Archive for the ‘Plant Culture’ Category

Bread, not gold: the wealth of chestnut trees

October 25, 2018

‘A dozen chestnut trees and as many goats are enough for a Corsican family not to starve. Secure in this regard, nothing can then persuade the Corsican father to work, except to buy a rifle.’ – Journal d’agriculture pratique, de jardinage et d’économie domestique, Volume 1, p.161 (link)

‘Voulez-vous réduire les Corses? Coupez les châtaigniers!’ – Maréchal Horace Sébastiani, born and raised in Corsica (link)

Gnarled old givers, inhabitants, holders of space, land, stories of people and place, twisted ancient ropes tensioning soil to sky, mooring each to the other’s port, preventing Disembarkation of both until the decay finally frays and rips through you, the release and crumbling to death and dust, to be replaced by… what?

I hear the stories people tell about you, read the histories, anecdotes, adverts, but ultimately feel these as so many self-centered idiocies. The real story can be read here & now, written in bark, sapwood, heartwood, root, branch, twig, leaf and the living (lived in) landscape in which it was established and continues to grow.

I’ve been working your orchards for about a month now, here in the uplands of the Ardèche region in southern France. Cutting the leafy suckers at your base, piling them for hungry sheep, struggling on the drought-browned grasses (‘faire de la feuille’ in the old terminology) or for the tractor to chop through in the yearly effort to clear the ground for the next stage: Putting nets down – bottom of the slope upwards so the overlaps facilitate harvest collections, a rock or large branch in corners holding the tension against the wind, rolled against the steeper slopes to catch runaway burrs, wrapped around trunks like sticky cobwebs patchworking an efficiency on the dusty ground…

I look down towards the task at hand and inwardly to the energy-conserving logics I’m internalising, managing the stresses and strains of my labour as I’ve been taught. How often have I taken the time to look up, to stop and appreciate you? Not often. And of course my over-educated middle class brain then wants to examine the ethics of the activity. This was the recently read passage going around my mind:

So close was the relationship of trees to human society that their treatment, like that of horses or children, fluctuated according to changing educational fashion. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries infants were swaddled; and it was widely held that most children would need to be beaten and repressed. Timber trees, correspondingly, were to be pollarded (i.e. beheaded), lopped or shredded (by cutting off the side branches). […] There were utilitarian reasons for many of these practices, but they were also seen as a kind of moral discipline: ‘The luxuriancy and vigour of most healthful trees,’ declared John Laurence in 1726, ‘is like the extravagant sallies of youth, who are apt to live too fast, if not kept within due bounds and restrained by seasonable corrections.’ Regular pruning kept ‘all in order, which would otherwise be perfect anarchy and confusion’.

In the eighteenth century, when educational theories became less repressive, the cultivation of trees moved from regimentation to spontaneity. There was a reaction against ‘mutilating’ trees or carving them into ‘unnatural’ shapes. […] This was the spirit which would, in due course, lead to the abandonment of swaddling clothes for infants, wigs for men and, for a time, corsets for women, on the grounds that they were unnatural and unspontaneous. (Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World p.220-1)

The vexing, faintly ridiculous question that emerged: “So how do I justify this intervention and suppression of the tree’s spontaneous, wild nature, constantly trying to re-assert itself from below the graft point? Isn’t it a bit hypocritical for one who rails against the heavy-handed forms of ‘cultivation’ imposed upon himself to be doing this kind of thing?” I come up with no satisfactory answers…

B said she loved you, thought you beautiful and felt it a tragedy that you were dying off at such a frightening rate (drought, disease, neglect). The emotions came to me as an almost foreign invitation, so long have I been immersed in the Manly headspace of economics and utility (Necessary because otherwise Things won’t get Done) but I know that other part of me is still down there somewhere and I’m grateful for the opportunity to feed and drip water down to it again. Some day another shoot will spring forth and I will have to decide what to do with it: mercilessly cut it back to the ground, leave it to grow as it pleases, or culture it, prune, train, graft, encourage, urge the best form for Production.

*****

That’s how you came to be here, occupying these spaces for centuries, maybe millennia. The pollen record goes way back to ice age refugia and nuts show up in Mesolithic middens stretching back 10,000 years or more, but your species is much older (I heard fossilised leaves and fruits of a close ancestor were dated back to 85 million years ago) and ours too – surely the relationship predates the earliest records. In any case researchers have found you and walnut over-represented in pollen cores by a lake in the Euganean Hills of northeast Italy in the early stages of the Neolithic some 6,300 years ago, associated with the arrival of wheat, flax, hemp, plantain, buttercup and others along with levels of charcoal indicating a ‘huge increase in regional fire activity’ suggesting that ‘the two trees were advantaged or perhaps even introduced for agricultural purposes’ (Kaltenrieder, p.690).

More recently Native Americans were known to regularly burn the understory of chestnut groves, even of wild forests between villages or encampments:

[E]vidence suggests that Native Americans purposely promoted mast and fruit trees through planting and cultivation. 21 mast and fruit trees and 16 berry-producing shrub species were potentially cultivated by Native Americans in the eastern USA. Indians actively manipulated oak-hickory-chestnut forests with fire to provide more abundant food resources. This included (1) increased browse quality and quantity for deer and for concentrating the herd in managed areas, (2) increased mast quality and quantity for winter-spring subsistence, and (3) a reduction of forest-floor litter to facilitate mobility and mast collection. Native Americans favoured nut trees and other food plants and were probably responsible for increasing them in the pre-European forest. This included the planting of chestnut, Canada plum (Prunus nigra) and Kentucky coffee tree near Indian villages. Thinning forests, clearing underbrush, removing competing tree species and periodic understory burning by Native Americans resulted in more-open forests, with presumably less competition, trees with larger crowns, more rapid recycling of nutrients and higher soil nutrient levels. This would in turn have favoured light-demanding trees and stimulated mast and fruit production in a wide variety of species. – (Abrams, p.1132)

Just look at the size they got to before the estimated 4 billion trees were nearly completely wiped out by a chestnut blight introduced in 1904, possibly ‘the greatest ecological disaster to strike the world’s forests in all of history’:

‘In January 1910, the American Lumberman published this photo of giant chestnut trees in western North Carolina, to show how their size compares to that of the average man.’ – source

Back in Europe it was the ancient Greeks and Romans who mastered grafting and spread plantations (perhaps just for timber and coppice) although literary sources viewed the nuts with suspicion, Diphilus complaining that while ‘that they are nourishing and well-flavoured’, they are ‘hard to assimilate because they remain for a long time in the stomach’, his recommendation being to boil them so that they ‘inflate less’ and ‘nourish more’ (Conedera, p.167). The culprits are the complex di- and tri-saccharide sugars which, as with many vegetables, break down in the intestines producing gas with only one escape route. I can testify that the effects can be lasting and potent (!) though my digestive system did seem to adapt after a while of regularly including chestnuts in my diet.

In any case the trees provided a reliable enough source of carbohydrates to encourage the emergence of the ‘Chestnut Civilisations’ from around the 11th and 12th centuries in upland regions of southern Europe that were unsuitable for grains or other field crops – the Cévennes, Ardèche, Limousin (Massif Central), Northern Appenines in Italy, Corsica – people taking the nut for their staple, building hundreds of miles of terrace walls to hold the soil on the slopes and manage water flow, entire buildings (‘clède‘ or ‘sécadou’) dedicated to drying the nuts over a slow-burning fire on the ground floor, women and children joining the men out harvesting by hand, gathering round the hearths in the long winter evenings to peel the nuts ready to go into next morning’s potage or to be stored in underground pits (a solution no longer possible because of the appearance of new moulds decaying the nuts earlier than previously). And to the animals went the leaves, burrs (‘they had a daily course of acupuncture!’ according to G) and leftover nuts, especially good for fattening pigs. The culture, ‘civilised’ or not, supported large populations, probably because, apart from the largest ‘marrons’ – a luxury food, with the regular ‘châtaignes’ being considered a lower class of food, perhaps only suitable for animals, despite being exactly the same substance – the foodstuff failed to be appropriated as a mass market commodity, mainly due to a short shelf-life and unsuitability for long distance transport (there was a close call when Napoleon had to decide where France was going to get its sugar from during the continental blockade of the early 19th century, but he chose beets instead). Most of the written records from the time bitterly denounce this lack of ‘innovation’, ‘development’, the ‘poverty’ and ‘repli sur soi’ (approximately: ‘folding in on oneself’), and extreme prejudices arise about ‘laziness’, ‘backwardness’, even ‘rebelliousness’ among dull-minded peasants apparently too stupid or stubbornly conservative to see the benefits of agricultural ‘improvements’ or full engagement in the market economy.

