Posts Tagged ‘subsistence’

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

May 3, 2015

Here’s a photo I took two years ago:


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:


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


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):


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.


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:


You little beauty!

A few words about Gaza

August 11, 2014

It’s about Land. Israel is a colonialist settler state supported by the US and the other usual western powers. It has been expanding its borders since its violent inception:

As such the plight of the Palestinians bears many resemblances to the plight of indigenous cultures across the globe, and what they’re resisting, at the end of the day, is the attempted annihilation of their culture and the termination of their way of life (if not their lives). In other words: genocide. Fittingly Israel’s most unwavering support comes from nations likewise built on the theft of land from – and the wholesale slaughter of – indigenous populations: the US, Australia, Canada, followed closely by the expansionist post-imperial states, most notably the UK (which waged its own genocidal campaigns on ‘its’ home soil against the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish as well as the English peasantry):

Bar chart showing the UK arms industry's largest export markets in 2013

Why such eagerness to supply these killers with their weaponry? UK backing of Israel goes way back, and the reasons haven’t changed. Writes historian Mark Curtis:

[I]t was argued in files from 1969 that, even given Britain’s massive stake in oil in the Middle East and the subsequent need to keep friendly relations with Arab despots, Britain’s economic interests in Israel were also a factor. The Joint Intelligence Committee reported in 1969 that:

rapid industrialisation [in Israel] is taking place in fields where British industry can readily supply the necessary capital goods … Israel is already a valuable trading partner with a considerable future potential in the industrial areas where we want to develop Britain as a major world-wide manufacturer and supplier.

Britain’s ambassador to Israel added that:

Israel is already a valuable trading partner for Britain, and … there is a high future potential for our economic relations with her … On the other hand, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion … that our prospects for profitable economic dealing with the Arab states are at best static, and may indeed over the long term inevitably decline.

If this was the case then, it is even more so now, as Britain steps up its trade with Israel, especially in new technologies. It is this priority, together with maintaining special relations with Washington, that defines Whitehall’s stance on the plight of the Palestinians. (Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, p.157)

Basically they’re white folks like us, and we can do business with them, especially if they stop those uppity Arab nationalists from trying to hold on to their own resources. In related news ‘the [most recent] Israeli offensive on the blockaded Gaza Strip has left 134 factories completely destroyed, causing more than $47 million in direct losses and rendering 30,000 workers jobless‘. In other words, they are destroying what’s left of their subsistence base, their only means of independent survival (the illegal settlements have gobbled up most of the land best suited to cultivation, and the destruction of olive groves by specially designed bulldozers has been part of the sadistic collective punishment).

You could do worse than watch this Democracy Now interview with Noam Chomsky for a little more background and honest description of what’s going on in Palestine. Here’s the key passage:

Israeli experts have calculated in detail exactly how many calories, literally, Gazans need to survive. And if you look at the sanctions that they impose, they’re grotesque. I mean, even John Kerry condemned them bitterly. They’re sadistic. Just enough calories to survive. And, of course, it is partly metaphoric, because it means just enough material coming in through the tunnels so that they don’t totally die. Israel restricts medicines, but you have to allow a little trickle in. When I was there right before the November 2012 assault, [I] visited the Khan Younis hospital, and the director showed us that there’s—they don’t even have simple medicines, but they have something. And the same is true with all aspects of it. Keep them on a diet, literally. And the reason is—very simple, and they pretty much said it: “If they die, it’s not going to look good for Israel. We may claim that we’re not the occupying power, but the rest of the world doesn’t agree. Even the United States doesn’t agree. We are the occupying power. And if we kill off the population under occupation, [it’s] not going to look good.” It’s not the 19th century, when, as the U.S. expanded over what’s its national territory, it pretty much exterminated the indigenous population. Well, by 19th century’s imperial standards, that was unproblematic. This is a little different today. You can’t exterminate the population in the territories that you occupy. That’s the dovish position, Weissglas. The hawkish position is Eiland, which you quoted: Let’s just kill them off. [“You cannot win against an effective guerrilla organization when on the one hand, you are fighting them, and on the other hand, you continue to supply them with water and food and gas and electricity. Israel should have declared a war against the de facto state of Gaza, and if there is misery and starvation in Gaza, it might lead the other side to make such hard decisions.”]

