecologists – they’re my enemies.

But if you get someone who looks after himself and those around him – like Scott Nearing, or Masanobu Fukuoka – that’s a deep ecologist. He can talk philosophy that I understand. People like that don’t poison things, they don’t ruin things, they don’t lose soils, they don’t build things they can’t sustain. (source, via)

… but I’m working to avoid that pitfall. Hopefully I can provide a useful ‘Idiot’s Guide’ along the way :)


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