Of course the prejudice is there to serve a purpose, prescribing a move towards wheat, potatoes, mulberries (for silk) – anything to increase tax revenues and dependence on monetary income:

‘But if the chestnut tree is of great importance to the inhabitants of the mountains, where cereals & most other crops cannot grow, if it ensures their subsistence for at least six to eight months of the year, & by its sale gives them just enough money to buy the other items they need, it has a harmful influence on their morale, by not stimulating the development of their industry since it requires no other care of cultivation, after planting & pruning, than harvesting its fruits, & even making their bodies heavy, as any man who eats only chestnuts for one day can believe. In addition, cooking, peeling & eating them uses a lot of time every day that is lost for productive work. To my knowledge, inhabitants of chestnut countries are nowhere friendly with work. At least all those of the countries where I have stayed have shown me only laziness, ignorance & poverty. Friends of public prosperity must therefore desire that these inhabitants mix the cultivation of potatoes with that of chestnut trees, & that they engage in some kind of industry to provide them with the means to buy wheat, wine & other products, instead of emigrating, as they usually do, or going to earn something elsewhere.‘ – Bosc & Baudrillart, (p.272)

Even as late as 1966 the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, having a dig at the communism he had renounced ten years earlier, referred to ‘une terre sans pain, carencée, membre de cette Internationale de la misère et du châtaigner’ (‘land without bread, deficient, a member of this Internationale of poverty and chestnut trees’ – Ladurie p.213) which prevailed in the Cévennes between the renaissance and the reformation. Martin Nadaud, peasant boy from the Creuse region of the Massif Central and later member of parliament in the Second Republic after the 1848 revolution, remembered how the stonemasons spoke to him when he arrived with his father to work with them in Paris, aged 14: ‘Eh petit Mufle, tu avais donc plus de châtaignes te mettre sous la dent que tu viens manger notre pain?’ (‘Hey little oaf, you had no more chestnuts to eat so you come and eat our bread?’ – Bruneton-Governatori, p.1176)

And the prejudice succeeded, up to a point, combining with other material factors. The decline was well in motion as early as the mid-late 18th century. Depopulation, development, incorporation of men into transient labour economies (although, as the above quotes suggest this had also gone hand in hand with the former subsistence practices – the long off-seasons leaving time for travel and wage labour in the lowlands). ‘L’arbre à pain’ gave way to ‘l’arbre d’or’ – the name given to the mulberry tree for the money that could be made from the silk worms that fed on its leaves (Parado, p.1) – and then the incredible wrecking ball of the leather-tanning industry which encouraged the cutting down of centuries-old orchards after it was discovered that the tannins in the bark and wood of the tree could provide a black dye for silk. Five factories for tannin extraction were opened in the Ardèche region from 1890 and it became seven times more profitable to fell the trees than to take the nuts to market. Around a million trees were cut down over the course of fifty years, with 20,000 hectares or about 1/3 of total area lost from the high of 60,000 hectares under cultivation in 1870.

Imagine the mind-set required to go along with that, cutting down trees that had fed your family for generations, even keeping you alive while others starved to death in the famines after the wheat harvests failed. Do we put it down to greed, opportunism, short-sightedness or just to a lack of sentimentality and simple cost/benefit analysis during a tough time when it looked like the best option? One way or another, it seems, commerce penetrates, transport facilitates, nationalism and duty to ‘la patrie’ dull and harden outlooks, turn inhabitants into coldhearted quislings, enabling the exploitation of the land that was their home on behalf of the abstract, alienated interests of city, industry, capital…

Ink disease, blight (not as damaging as in the US due to ‘hypovirulent’ resistance) and war provided the last heavy blows in the 20th century. There wasn’t the energy or manpower anymore for replanting or even maintenance: I’ve seen the memorial stones, so many men and boys taken and killed, especially in the first world war, and the low employment rates meant that soldiers were drawn in higher proportions from the highland regions. After that the inevitable drift towards the towns and cities. Final, complete dependence on jobs, money, and the commodification which we all know well. Or destitution, homelessness, addictions… The familiar pattern repeated around the world when village economies are destroyed and the people forced to move away from their homelands.

*****

But the trees are still here. Even ‘exploitations’ continue to succeed, albeit using modern methods – machines and petrol instead of unpaid human labour to supply a product for modern marketplaces. An ‘AOP’ designation, premium status sought for organic produce, some protection for producers and recognition of the historic landscape. The culture isn’t the same – isolated farmers and their small family groups (my time with G and B was quite lonely, the bus service being inadequate and the work schedule of feeding and watering the animals demanding a 7 day / week presence), the occasional festival, markets, people brought together in the roles of traders and consumers. But the trees are still here. The varieties too, 65 of them named in the Ardèche region alone: Aguyane, Précoce des Vans, Pourette, Sardonne, Bouche Rouge, Comballe, Garinche, Bouche de Clos, Merle, with many more names known only to local people or forgotten entirely. Newer disease-resistant hybrids in the South-West, requiring irrigation and pest control; older varieties to the East favoured for their resilience and superior flavour even if they don’t produce every year. The die-off, neglect, rural flight and other factors continue to result in an overall decline, and few new trees are planted because of the long time it takes for any return on the investment and the uncertainty that any trees will survive that long. But … the trees are still here.

And so are the possibilities if we look for them. Romanticising the ‘castanéiculture’ and other old peasant ways of life is a pitfall and visions of an easy life fade when you think about picking, sorting and peeling nuts by the thousand (their skins could be thrashed off in bulk with sticks after drying at least), or sawing off dead branches with hand tools swaying in the wind 4m off the ground to provide your firewood. But if you’re looking for future-proof food production with no need for artificial fertilisers, pesticides, GMOs or all the energy that has to go into ploughing, sowing, weeding, harvesting & processing field monocrops, then arboriculture of this kind has a lot to recommend it. It also generates many opportunities for ‘closing the loop’ in permaculture parlance, as in the above example where sheep are drawn to the base of the trees for shade and to eat the suckers, preparing the ground for harvesting while fertilising the soil with their manure. The wood of course has multiple uses too, from use of the suckers in basketry to larger pieces of timber in furniture building, tool handles, construction, charcoal manufacture etc. Even the leaves found a use as a stuffing for pillows and blankets. Further in the future, dare I suggest, the trees might provide the support for a truly indigenous way of life beyond the coming failures of the oil economy and the growth-addicted globalised capitalism and chemical-dependent agriculture it has made possible. Because there’s nothing wrong with living hand to mouth like every other species on this planet, providing for your own needs mainly from the fruits of the land around you, at whatever level of cultivation is appropriate.

I walked through a few orchards which hadn’t been touched for maybe 40 years, judging by the size of the suckers and self-sown pine, ash, sycamore, hazel and others beginning to overstand the chestnuts (which can’t reach up as well as the others and suffer from reduced light). It was quite eerie seeing the thickness of the old trunks emerging behind the bristly riot of new growth; the occasional terrace wall showing through mosses and lichens. B assured me it would still be possible to bring them back into cultivation, as she and G have devoted huge amounts of time and effort to doing over the decades they’ve been here, but it’s a daunting task, getting harder with every year that passes. ‘Olive tree of your forefather, chestnut tree of your father, only the mulberry tree is yours’ as the saying goes (or went) in the Cévennes, with slight variations in the other chestnut regions. Any calculations of return on investment have to look way into the future and there’s no guarantee you’ll ever see a reward. Trees stand up to drought better than annual grains, but two or three hot, dry summers in a row and even 150 years of root growth isn’t enough to keep them alive, so climate change will add to the uncertainty just as with everything else.

Wildfires too will grow in frequency and intensity in untended orchards and forests, just as they have done in the drier regions of the US in large part due to the discontinuation of regular burning and other cultivation practices by the native peoples there (although see this brilliant article that shows burning regimes being reinstated). I saw the ‘Canadairs’ go overhead a number of times during the drought in the summer, a situation which might be avoided by greater cultivation of orchards and possibly small scale burns of leaf litter as the peasants used to do. I think these land use traditions point to a potential middle way through the polarised debate between ecological rewilding (with humans excluded) at one extreme and the ‘working landscape’ which farmers have traditionally demanded (with wildlife excluded) at the other. Trees can be grown in an irrigated, chemically treated monocrop but there’s nothing to say there has to be the same outright hostility to wildlife expressed in their cultivation as in, say, livestock rearing. Wolves don’t eat chestnuts! And if you’re getting annoyed at the wild boar munching all the best nuts maybe it’s time to have a word with the local hunters and see if they want to take advantage of the lure your orchards provide – again reinventing the wheel of indigenous land management, as shown in the Abrams quote above.

North American forests were noted for their exceptional abundance and diversity of plant and animal species upon first contact by Europeans, and while their populations may have been in a boom phase after waves of diseases had wiped out their human predators it seems clear that native management practices actively fostered this diversity over the course of tens of thousands of years, whereas the introduced European farming practices decimated them in a handful of generations. Probably something similar was true of pre-agricultural forests in Europe and the hunter-gatherer or horticulturalist peoples who inhabited them. Do we see an echo of their subsistence methods in the chestnut-based cultures? Either way the act of working with the process of ecological succession towards the closed-canopy forest cover that these temperate lands spontaneously generate is bound to provide better habitat for a multitude of wild species than pastured or arable land could ever do. Incidentally I think this is the basis for accusations of ‘laziness’ and the sneer behind the word ‘cueillette’ (gathering) – the hard work necessary to fight succession in farming (especially for the annual grain species) has been elevated into a virtue and people born into this way of thinking would rather extirpate less toilsome lifeways than consider their own practices as a giant waste of energy. How about instead of a ‘working landscape’ (that appears to be working itself to death for no good reason) we try to move towards a ‘living landscape’, with human beings as just another species in the web of self-perpetuating diversity?