The indigenous struggle, I’m thinking, should not be seen as referring only to tribes on the frontiers of civilisation, but as something ongoing in the living situations of the poor and disenfranchised who make up the lower ranks of the civilised. At base is some element of control over your own life, which grants a certain sense of security. This might come from growing or gathering your own food or it might come from a reasonably steady job in a factory (it might have to come that way if you’ve been shunted off the land through enclosure or other means). But the powers-that-be hate this kind of independence: they want you insecure, they want you dependent – on them and the ‘services’ they provide (at such a reasonable cost) – that way they’ve got you where they want you: working your fingers to the bone to satisfy their insane fantasies of wealth, notoriety and domination*.

That’s why the phrase ‘we’re all Palestinians now’ makes sense to me.


A few more words about resistance.

Tim Holmes has an excellent article on the backlash against Lib Dem MP David Ward who made the mildest possible attempt to empathise with the Palestinian people and try to understand the motivation of those who choose violent means of resistance. He tweeted: ‘The big question is – if I lived in #Gaza would I fire a rocket? – probably yes’ and all hell broke loose in the dominant political culture with near unanimous calls for his expulsion from the party and one report to the police from Tory MP Nadim Zahawi for supposed ‘encouragement of terrorism’.

As Holmes points out this provides a textbook example of a phenomenon memorably identified in the ‘premises’ of Derrick Jensen’s 2006 book, Endgame:

Premise Four: Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims. (link)

Do I need to explain how this applies to the Israel-Palestine conflict? If you’ve paid any attention to corporate media coverage over the last few weeks you can’t fail to have noticed the prominence given to Israeli deaths, funerals, grieving relatives etc. – even when these were soldiers killed whilst invading and brutalising Gaza – and only token gestures offered to Palestinian victims with Israeli justifications and denials given full prominence (C4 news presenter Jon Snow followed an analysis-free expression of compassion for Palestinian civilians with an interview a few days later of a Hamas official which attempted to make the issue entirely about their response: ‘Why are you encouraging [Israel] by continuing to fire your ineffective rockets?’) Feelings of empathy have been shepherded towards the Israeli population suffering the indignity of air raid sirens and bomb shelters, cowering in fear from the threat of rocket attacks. “Would you put up with this happening to you in your own home?” Except it isn’t their fucking home! They live in occupied territory which was stolen from the original inhabitants. Obviously they should have known to expect some form of reprisal. Meanwhile the colossal violence meted out on their behalf apparently merits little or no empathic outreach. No shrieks of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ here. No comparison to the Blitz or the Nazi occupation of Europe. And yet we should all be worried because another reason we’re all Palestinians is that Gaza and the occupied territories are where the elites road test all their military hardware as well as their techniques for crowd control and suppression of dissent (sorry I don’t have a source for this – I’ve heard it argued in various places, with specific examples of tactics and hardware used against UK demonstrators as well as the lucrative ‘battle tested’ stamp of approval for military technology). They have it over there and soon we’ll have it over here…

So yes, resistance. Chomsky argues that the primary goal should be to minimise, or at least not worsen the suffering of the victims, but makes the crucial point that it’s not for outsiders to dictate how Palestinians will or will not respond:

it’s very easy to recommend to victims, “You be nice guys.” That’s cheap. Even if it’s correct, it’s cheap. What matters is what we say about ourselves. Are we going to be nice guys? That’s the important thing, particularly when it’s the United States, the country which, quite rightly, is regarded by the—internationally as the leading threat to world peace, and the decisive threat in the Israeli case.

But he appears to believe that strict nonviolence is the best strategy in this instance (albeit a focus on Israeli nonviolence). At least his reasons for discouraging a violent response are apparently tactical rather than ideological. Other commentators have noted the reluctance of the Israeli public to tolerate military casualties. It seems that militants have gotten better at exacting a toll on ground troop invasions – around 65 this time and not all through friendly fire for a change. Now it might jeapardise my future career prospects in politics to say this but… Good. They got what was coming to them. A soldier invading another sovereign territory on a brutal mission of collective punishment, involving shelling of schools, hospitals, mosques, UN shelters and the levelling of whole neighbourhoods, is fair game if anyone is. If higher casualty rates lead to a greater reluctance to pursue similar tactics in the future, so much the better.