Old gnarly ones, I came to you mind full of sour thoughts about modern living. I too was cultivated in my early days with a purpose (to be a good citizen, employee, consumer etc), then abandoned to fend for myself, it no longer being considered worth the effort. It was a relief at first to grow as I pleased but then there was the absence, uncertainty and lack of purpose that has lingered for years. What was I planted for? To feed only a few wild creatures (as honourable as that might be) until I wither away and die, to be replaced by rougher, less demanding types (as honourable as they might be) or overtaken by my own wilder growths? Now I’m thinking that the answer to Bad cultivation isn’t No cultivation; the answer to a crappy, exploitive relationship isn’t No relationship – it’s Better cultivation and a Better relationship with different, mutual purposes and goals. I looked to you and heard my own preoccupation: “How am I going to justify my continued existence?” But the question generates different answers depending on who you’re asking. If you ask the disembodied collective urge of the civilised economy (as people did on your behalf, with never a secure assurance no matter how much you gave) then you’ll get the familiar list of Hardnesses – “Find a way to make it Pay”, with no criticism or challenge to the one handing out the currency and the cannibalistic values it embodies. But if you ask the living world, and that is surely the essential underlying question we all need to be asking, then you’ll get very different answers, perhaps summed up by the exhortation: “Stay alive, and keep those around you living too, until this madness ends.”

A new question: How can I be of Service?

Translations tweaked from www.DeepL.com/Translator

The author invited various trees to comment on the subject matter for this post but did not receive any clear reply as of the time of writing, although this may be due to lack of receptivity on his part.

*****

Bibliography (papers behind paywalls can be accessed by typing the DOI number into http://sci-hub.tw/ )

Abrams et al: ‘Native Americans as active and passive promoters of mast and fruit trees in the eastern USA’ (link)
Bosc & Baudrillard: ‘Dictionnaire de la culture des arbres et de l’amenagements des forets’ (link)
Ariane Bruneton-Governatori: ‘Alimentation et idéologie: le cas de la châtaigne’ (link)
Conedera et al: ‘The cultivation of Castanea sativa (Mill.) in Europe, from its origin to its diffusion on a continental scale’ (link)
Antoinette Fauve-Chamoux: ‘Chestnuts’ in the ‘Cambridge World History of Food, Vol.1’ (link)
Kaltenrider et al: ‘Vegetation and fire history of the Euganean Hills (Colli Euganei) as recorded by Lateglacial and Holocene sedimentary series from Lago della Costa (northeastern Italy)’ (link)
Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie: ‘Les paysans de Languedoc, Volume 1’ (link)
Claude Parado: ‘Le châtaignier: l’arbre à pain, providence de nos ancêtres’ (link)

The place that waits for me

July 4, 2018

Sorry for the lack of posting, various projects on the go, not yet borne fruit… The big news is that I’m out of the garden maintenance job, out of rented accommodation and back on the wwoofing trail, the idea being to pick up more organic farming experience and eventually try to find work in that sector. I’m currently on a farm in Wales acting as ‘veg intern’ and have been here since mid-March, then I’ll be heading out to Italy to work on a hazelnut farm and I expect to finish the year in the south of France if I find a place to host me there (any recommendations please let me know!) I’m keeping a diary so various bits might get posted up here in the future if I find the time to write it all up. For a teaser here are some pics taken back in the spring of one of the few patches of broadleaf (ancient?) woodland I’ve been able to find, in a little valley which the stream has rendered too-steep-for-sheep. Then, just so I don’t give you the wrong impression and for the contrast, a typical area of conifer forestry (click to embiggen):

In the meantime I recently discovered that there’s a whole ‘Tending The Wild’ TV series on a Californian TV station, where they’ve taken the trouble to speak to native people about their food and land-use traditions, past and present. It can be viewed on their website here: and there’s a lot a really good articles if you click around, for instance this one about the consequences of the loss (more often active destruction) of traditional foods and related cultural practices. Key paragraphs (my emph):

The native people I have worked with in southern California for the past 16 years have a profound spiritual connection to the land through their ancestors and their long history of living on the land. They pay homage to plants and consider them as their teachers. They’re dedicated to passing on what they know to others. All stress our interdependence with other species. All have a fierce devotion to revitalizing their culture as part of the larger cultural revitalization sweeping California.

Cahuilla/Apache elder Lorene Sisquoc describes a reciprocal relationship with the plants and the land. “The plants are waiting for us to come take care of them so they can take care of us. In Temalpakh, Katherine Saubel writes that the Cahuilla word for an oak grove, meki’i’wah, means ‘the place that waits for me.’ It’s our responsibility to take care of the land, to get out there and gather, to sing songs, tell stories, do ceremony, share our laughter and our language. To preserve our oral traditions by passing our knowledge to our kids and grandkids. It’s important that they start learning very young. Taking care of the plants helps make our families healthy. We’re working hard to heal our communities by deepening our connection to the land.”

[…]

Sisquoc teaches at the Sherman Indian High School in Riverside, a former boarding school created to assimilate Indian children into the dominant culture. Sisquoc relates that students were instructed: “‘Forget about your traditional plants. Forget about the acorns and pine nuts and mesquite waiting to be gathered. You’ve got to get over here and make a garden and milk that cow. That’s what the boarding schools were about. It was lactose-intolerant kids being fed dairy products and introduced foods, and taught cooking and home economics that were different from theirs. They were taught that their ways were wrong. Many of our gathering practices and our culinary secrets and specialties were not passed down because the boarding school students weren’t home to learn them.”

Shimwich Chumash educator and CCC member Tima Lotah Link echoes Sisquoc: “If you want to wreck a culture, hit it in the kitchen. Boarding schools did that in one generation. Take away the kids, take away their plants, take away their knowledge of the kitchen. Parents and children no longer gathered their plants together. They no longer spoke their language or shared information.”

There’s a really important segment in the ‘Decolonizing the Diet‘ episode where Lois Conner Bohna, Cultural Educator & Basketweaver from the North Folk Mono talks about the importance of acorns to her people. The closing comments from around 4:42 are vital:

There’s maybe five of us in the North Fork area that gather acorns and we can’t even find enough for ourselves at this point. It is difficult to find acorn because the trees are unhealthy because of the mistletoe, because of the competition from other trees taking their water. A long time ago there were more oak trees. A lot have died, a lot. My grandmas would not allow their environment to look this way. They’re gonna either cut trees, prune ’em, when they would go through they’re gonna burn, their number one thing was their oak trees, and that sustained not only them but the squirrels, and the squirrels provide for the other animals, so we’re back to balance. Now it is totally out of balance. If you don’t use something, you neglect it, it goes away. So the oak trees are gonna go away.

I thought that this provides an excellent answer for those who dismiss the plausibility of a hunter-gatherer / horticulturalist subsistence base on the grounds that it couldn’t support the current human population level. Well first off, nothing can support the current population in anything like a sustainable manner. Around half the nitrates in global circulation now have been generated in factories from fossil fuel derivatives. It would be simplistic to say that when the oil goes half of the population will starve to death, but that’s probably not far off in the final analysis (some would say more because much of the topsoil which underpinned global agriculture while it was still totally organic has since disappeared). Also, 7.5 billion people are obviously impacting the nonhuman, especially nondomesticated species in a catastrophic way, indicating the fundamental unsustainability and undesirability of maintaining that high level of population in the first place.

I would also question estimates about the size of hunter-gatherer populations, as the civilised culture has a history of purposely underestimating or downplaying the significance of indigenous habitation of the land, as this justifies racist concepts of ‘manifest destiny’ and the willful blindness of ‘terra nullius’ – the empty lands ripe for conquest. Estimates for pre-Columbian population levels in the Americas have been revised upwards by the tens of millions, although admittedly these numbers were for the most part supported by various forms of intensive agriculture, mostly based around corn. It wouldn’t surprise me if researchers discovered evidence for much higher concentrations of pre-Neolithic populations in prehistoric Europe, indicating much more in-depth & comprehensive land-use systems than commonly assumed, but it still serves the narcissism and hubris of the dominant culture to believe that it knows the best way to occupy the land, with all the military parallels that word implies, and that the only true measure of success is the sheer quantity of biomass that you can wring out the ecology and funnel into your own species, consequences be damned.

So yes, back to the main point: of course the living planet in its current state couldn’t support a population of more than a handful of hunter-gatherers per square mile – that’s been the whole point over these last 10,000 years! The majority of land has been appropriated for field agriculture and livestock pastures and the diverse wild plant & animal populations that made a successful hunter-gatherer subsistence possible have been systematically eradicated. Bohna suggests that even benign neglect can cause this kind of decline, so just think how much faster it can slide when you’re purposefully draining wetlands, damming rivers, felling forests, exterminating wolves, spraying poisons everywhere to kill ‘pests’ and ‘weeds’… It shows the importance of habitat restoration – the responsibility to repair the damage done, apart from anything else – over and above simple lifestyle change. Further, it points to a deeper understanding about the possibilities for human existence which the civilised refuse to countenance: that we might be capable of actually improving this place by being here, rather than being doomed by nature to mine it to exhaustion and death. Like Bohna’s grandmothers we must not allow our environment to look this way. We have to make it our business to develop that reciprocal relationship with the land where it can take care of us – once we have taken care of it. Then maybe we’ll finally have our own ‘places that wait for us’; places that will be happy to see our return.