But maybe that’s just me, and I leave Palestinian activists and civilians to make their own decisions and trust them to know how best to react in their situation, of which, I admit, I have only the dimmest comprehension.


* – Although, as Chomsky cautions, there are times when the occupying power might not even want you for slave labour. They might want you out of the picture permanently:

In the Occupied Territories, what Israel is doing is much worse than apartheid. To call it apartheid is a gift to Israel, at least if by “apartheid” you mean South African-style apartheid. What’s happening in the Occupied Territories is much worse. There’s a crucial difference. The South African Nationalists needed the black population. That was their workforce. It was 85 percent of the workforce of the population, and that was basically their workforce. They needed them. They had to sustain them. The bantustans were horrifying, but South Africa did try to sustain them. They didn’t put them on a diet. They tried to keep them strong enough to do the work that they needed for the country. They tried to get international support for the bantustans.

The Israeli relationship to the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories is totally different. They just don’t want them. They want them out, or at least in prison. And they’re acting that way. That’s a very striking difference, which means that the apartheid analogy, South African apartheid, to the Occupied Territories is just a gift to Israeli violence. (ibid.)

More striking visuals

January 16, 2013

via Shaun – Speaking of grass as an invasive species (see previous post), check out this video animation of changes in ‘global land cover’ over the last 8,000 years, detailing the loss of ‘natural vegetation’ during that period:

The problem remains of how to define ‘natural’. If it simply means the presence of human beings  then practically nowhere on the map should be coloured dark green even at the start because a) all the continents except Antarctica were populated by humans by at least 14,000 years ago, b) there’s no way to inhabit a landscape and not affect it and c) hunter-gatherer peoples are known to have shaped plant and animal communities, sometimes drastically, even before the onset of full-scale cultivation. If ‘non-natural’ vegetation means that native species have been gradually replaced by non-natives then this gets us a little closer to the above depiction but you then have to define what you mean by native, a task that runs into difficulties as soon as you observe that 1) no species has been around since the dawn of time and, 2) they have all come to the space they currently occupy through, if not physical migration, then a journey into existence through evolutionary design space. Also, wouldn’t you have to admit that the various crops and weeds responsible for changing these ecologies had their own native ranges? Therefore, strictly speaking, China should stay green because of its subsistence on native rice, as should the Middle East (the home of wheat and barley) and the various regions in Africa and South & Central America who developed their own crops. Maybe the best description for what is being measured here is the spread of plant & animal domestication. Again, this runs into problems of definition, given that i) low-key forms of cultivation have been around in one form or another since the dawn of humanity ii) (again) there’s no way to inhabit a landscape and not affect it and iii) where exactly are you supposed to draw the line anyway? I suppose it would correlate pretty well with deforestation too. But, dammit, where do you draw the line between ‘pristine’ forest and planted fruit & nut orchards? It would help to know what data this was based on…

Anyway, what I meant to say originally was that it was interesting to watch this while reading Marvin Harris’ classic, Cannibals and Kings, which talks about the origins of ‘hydraulic societies’ (a term coined by the historian Karl Wittfogel) in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China, each of which developed

[…] amid arid or semi-arid plains and valley fed by great rivers. Through dams, canal, flood control and drainage projects, officials diverted water from these rivers and delivered it to the peasants’ fields. Water constituted the most important factor in production. When it was applied in regular and copious amounts, high yields per acre and per calorie of effort resulted. (p.174)

These massive public works, which were necessary if the settled populations were to be fed (an important factor was the lack of opportunities for subsistence in the wilderness surrounding the floodplains – beyond a certain level of population density the people were trapped), led to the emergence of totalitarian hierarchies, enforced by bureaucracies acting out of self-interest for their share of the spoils of the wealth which was produced by the masses, most often living in a state of abject poverty a few steps removed from starvation.