PS: RIP Daniel Quinn, my most important teacher, sorely missed. These are all footnotes to your work, as all philosophy was once held to be ‘footnotes to Plato’.

Suburban foraging in social context – original contribution to ‘Playing For Time’

May 3, 2015

Here’s a photo I took two years ago:

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Have a close look for a moment, click on it to get a bigger version if you like. Do you see something strange?

No? How about in this one, zooming a little closer in on what originally caught my eye:

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Give up? Well, here it is center-stage in all its majesty:

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A three-leaved nettle! Usually the leaves go up in alternate pairs on opposite sides of the square stalk, and looking at them from above gives the impression of four-sidedness, as you can see from the other specimens pictured above. However, this one particular nettle (and another sibling I later found not too far away) had leaves going up in groups of three, but also alternating so that leaves from the higher stage fit ‘in between’ those beneath, thus maximising the sunlight exposure for the whole plant.

Pretty cool, no? And I never would have noticed if I hadn’t been foraging from the patch to use the nettles in teas and cooked up in various stews and dishes. It really illustrates what Becky Lerner has called the ‘super power’ of the forager’s eye, when you begin to look really closely at your surroundings and start noticing all manner of things that remain invisible to most people. Little clues that lead to long stories – histories really – of what has happened in that particular place and how it connects to hundreds, maybe thousands of factors which make it totally unique and inform its interconnected relationship to all adjoining spaces, as well as the beings that pass through them (including you!) This particular history could almost have been evolutionary. Was I witnessing the chance mutation that could lead to a whole new subspecies of nettle, or even fundamentally alter the basic structure of the existing species, if it proved more adaptable in the long term? Call me a plant geek, but I think that’s pretty amazing.

So, with that preamble out the way, here’s something I wrote the following year for inclusion in a book that’s just been published called Playing For Time. I wanted to put the original piece up here because there’s a lot that got trimmed off for the final edit (although more went in than I expected, after the editor Charlotte Du Cann told me she and author Lucy Neal just wanted to use my burdock photo and some text as an ‘extended caption’ – so I’m not complaining!) and the overall tone came across as breathless and ‘inspirational’ rather than my usual measured, realism-infused style. Reading back over it, I see there were quite a few important points there which I want to start making more often about the social context in which activities like foraging and herbalism take place, and how these might eventually coalesce into a political movement of some kind to challenge the absurd and highly damaging ways of accessing food and medicine which have been forced upon us by the status quo and the state-corporate and proprietary powers that benefit from its ruinous continuation. Anyway, here it is (with permission):

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It’s been around eight years now since I started to take an active interest in wild plants and foraging. Nearly two years out of uni, living back in the old home with my parents, having quit my job in retail just after Christmas, I needed something to get me outside – out of the house and out of my overactive head. Foraging was an obvious choice because a) it wouldn’t cost any money, b) it fit with my greeny/lefty politics of sustainability and DIY self-sufficiency (which I had spent about as much time and effort developing over the course of three years as I had done studying for my degree), c) after too much time in cities it sent me back into comparatively wild places – an appreciation of which my parents had successfully nurtured during my childhood, and d) – something they definitely never encouraged – it allowed me to at least pretend that I could say ‘fuck you’ to the working world, be economically invisible, have no need to rely on capitalist modes of production, basically do a Tolstoy and choose simple menial work instead of having my intellect harnessed to the project of destroying the world. I never pushed towards these goals with 100 per cent dedication but early successes, especially with potential staples like Burdock root, acorns and hazelnuts, gave me a feeling of security with the knowledge that I could go a long way in that direction if I, personally, chose to.

Other experiences with the medicinal side of things gave me a further sense of power and control over my own life: if something went wrong I didn’t necessarily have to go straight to a medical professional to be supplied with synthetic drugs or put through complex, machine-based treatments. Instead, I could look up my symptoms, read or ask trusted people which herbs were considered suitable in treating them (or in holistic terms, suitable for supporting the body’s own attempt to heal itself), go out to harvest them and see if I could successfully treat myself. My surefire remedies so far include Bramble root tincture for diarrhea, Elderflower and Yarrow tea for colds and ‘flu, and St. John’s Wort oil for all kinds of muscular aches and pains. Again, I’m not saying that I would never go to my GP, even for something very serious, just that it was a nice feeling knowing that I had a different option available to me, and that it would grow in strength and capability if I continued to use it and learn from the experiences over time.

So far so good on the personal level, but lately I’ve had the persistent feeling that more is needed to release the true potential or promise of foraging as a social, even cultural activity. So far the mainstream awakening towards wild foods and medicines rather fits Dmitry Orlov’s assertion that ‘resilience and sustainability are often little more than middle-class hobbies’ – people with the privilege of time and independent means (eg: a family who are willing to support you and provide a roof over your head while you ‘find yourself’) to dabble with these things and maybe come up with a few successful dishes using wild ingredients which will get made more than once. This is a world away from what foraging meant, and continues to mean, to the world’s indigenous people and even our own recent peasant-farmer ancestors (wild herbs such as Nettle, Sorrel and Alexanders often went into the daily stew or ‘potage’ sustaining medieval agricultural labourers). They have a history of close association with these plants and a knowledge of how to use them passed down through the generations. Even their spiritual traditions pay homage to them, with songs being sung to encourage fruitfulness and to give thanks to the spirits for their generosity. An example of this surviving in Britain is the ‘wassail‘ tradition in which apple trees are implored to bear a good harvest:

Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
That blooms well, bears well.
Hats full, caps full,
Three bushel bags full,
An’ all under one tree.
Hurrah! Hurrah!

Organised wild food walks share knowledge and create bonds between people in such a way as to foster the growth of this kind of culture, but somehow paying for access to this knowledge has always felt wrong to me (which is why I’ve only led a few myself on a free/donation basis), and there’s the danger of playing to the crowd willing to pay the most, ie: wealthy hobbyists from the city looking for a stimulating day out. A less leader-oriented ‘skillshare’ type event would seem more promising for nurturing the revolutionaries we so desperately need to reshape our whole attitude and relationship to the other-than-human world. This would not exclude the people who could benefit most from supplementing their diets with nutritious wild edibles and health-giving medicinal plants, all available for the simple energy costs of gathering and processing and often not so very far from their own front doors.

These days foraging is less something I actively set out to do so much as something that happens almost incidentally as I go about my day-to-day business. It helps that I work outdoors as a gardener, where I often experience the pleasure of being paid to harvest my own food (aka ‘weeding’ or ‘raking up debris’). But I have a little section of bridleway which go through twice a day on my commute. Usually I manage to allow five minutes or so to get off my bike and bag up a few things or even graze on them directly – Cleavers, Nettles (you can eat them raw with the right technique!), Cuckooflower, young Bramble shoots, Hawthorn and Rose leaves early in the season; haws, rosehips, blackberries, elderberries, acorns in the Autumn months… It’s amazing how much you can get from so little time, and it makes for a nice settling ritual to start and finish the day. I see all the seasonal changes, watch all kinds of wildlife, and observe the plants through their yearly cycles of birth, death and rebirth. Last Spring I noticed a nettle with leaves going up the stalk in groups of three rather than the standard alternating pair. It totally made my day, and I made sure to seek it out regularly and check on its mutant progress for the rest of the year, speaking reassuring words to hopefully aid its brave experiment.

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I do recommend the book, which I’ve been working through in brief sittings after receiving my copy at the launch up in London (thanks Lucy, a really pleasant evening). There’s loads of beautiful things in there, both described and photographed with essays from activists and writers, explanations from artists and reports from community organisers, mostly under the Transition Town umbrella. Charlotte Du Cann wrote a nice piece about it here, and her blog is well worth checking out too, if you click around from that link.

And the nettle? Well, it didn’t make an appearance last year, but just look who I found poking her head out the other day in near exactly the same spot:

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You little beauty!

‘The Environment of Early Man in the British Isles’

February 12, 2014

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I recently learned a lot from reading this book, which was recommended by a commenter under one of George Monbiot’s rewilding articles. It was published back in 1975 so I’m not sure how much of it still holds true or whether there has been much development or debunking of the theories he presents from various scientific disciplines in the time that has elapsed since. But I can say that it made a lot of sense to this reader, who found it eye-opening, provocative and highly informative (if a little heavy-going at points) nearly forty years after it was written.