Interestingly, Harris thinks that these states were initially quite self-contained and that the sickness took quite a while to reach the same ferocity in the Northern regions of Europe and Russia – a contention which the above animation seems to confirm. While he describes iron age societies in Britain, France and Germany as ‘secondary states called into existence to cope with the military threat of the Mediterranean empires and to exploit the possibilities of trade and plunder provided by the great wealth of Greece and Rome’ (p.183), the fact that meltwater and rain provided all a peasant farmer needed meant there was no need for a huge state superstructure:

Despite the rigidities introduced by serfdom into the feudal system, the post-Roman political organisation of Europe continued to contrast with that of the hydraulic empires. Central bureaux of internal and external plunder and of public works were conspicuously absent. There was no national system for collecting taxes, fighting wars, building roads and canals or administering justice. The basic unit of production were the independent, self-contained rainfall-farming manorial estates. There was no way for the more powerful princes and kings to interrupt or facilitate the production activities that took place in each separate little manorial world.

Unlike the hydraulic despots, Europe’s medieval kings could not furnish or withhold water from the fields. The rains fell regardless of what the king in his castle decreed, and there was nothing in the productive process to necessitate the organization of vast armies of workers. (pp.185-6)

Indeed, he even goes as far to say that ‘Long after the great river valleys were packed from horizon to horizon with human settlements, northern Europe stood to the Mediterranean and the Orient as America was later to stand to Europe: a frontier still covered by virgin forests’ (p.183) – forests into which they could escape if the going got too rough. At least until iron axes, saws and ploughs became cheaply & widely available enough to allow mass felling and the instatement of the open field system….

Okay, next: a cool little animation by Steve Cutts, simply titled ‘MAN’*:

And, one I’ve been saving – You know you’re making progress when a video about the chemical extermination of unwanted plants and the whole culture built around this act upsets you more than a documentary about the Nazi holocaust. Witness Dow Chemical’s 1947 advertisement / propaganda piece for 2,4-D herbicide (later used in Agent Orange as previously discussed), ‘Death to Weeds':

OMFG I nearly crapped my pants when I saw this footage in a BBC/Discovery documentary series, ‘Human Planet‘. If you think I’m exaggerating when I describe agriculture as an all-out war against the rest of the living world, just … wait for it:

(There’s some context missing from this clip. You can watch the whole Grasslands episode here, with the relevant passage starting from 24:30. Count how many military metaphors the narrator uses.) This is what I mean by my talk about ‘wealth redistribution’. Brief wikipedia research tells me that the Red-billed Quelea ‘is the world’s most abundant wild bird species’ with a total population of up to 10 billion individuals all living in sub-Saharan Africa. They feed mainly on ‘annual grasses, seeds and grain’, although they apparently feed their chicks with caterpillars & insects for a few days before switching to the seed diet. Here’s the telling passage:

Being such a considerable part of the savanna biomass, Red-billed Quelea flocks and colonies attract huge numbers and diverse types of predators and scavengers. Birds known to live extensively off queleas include herons, storks, raptors, owls, hornbills, rollers, kingfishers, shrikes and corvids. Additionally, snakes, lizards and several types of mammals, especially rodents and small carnivores, are regular predators.

And why do they form ‘such a considerable part’ of the biomass? Because human farmers have made available highly concentrated stores of food that support their population at numbers massively higher than they would otherwise be! I think there’s a message to be read in the huge swarms of these ‘locust birds': If you grain farmers keep on hoarding all of the land’s productivity for yourselves, we will be forced to descend upon you in great numbers, ruining your efforts and returning the biological wealth to those you stole it from; those who will now feed on us.