The main thing it got me thinking about was this polarisation of whether human cultures are ‘meant’ to exist in a largely open or closed environment – basically the choice between grasses and trees which we talked about before. Evans makes clear that this isn’t a simple delineation between forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers and field-based farmers. In fact there have been very large differences in the patterns of subsistence adopted by hunter-gatherers in this land even before the arrival of agriculture, around 6,000 years ago, heralded the more active management of the land with which we’re familiar today at its totalitarian extreme. The main cause for these differences was the background climate, to which prehistoric man adapted along with all the other creatures in the surrounding ecology. Evans separates them into two main types – the Upper Paleolithic (old stone-age) cultures, who hunted herds of large game feeding on the grasslands that prevailed during the glacial Devensian period between 70,000 and 10,000 years ago:

In the Mendips, pollen analysis of cave deposits indicates values of between 25 and 40 per cent trees and shrubs, mainly birch and willow. An environment of park tundra—scattered birches in a generally open landscape, but with denser woodland in the sheltered valleys and ravines—can be envisaged for much of Britain at low altitudes. A fauna similar to that prior to the Full Glacial was present with large herbivores predominant. Horse and reindeer appeared early in zone I [beginning 14,000 years ago]; elk was present by zone II [10,000 years ago], and in Ireland […] the Allerød period [ie:  zone II] is characterized by the giant Irish deer. But the mammoth, wooly rhinocerous, hyena and lion were all absent, for some reason not having been able to return to Britain after the glacial maximum […]

In Britain, faunal evidence suggests horse often as important or even more important than reindeer for food and raw materials [haha!]. Abundant herds of horse were probably available along the upland/lowland contact zone as indeed they would be today in the High Altai of Mongolia were it not for modern man […] The tundra vegetation, on which low temperatures and a short growing season were limiting factors, was not directly exploitable for food on a large scale by man, although seeds and berries were doubtless eaten. But the reindeer and the horse were ideally suited to it and it was through these animals that man’s livelihood was largely gained. (pp.51-3)

and the Mesolithic (middle stone-age) cultures who lived in the forested environment favoured by the more temperate climate of the ‘post-glacial’ which began around 10,000 years ago and continues to the present day:

Man responded to these changes variously. He adopted his methods of hunting to the pursuit of individual animals rather than herds and began to make greater use of the bow and arrow. He widened his range in the quest for food and became less specialized, pursuing a grater variety of animals than in the Ice Age. It is inevitable too, although we have little evidence for this, that a more varied plant diet was exploited than was possible in the sub-arctic tundra.

The earliest forest-dwelling Mesolithic culture in Britain is the Maglemosian, named after the type sit of Maglemose (literally ‘big bog’) in Denmark. It is classically associated with forest, marsh and reed-swamp habitats, and, as far as we can tell, adapted readily to the changed environment of early Post-glacial times […] The best-known Maglemosian site is Starr Carr where the main animals exploited were red deer (80 examples), roe deer (33), elk (11), ox (9) and pig (5), a fauna reflecting the prevailing forest vegetation. Other animals present were the pine marten, hedgehog, hare, badger, fox, beaver, and domestic dog. (pp.87-8)

Of course, these differences depicted among modern humans (Homo Sapiens has been in Britain for around 40,000 years) probably apply to the different cultures among earlier subspecies, Neanderthalensis, Heidelbergensis and Antecessor, (among others?)  who would have lived through similar swings in climate and either changed their subsistence accordingly, migrated to more favourable climates or become locally extinct. For example the recent news of human footprints and artifacts discovered in Happisburgh on the Norfolk coast, and dated to between 800,000 and a million years ago, mentions a background climate where:

[…] the local vegetation consisted of a mosaic of open coniferous forest of pine (Pinus), spruce (Picea), with some birch (Betula). Alder (Alnus) was growing in wetter areas and there were patches of heath and grassland. This vegetation is characteristic of the cooler climate typically found at the beginning or end of an interglacial or during an interstadial period. (from the original paper)

In other words much closer to the kind of environment where we can expect subsistence on herds of large herbivores rather than smaller forest-dwelling individuals.

Evans wears his prejudices on his sleeve when it comes to describing what the resulting human cultures were like, and appears to see a narrative of progress linking the open-environment people of the Upper Paleolithic to the Neolithic farmers, with the woodland Mesolithic people presented as an unfortunate intermediate stage where nothing much happened, possibly because their environment wasn’t ‘challenging’ enough. Compare the concluding paragraphs to his chapters on the two periods:

The Later Upper Paleolithic peoples endured in western Europe for over 4000 years. With their cave art, their carvings, their tools and weapons of extreme beauty, their sophisticated annual migratory movements and their possible near domestication of the reindeer and the horse they drew from Western Europe and gave to it a fitness and a legacy which was not to be surpassed until the introduction of agriculture—and some would say never. The possible future of these communities had the Late-glacial environment been maintained is totally speculative. But there is little doubt that the Post-glacial amelioration of climate and the eventual spread of mixed deciduous forest drove the reindeer herds northwards and broke up one of the finest and most successful life styles ever known. (p.54)

[…]

This then is the environmental background to the early Post-glacial hunting communities of Britain—a warming climate, a rising sea with yet marshy extensions to the east and links with Europe, an increasing variety of game and plant food, and the spread of all pervasive forest—conditions quite different from those experienced by Upper Paleolithic man. These changes may have had a very great psychological impact on man, the equable conditions and diversity of habitats and food supply both obviating the need for specialization and also retarding development […] it is a fact that not only in Britain but in Europe as a whole Mesolithic man has left little of artistic wealth. We have few clues to his beliefs, and burials, apart from a few examples such as the horrible nests of human skulls at Ofnet in Bavaria, are rare. There is nothing of the brilliance of the Upper Paleolithic hunters living as they were in the stimulating landscape of the Ice Age, nor anything of the vital urgency with which later farming communities were to settle and cultivate the lands of western Europe and the British Isles. (pp.89-90)

This may relate to his personal politics which he lays bare at the end of the final chapter, which left a bad taste in my mouth for several days. After describing the horrors of soil erosion, whereby, because of agriculture and the removal of field boundaries, hedges etc. ‘[w]e are, in effect, returning to an almost ‘Late-glacial’ landscape of steppe, pasture and bare ground, with processes of physical erosion—dust storms and ‘solifluxion’—rife’, the topsoil ‘lost, literally in a day’ through wind erosion, he then questions the value of environmental organisations and conservation efforts, asking:

Do we have the right to lay down the requirements and attempt to mould the environment of the future? And in doing so, are we not betraying earlier, and more important, future generations of man? […]

By attempting to maintain the environmental status quo are we not denying ourselves and our progeny the opportunity and the ability to exploit challenging new environments both created by our own industrial and agricultural needs and by natural climatic shifts? Evolution depends on environmental stimulus, and the most successful groups of man have arisen in response to specialized simplified environments. If man had declaimed in the past at the felling of the forest he might still be at the Mesolithic stage of development. If there had been one of the specialized periglacial habitats, the brilliant Upper Paleolithic may never have emerged. And had there been none of the rigours of a cooling Pleistocene climate, there may well have been no man. (pp.186-7)

I don’t think this can be forgiven just because it was written the 70s. There’s some seriously insane thinking going on here, alongside the falsity of viewing evolution in terms of linear progress. Maybe he’d appreciate the ‘challenging new environment’ of the oil-soaked Gulf of Mexico, or defoliated, dioxin-laced Vietnam, or a tar sands trailing pond, or an ocean stripped of phytoplankton because of the greater acidity caused by excess CO2 in the atmosphere?

Canadian oil sands sitefancy a ‘challenge’? – source

He doesn’t appear to understand that civilised man has already done more than anyone to ‘mould the environment of the future’ – a largely desertified, if not entirely dead planet, but, unbelievably, his ire is directed at environmentalists who are trying to check this destructive ‘simplifying’ process. What gives them the right to try and preserve the rich, generous biodiversity that the natural world has tried so hard to bestow us with?

Anyhow, back on the subject of open vs. closed environments, there may yet be some truth to Simon Fairlie’s comment about ‘the health of the human psyche’ depending on ‘keeping land open to wind and sunlight’ which I criticised at the above link. Remembering the story the photographer Guy Hand tells in ‘The Forest of Forgetting‘ (pdf) about trying to introduce his Scottish wife to the pine forests of his native Idaho, I assumed that this was an attitude born from an abused landscape:

The instant we climbed out of Idaho sagebrush and into a dense stand of pine, in the Sawtooth Wilderness Area, I knew something was wrong. Mairi fell silent. Her pace slowed. I glanced over my shoulder to find the distance between us filled with shadow and half-light. She had hunched her shoulders and dropped her head. She moved with the wary posture of stalked prey. As she passed through a saber of light I could clearly see the fear in her eyes. I waited for her, but she walked past, pointed to a clearing, and by way of explanation, whispered, “too many trees.” Neither of us had known, until that moment, that Mairi held a secret dread of wooded land.

I felt as if I’d failed her, unable to convey the closed-in sense of sanctuary I’d always felt in that forest, the way, even as a child, the thick mat of pine needles and jigsaw bits of bark felt luxurious under my feet; the way the trees provided shelter against wind and mid-day glare; the way sounds were both softened and clarified; the way air held the sweet scent of pitch and the flutter of wings.

On the scree and boulder slopes above tree line, the tension drained from her face. She looked off into a landscape she could again understand: open country, treeless country, country filled with nothing more than grass, rock, and sky. It was only later, after peering more deeply into her Highland past, that we learned forests were part of her history, too, a forest lost to centuries of forgetting.

But the evidence shows that even woodland people also value open landscapes, whether we’re talking about the Native American practice of using fire to maintain the so-called ‘Oak Savannah’ habitats*, rainforest people clearing temporary patches to grow manioc and other vegetables, or the density of prehistoric artifacts found around ancient floodplains or other areas such as lakes or coastlines kept open through ‘natural’ causes:

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Over the past 200 years, rivers like the Thames have been embanked to prevent flooding, and the flow of water controlled by locks and weirs. Formerly their course were braided, i.e. split up into several channels which meandered over a broad flood plain […] For agricultural peoples such a system of braided channels is wasteful of land, and artificial control has been imposed at various times in the past on river systems in the most heavily farmed areas of the country. But from the point of view of Lower Paleolithic man such conditions were ideal. They provided tracts of open ground in an otherwise forested country with the obvious advantages of defence against predators such as the lion, and of concentrating herds of game such as deer, oxen, horse and elephant attracted to the river valley for water. The variety of habitats—open water, reed swamp, woodland, and, as we shall see, at one stage, grassland—together with the variety of game animals both large and small obviated the need for specialization in hunting and food-gathering techniques, and presented man with what was probably a relatively congenial existence. (pp.3-4)

Perhaps climate change-induced flooding of the kind which low-lying areas in Britain have been recently experiencing will force a return to this kind of habitat?

Somerset flooding

There is also some evidence for the use of fire in the opening up or maintenance of favourable hunting grounds. Apparently the man to check out is Ian Simmons, who wrote a 1996 book called The environmental impact of later Mesolithic cultures. Earlier writings of his having to do with the relationship between fire and the ‘vegetation changes associated with Mesolithic man in Britain’ and ‘Environment and early man on Dartmoor’ (both published in 1969) are summarised by Evans thusly:

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Forest glades around springs and streambanks are seen as initial nuclei of open ground, created by animals coming to drink. The dual attraction to Mesolithic man of both water and game in these areas was probably exploited, and their enlargement by burning a logical follow up which in turn would have attracted more game animals. Game avoidance of the area or overkill by man may then have led to desertion of the clearing and subsequent regeneration of woodland. (p.97)

Where this happened on poorer soils it is seen as evidence that Mesolithic people were capable of permanently degrading the land in certain areas to the point where the trees wouldn’t regenerate and only heath- or moor-type plant communities could survive.

Fire is also mentioned whenever the discussion turns towards Hazel – higher representations of which in the pollen records are said to represent either spontaneous or human-encouraged conflagrations because ‘Hazel is a fire-resistant tree, springing up readily from burnt stumps’ (p.81).

[A.G. Smith, 1970] argues that the prevalence of hazel during the Boreal period [increasing warmth 9500-7500 years ago]  may too have been engendered by the continued use of fire. It is perhaps significant that the hazel maximum in the Post-glacial falls at a much earlier stage in relation to the climatic succession as a whole than in previous interglacials.

The purely climatic origin of the vegetational changes in the Boreal/Atlantic transition [‘climatic optimum’ starting around 7500 years ago] has also been questioned, largely on the grounds that they are so often exactly synchronous with layers of wood charcoal and Mesolithic flint artefacts […] A secondary hazel maximum occurring around the Boreal/Atlantic transition, and occasionally coinciding with an increase of herbaceous pollen, is perhaps further evidence for widespread human interference with the vegetation at this time. (pp.100-1)

Herbaceous pollen, eh? This has echoes of the Indian practices we mentioned before*, in which fire is used to favour the growth of ‘bulbs and greens’ under a relatively open tree canopy – Hazel coppice, both in their neglected and actively managed states, around where I live have a lot of ground flora, probably due to the greater amount of light filtering through (although I understand he may not be saying the tree & herb pollen came from the same sites). Unfortunately Evans doesn’t consider that Mesolithic people might have been deliberately managing stands of Hazel for a nut crop, as more recent research has begun to explore†.

I felt a weird, nagging sensation while studying the many charts comparing the pollen representation of various plant species in the archaeological record. Here’s a simple one detailing the transition to Neolithic cereal farming at Barfield Tarn, ‘a kettle hole on the south-western edge of the Lake District’ (p.111):

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Evans talks about the decline of Elm, which most researchers accept as diagnostic of the rise of farming, whether through introduced diseases, use as fodder for livestock until exhausted or deliberate clearance (as it often occupied the soils most suitable for cultivation). In this diagram the trees, with the exceptions of Oak and Elm, don’t appear to suffer that much from the ‘two episodes of land use’ although we are assured that ‘[r]egeneration of woodland did not occur’ (perhaps after the depicted period?) Anyway, what struck me as a forager looking at these diagrams is that, while I make extensive harvests from trees themselves, most of the plants that I would consider useful in a culinary sense – Plantain, Dandelion, Sorrel, Fat Hen, Nettle and mustard species – only become prevalent along with the grasses and cereal crops favoured by the Neolithic farmer/herders. I too have adapted to an open landscape! In reality, unless we accept the active fire management scenario described above (or the more passive attraction to ‘naturally’ open spaces), it seems likely that these ‘weed’ species were, if not entirely absent from Mesolithic diets, then much less abundant in their environment than they are today. Chris Thomas of York University’s biology department has made similar points (pdf) drawing on his knowledge of butterflies, summarised here by Mark Fisher:

[Thomas] sought to ask why so many animal and plant species in Britain, and in some other parts of northern Europe, are restricted to open habitats when the majority of the landscape would naturally be forested? He observed that most open-country species would have survived the mostly wooded state of the mid Holocene in the open areas of inland and sea cliffs, dunes, coast and lake shores, and possibly river-valley grasslands, fen, bog and mire, as well as above the tree-line, without the need to invoke major modification of the vegetation by large herbivores. They would have colonised twice: in the early Holocene after the ice receded but failing to persist once tree cover asserted, and then again after the trees were cleared for agriculture. Thus what ever the date of arrival, current distributions largely reflect recent conditions. In addition, the rates at which we see modern distributions adjust to new environmental conditions are sufficient to allow most animal species to assume new distributions within Britain in a few hundred years if conditions change. Current distributions thus reflect recent anthropogenic habitats far more strongly than they reflect the longer-term history of natural populations. (‘What is rewilding?‘)

Evans has plenty to say about the effects of agriculture once it arrived in Britain, and he charts the various technological developments that ensued as well as the negative environmental impacts it had, especially on the soil. He follows these effects right through to the historical period and the modern day, often showing how patterns of land use laid down in earlier times often strongly influenced the organisation of human settlements which we recognise today. Perhaps I’ll come back to explore this properly another time, but for now suffice it to say that nothing in this book has fundamentally altered my understanding of agriculture as ‘a regressive rather than a progressive evolutionary event’ (to use the words of Oak enthusiast David Bainbridge).

[Above images print-screened from the google preview of the book]

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* – ‘There was considerably less chaparral and underbrush [in aboriginal times], due to the Maidu practice of burning off the areas near where they lived each fall and winter. They preferred an open, grassy, oak savannah habitat for several reasons. 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. More bulbs and greens grow in such an environment, and it is easier to gather acorns on bare ground.’ – anthropologist John Duncan, quoted in Kat Anderson’s Tending The Wild, p.288

† – for example: ‘The Late Mesolithic phase is defined by the repetitive application of fire to the woodland to encourage a mosaic of productive vegetation regeneration patches, consistent with the promotion of Corylus [Hazel] and to aid hunting. In this phase, weed species including Plantago lanceolata [Ribwort Plantain], Rumex [Dock/Sorrel] and Chenopodiaceae [Fat Hen/Good King Henry] are frequent, taxa which are normally associated with the first farmers.’ (from the abstract to ‘Late Mesolithic and early Neolithic forest disturbance‘ – anyone with access to the full paper please get in touch!)

Fertility – Less or More?

June 22, 2012

A few of us have been discussing, among other things, soil fertility, pastoralism, deforestation, reforestation, agriculture (of course) and permaculture-type solutions for restoring the ecologies impoverished by this culture over on this Leaving Babylon thread. Here’s my most recent contribution on the topic of soil fertility vs. conservation:

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I’ve been thinking lots lately about this issue of soil fertility. On the one hand we’re living through a period of extraordinary fertility thanks to the nitrates and phosphates in petroleum-based fertilisers – ‘more atmospheric nitrogen is fixed by man (as fertilizer) than by all natural sources combined’ (Ken Thompson, No Nettles Required, p.160) – and all gardening and farming is geared towards maintaining or increasing this. And on the other hand we have a legacy of plant and animal species uniquely adapted to the impoverished soils resulting from hundreds/thousands of years of intensive, organic farming, grazing and forestry; a biodiversity that dies out when the soils get too fertile or specific management practices are discontinued. Here’s Michael Allaby writing in the Woodland Trust’s Book of British Woodlands:

The trees that are coppiced regenerate and go on regenerating for a very long time: far from injuring them, coppicing seems to extend their lifespans, so they become an almost perpetual source of wood. Chemically, the wood is composed of substances obtained from the air and soil, like any part of any plant, and cropping removes those substances. Livestock grazing among the trees returned some plant nutrient, but they, too, were removing vegetation by their grazing. The overall effect is a slow but steady export of plant nutrient and a decline in the fertility of the soil. This makes it sound as though the coppicing system is harmful, but harmful to what, or whom? Some plants are better than others at exploiting rich supplies of nutrient. Feed them well and they grow vigorously and, in relation to the plants around them, aggressively. On a fertile soil, therefore, the natural succession by which plants colonise an area will proceed fairly quickly to a situation in which a small number of aggressive species dominate the vegetation.

On a less fertile soil this cannot happen, because the aggressive species are denied the nutrients they need for more vigorous growth. This allows the less vigorous species, with more modest requirements, to thrive. The final result is a great diversity of plant species. The ecological rule-of-thumb is that the greater the fertility of the soil, the fewer plant species will establish themselves on it; and if you prefer a great diversity of species you need a poor soil. Over the years coppicing produces poor soils, and so coppiced woodlands tend to have a rich diversity of plant species. The greater the diversity of plant species, the greater will be the diversity of animals feeding on them, and since the arrival of herbivorous animals is followed by the arrival of predators and parasites of those animals, the entire ecosystem is enriched. (p.106)

So what direction do we pull in? Obviously the petro-fertiliser era is a blip which is going to end in short order, yet I’m less-than-convinced about the longterm viability of the systems that preceded it. Intentionally working to impoverish the soil? Surely sooner or later that will starve the ecosystem to death (although I’m not aware of any coppice rotations that have been stressed to breaking point in this way, even when supplying charcoal for industrial purposes). I think I agree that we have a responsibility to do right by the species we’ve in effect provided the selection pressure for over all these centuries of domesticating the landscape, whether that’s helping them adjust to the changing circumstances or, if that’s not possible, allowing them to die out with dignity. But I think the conservationists are wrong about greater fertility equating to lesser diversity. Maybe this would be the case in the short term, but after a while I expect it will simply be a different kind of selection pressure leading to an explosion of diversity in the more nutrient-hungry plants. How many different hybrid forms of Bramble, Nettle & Dandelion are there already in existence?

Fire-setting is another case in point. From what I’ve read it sounds like N American Indians burned grasses and forest understory purposefully to release the nutrients locked up in the standing dead plants, changing them into a form that was bio-available to the herbs, shrubs and annuals that would be growing on that spot by the next season. This was also an active selection for plants that provided edible, medicinal and other uses for the Indians (and, I assume, for the wildlife they shared the habitat with). It would be interesting to know the mix of woodland plants in Paleo/Mesolithic NW Europe – whether fire management caused this to differ in a similar way. A local conservationist has told me to look for Nettles and Brambles growing in places where our group had previously set fires in old coppice woodland, due to the nutrients released in the wood ash.

Over all it seems to be the case that humans are associated with enriched fertility in soils. That’s one line of archeological evidence for habitation by prehistoric man – at least in Europe you find seeds or pollen grains of Nettle, Plantain, Goosefoot and other associated ‘weeds’. We pitch camp somewhere for the season, eat, shit, do some burning and maybe a bit of gardening before moving on. My best nettle crops have come from places disturbed by people (the very best being where those people fenced off special areas in parkland for their dogs to come and do their business in the times before the ubiquitous small black plastic bags – mmm, dog poo nettles…) Anyway, the main problem with coppicing and other woodland management seems to be the same old civilisational problem of exporting resources far away from their point of origin. If people lived in the woods, building homes, cutting fuel, crafting necessary artifacts from the trees around them, and letting it all rot down on site, I think that could lead to a thriving & enriched ecosystem, supportive of a wide variety of plants and animals.

The Revolution comes to Britain

April 24, 2012

Forgive me for posting another video (I’ve got quite a bit of original stuff waiting on the production line but am having some trouble engaging the machinery needed to crank it out) but last night I watched the second episode of ubiquitous Scot, Neil Oliver’s BBC series, ‘A History of Ancient Britain‘, and thought it provided a pretty decent exploration of the arrival of intensive agriculture in the British Isles some 6,000 years ago – an important subject to me for obvious reasons. Anyway, some kind soul put the whole thing up on youtube, so when you’ve got an hour to spare…

I wasn’t aware of the theory about multiple ‘first contact’ with farmers in Kent, Ireland and even the Orkneys (voles in grain sacks, you say? – well okay, unless they arrived on driftwood or hitched a ride with a friendly eagle), or that the Carnac stones in Brittany were put in place by hunter-gatherers in the Mesolithic (‘We will be remembered’, eh? – reminds me more of the civilised preoccupation with stamping a mark on the landscape in the form of dead monuments rather than preserving a living legacy in thriving ecosystems, but I could be wrong…)

I spotted the old trope of hunter-gatherers ‘struggling for survival’, even alongside evidence of the backbreaking nature of the farming lifestyle – cutting down all the trees, killing all the wild animals & plants, building walls to protect livestock, yearly ploughing, the ‘daily grind’ of an hour or more of processing wheat for a family’s daily bread, the insecurity of next year’s crop being dependent on this year’s harvest…etc. He also says they stuck to the coasts and waterways and perceived the forested interior as a ‘dangerous, forbidding world’ [8:06] after making it clear that they derived a large proportion of their subsistence from hunting woodland animals and saying himself that ‘these people didn’t just live close to nature – they were part of nature’ [2:36]. I would’ve thought it was the farmers who were far more likely to see the forests in that way. As Luther Standing Bear put it:

We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, the winding streams with tangled growth, as ‘wild’. Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness’ and only to him was it infested’ with ‘wild’ animals and ‘savage’ people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery.

Although he does his best among the Carnac stones and with the meditation at the end on how ‘sad’ it was that the farmers were trying to ‘separate’ themselves from the wild, undomesticated world (or rather, I would say, trying to impose their way of doing things and thus destroying that world), I thought Oliver’s account was rather ’embedded’ in the experience of those oh-so courageous pioneer farmers. He could have looked at examples throughout the historical record of clashes between hunter-gatherer and farming cultures to convey the likely attitudes of prehistoric British tribes towards the people clearing the land of all the species necessary for their subsistence. I even saw an exploration of this on the BBC in the form of Marco Bechis’s film, ‘Birdwatchers’, about the struggle of the Guarani Indians in Brazil who are in the process of being displaced from their land by cattle ranchers and sugar cane farmers:

I was struck by the stark contrast in the visuals throughout the film of lush, green rainforest on the one hand next to bleak, brown farmland on the other. There must have been a similar disparity between the early wheatfields and stone-walled livestock enclosures of Neolithic Britain and Ireland and the vast, peopled Wildwood they too were setting out to conquer. At one point in the film a Guarani shaman instructs his pupil to not eat the meat from a domestic cow the tribe has just poached, because such a beast does not belong to that landscape in the way that the rainforest species – considered brothers and sisters by the Indians – do. After showing us [55:33] the difference between the ankle bone of domesticated and wild cows in prehistoric Britain, I wish Oliver had followed in the footsteps of Jared Diamond and Weston A. Price in showing us the difference between domesticated and wild humans. Is the evidence here consistent with evidence around the world indicating that hunter-gatherers lived longer, were taller, healthier, stronger, less stressed, more … human than their genetically identical farming counterparts? Who most truly belongs to the British landscape; to any landscape – Homo sapiens domestico-fragilis or Homo sapiens neo-aboriginalis?

(hat-tip to C)

Altogether, though, I want to applaud Oliver’s effort here in shedding light on this important transition, putting modernity into its ancient context and going some considerable distance towards rescuing what was surely an epic, richly meaningful drama from the precious few scraps of evidence that survive.

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):

https://i2.wp.com/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!

Early Autumn Wild Food News Bulletin

September 19, 2011

Everything does seem to be coming on thick & fast at the moment! I only have about 500 photos to upload here, having gotten into the habit of taking a camera around with me and photographing plants and scenes, where before I would have just stopped a while, looked, said or thought “that’s pretty cool” and walked on. I’ll concentrate first on the food stuff going on right now or very recently to hopefully get your fire up (if you needed it) and going into wild food projects and/or experiments of your own.

1) – The basics: have I said anything about jams & jellies since this blog has been online? Ridiculous, really, considering how much time and effort I put into making them each year. It involves ::deep breath:: collecting your fruit in a saucepan, covering with water and boiling until mushy (helping this process with wooden spoon or potato masher with the harder fruits), separating pips, hairs, stones, dead bugs etc. by passing through a sieve, food mill or jelly bag, then mixing with sugar (the books say an equal weight, but I usually go for a 4:5 ratio of suagr:fruit, eg: 800g:1kg) and boiling fast until a drop of the mixture gets wrinkles on the surface when you nudge it with a finger on a cold plate. Then ladelling into jars that have been washed and sterilised with boiling water ::phew!:: (look it up if you want more details.)

Here’s one I made this year using the garden rosehips – which for some reason went squishy about three months earlier than usual – plus some larger rosa rugosa fruits and a bowlful of Hawthorn berries:

This needed quite a lot of mashing, after which it went through the food mill and then I spent the best part of an hour squeezing the maximum possible amount of liquid through a jelly bag (I hate rosehips – they contain loads of tiny hairs that can irritate your innards if ingested so you have to fine-strain them or gut each one individually with a knife and then run under a tap – but then I love the taste so what can you do?)

Books say not to squeeze the jelly bag if you want a clear jelly. To me this represents a criminal waste of fruit matter, although a compromise I’ve found works is to wait until the solid mass cools a bit, then pick a handful and squeeze inside the bag leaving the juice free to percolate through of its own accord. Another problem with rosehips is that they’re a bastard to thicken/set, especially so when you’ve processed them in several batches of water. Like many of the softer fruits it helps to mix in some harder ones like apple or haws (as above – remember their ‘crazy-high levels of pectin‘) or lemon juice sometimes helps. I boiled mine extra long this time to make sure:

Note the bigger pan: jam often gets excited in a fast boil and can spill over and make half your kitchen sticky for a week. This has happened to me far too many times than is good for my reputation to admit, and invariably leads to the surrounding air being turned blue by my cursing… It all worked out pretty well this time, though. Four jars contributed to this year’s haul so far:

Mum gets the credit for maybe half of these, which include: Plum, Blackberry, Blackberry/Apple, Damson (ugh, not ripe yet), Elderberry/Hawthorn/Apple, and oddities of marmalade, honey, ‘Cherry Plum’ (from H’s garden), Chilli and one unlabelled Misc. which came as a gift.

2) – Syrup. Pretty much the same process except you try harder to minimise the amount of solids and keep it liquid at the end by not boiling so much. Here are the various stages of my ‘Elder Rob’: first a load of elderberries popped off the stalks with a fork and washed, cooking in their own juice before being joined by handfuls of blackberries, blackcurrants, last year’s sloes from the freezer, chunks of apple and a bunch of ‘warming’ spices:

Then mashed through a sieve (I put the leftover pulp through a second time after cooking it again with more water), measured out into a bigger pan and boiled for a bit, again with 4:5 sugar, until slightly thick and ‘syrupy’, then poured into sterilised bottles and kept somewhere warm & dry.

Great for when you feel a spot of ‘flu coming on (the elderberries have antiviral properties) or you need something hot and comforting in a cold winter evening – best mixed with hot water and a shot of rum/whisky/brandy.

3) – Harvest-time! I find it very satisfying to be out and about with a shoulder bag, a knife and a few ‘just in case’ plastic bags. Not even necessarily with any plans to forage for particular items – just if you happen to find something interesting or bountiful and find yourself in the right mood to stop and harvest a few things…

…then you can stop and do so for as long as you please (not having to be somewhere else as fast as possible helps with this) and come back feeling you’ve accomplished something wonderfully simple and direct but powerful at the same time: you’ve actually ‘put food on the table’ in a way that most Breadwinners never even approach:

I gathered all this (Lime leaves, beech nuts, hazelnuts, Hawthorn- and Elder-berries) on the way back from the station over the course of perhaps an hour and a half. Processing took maybe the same again or slightly longer, leaving me with this:

Now they say that hunter-gatherers, even in the harshest environments on the planet (the only places they still exist since we farmers booted them off the best lands) can meet all their caloric and nutritional needs with an average of two hours per day of what we might consider ‘work’ (though hunting, fishing, foraging all come closer to ‘play’ in most peoples’ definitions). At times like these I almost dare to think the same would be possible here, even with a heavily degraded landscape and no tribe of many hands and much ancient wisdom to make the work lighter. How long could the above sustain me for at approximately four hours in one day? Hard to tell – there’s less volume than I would usually go through in, say, a week of farmed foods, but then it probably punches above its weight in terms of nutritional density. How sick of this would I get if I had to do the same thing three times per week? Probably not so much as I would do with farmyard chores! Also the same abundance doesn’t make itself available all through the year so this would be a time for harvesting more than to simply meet day-to-day needs. Thought experiments like these bring home to me the importance of engaging in subsistence efforts with a large group of people who pool their resources and, while they may specialise to some degree through preference or aptitude for one particular task, they would also keep the freedom to shift their activities into other spheres of differing utility to the tribe.*

4) – Chutneys. Something to do with surplus vegetables and a variation on the endless sweetness of jam. Chop everything up to your preferred fineness, fry it for a bit in the bottom of the pan, then cook in vinegar (I hear cider vinegar is best) for several hours with a reasonable amount of brown sugar and loads of herbs, spices, seeds, chopped nuts, dried fruit and anything else you can think of until it reaches the desired consistency. So far I’ve done a ‘Hawthorn, Sloe & Apple’ (Haw/Sloe + vinegar mush has to go through the food mill to get rid of the stones before you mix in any other ingredients):

…and a ‘Marrow + Omni-Veg’ (if I remember: onions, peppers, garlic, carrots, runner beans, tomato, celery, beetroot, apple with ample lovage, sage, rosemary, chili powder, cloves, mixed allspice, nutmeg, black pepper, salt as well as raisins, various chopped nuts, mustard seed … juniper berries … erm … other stuff):

5) – Other experiments. Lime leaves, as gathered above, seem to be having a second wind at the moment:

…which is lucky because I didn’t get the opportunity to try something I heard earlier on in the year – an intriguing method for drying and powdering masses of the edible leaves for use as a thickener (thanks to high mucilage content) in soups & stews and as an adulterant for flour. Apparently this comes from a French hard-times tradition, but also relates to African practices with the Baobab leaf, both of which were perhaps distilled in the ‘Creole’ cooking traditions of Louisiana that use Sassafras leaves in much the same way:

It just happens that Louisiana Creole cookery is, at its heart, an admixture of French and African cookery traditions with a few bits and pieces of native Arawak culture thrown in to the bargain. One of the mainstays of Creole cookery is the Gumbo a rich stew made with seafood, sausages and meat that, typically is either thickened with okra (from West Africa) or with sassafras leaves (filé powder) as it’s most commonly known.

The use of filé powder is always thought to be a native Arawak tradition (which it is)… But what made the use of dried and powdered sassafras leaves so acceptable. From the African slave population it’s possible to see that the use of sassafras as a thickener echoed the use of baobab leaves back home, it gave them an echo of their lost homeland.

But what about the French colonialists? Could it be that the use of sassafras leaves also gave them an echo of their homeland? Perhaps the easy adoption of sassafras leaves as a thickener in stews also provided them with a taste of home, reminding them of the use of linden leaves in their homeland. (‘Clues to Lost Recipes with Linden – A Culinary Detective Story‘)

So that’s what I’ve tried, with all of the above leaves duly dried and condensed down to this amount of powder after a minute-or-so in the food processor:

I’ll let you know how it works out.

Otherwise, this fruit leather made from elderberry leftovers might not have enough flesh in it to make it palatable, but I might break it into small chunks and turn it into fruit tea:

Also, Poppy seeds are quite fun and easy to gather (albeit rather tasteless), if you get to them before the winds! If you leave them in a hole-free bag and shake it about a bit, you’ll find most of the seed comes out and gathers at the bottom. If you want to be fastidious you can squeeze each individual poppy head over a bowl & sieve and break it apart if it feels like there’s still something in there. This was a yellow-flowered variety which apparently self-sowed itself in a neighbour’s garden. I’ve not had much luck with the wild ones you sometimes find growing on (non-sprayed) field margins.

CATTAIL RHIZOMES!!!

And I’m coming for you, Burdock (your roots, that is – as pictured on my original banner photo from, what, four years ago?):

What an abundance! I’ll try to keep you posted with any new developments over the rest of the season.

——————

* Some of these insights come second-hand from Rebecca Lerner, who has actually experimented with eating a wild-foods-only diet for a week, first on her own and then with friends helping her out – scroll down this page.

‘The Wonder of Weeds’

June 27, 2011

Frankly astonished to see this broadcast on the BBC (albeit the intellectual ghetto of BBC4) the other night:

Horticulturalist Chris Collins tells the story behind the plants most people call weeds.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

BBC iPlayer – The Wonder of Weeds, posted with vodpod

(Possibly not available to watch outside the UK. Available on iPlayer until July 2nd. Will let you know if I find it on youtube or elsewhere.) Here’s the blurb:

Blue Peter gardener Chris Collins celebrates the humble and sometimes hated plants we call weeds. He discovers that there is no such thing as a weed, botanically speaking, and that in fact what we call a weed has changed again and again over the last three hundred years. Chris uncovers the story of our changing relationship with weeds – in reality, the story of the battle between wilderness and civilisation. He finds out how weeds have been seen as beautiful and useful in the past, and sees how their secrets are being unlocked today in order to transform our crops.

Finally, Chris asks whether, in our quest to eliminate Japanese Knotweed or Rhododendron Ponticum, we are really engaged in an arms race we can never win. We remove weeds from our fields and gardens at our peril.

Remarkable to see the warfare against the non-domesticated world depicted so openly and honestly and, for me, to hear a lot of the points I’ve made here come back at me through the idiot box. Plenty of cringe-worthy moments, such as the botanist desperately trying to sell agricultural weeds as economically important and the terrifying wheat researchers engaged in the uncritically accepted Good Work of ‘feeding the world’ (as opposed to expanding the human population at the expense of the biosphere – more on this coming soon, or read the discussion I’ve been participating in on this Dark Mountain thread). Still, lots of interesting stuff & people. Well worth a watch in relation to the theme of this site.

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)