I could be wrong…

Finally, a hero:

pole-sitter(source – please ask me to take it down if it’s not okay for me to republish)

Later in the day a quick-thinking defender scaled this time not a tree but a telegraph pole on the other side of the road to where the chainsaws were felling. Work had to stop because of the potential danger and this time security climbers found it impossible to evict the defender, unable as they were to find a higher point to secure on to. Instead, a bunch of coppers closed off the road (which was unecessary, and no doubt intended to hack off the locals) and stood about ready to nick the pole-sitter when he came down. Holding out until the contractors had beaten a retreat a valiant attempt was made by supporters to “de-arrest” the defender upon his descent, but were met with the full force of sussex police, who piled out of a nearby riot van screaming “pepper spray them, pepper spray them all”, and duly dispensed their canisters. In the ruckus the pole-sitter cut open his leg and, after being nicked, was taken to hospital for 8 stiches. He was released in the early hours and, just as in the previous arrests, bailed off site. He was charged with obstruction of the public highway (that is, the same public highway that the police themselves closed…?!). (link)

Protestors are resisting the construction of a new road between Hastings and Bexhill (near the south coast of England) which will carve through a valley containing a peaceful water meadow and pockets of ancient woodland. Go to: Combe Haven Defenders for more information and to see how you can help.


* – Obligatory nit-pick: these actions do not represent all of humanity. As Daniel Quinn wrote:

Man was born MILLIONS of years ago, and he was no more a scourge than hawks or lions or squids. He lived AT PEACE with the world … for MILLIONS of years.

This doesn’t mean he was a saint. This doesn’t mean he walked the earth like a Buddha. It means he lived as harmlessly as a hyena or a shark or a rattlesnake.

It’s not MAN who is the scourge of the world, it’s a single culture. One culture out of hundreds of thousands of cultures. OUR culture.

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.

Giving Back #2 – Lessons from Burdock

March 5, 2012


It’s been over two years since I last dug up Burdock for the roots and something like five since I first started searching for this plant after seeing Ray Mears unearth some huge specimens and talk about their potential, not only as an important starch-filled survival food, but as a likely caloric staple for the hunter-gatherer cultures who lived here before farming took hold some six thousand years ago. In my eagerness and enthusiasm to partake in this (pre-)history and get my teeth into a hefty wild food that could even compete with cultivated rootcrops like carrots, parsnips & potatoes for size and bulk, I jumped in head first and ended up making my first serious foraging error – mistaking the first spring growths of Lords and Ladies (aka Cuckoo Pint) for Burdock, based on the aforementioned TV footage and a handful of pictures and descriptions I’d seen on the internet. I’d dug up a few plants that had hallelujah’d at me during a walk along the Thames near Oxford and brought them back home in my pocket. They didn’t have the same huge, deep roots, and came with a funny little tuber which I’d not heard mentioned. Nevertheless, ignoring the lingering sores on my hands (which I had attributed to unseen nettles during the digging), I proceeded to steam the stems and do a taste test on them. This was unremarkable by itself, but when I took a tiny nibble from the freshly cut, white inner flesh of the raw tuber, it was a different story. Apparently Lords and Ladies defends itself using microscopic dagger-shaped crystals of calcium oxalate interspersed between the cell walls, and these shoot out when the plant’s body is broken or disturbed, embedding themselves fairly reliably in the flesh of the hapless creature responsible for the disturbance. Youch! So after a promising initial rush of sugary starchiness while I mixed the tiny morsel with saliva in the front of my mouth and gave it a cautious nibble, my mouth started to tingle, then ache and then burn all the way to the back of my throat, even though I’d spat and rinsed with cold water almost immediately. I finally ID’d the plant correctly (thanks mainly to my symptoms) and learned that, while they do have a recorded edible use as a ‘poor man’s potato’ and of being rendered into ‘portland sago’ (a thickener akin to arrowroot) or laundry starch, this requires careful baking and/or pulping in water to destroy or denature the crystals, and when eaten raw it has even been known to cause death through inflammation of the throat tissues and subsequent asphyxiation! Oh shit… Happily the burning died down within a couple of hours so I didn’t have to get too worried in the end, but it was still noticeably sore for the following two days.

Lesson #1 – Respect the plants! Spend enough time to be able to ID them confidently and be careful what you put in your mouth!

It turns out Burdock comes up significantly later than Lords and Ladies, and I did manage to find and dig up some plants later in that same year, learning to look for the dried-out 2nd year stalks and remaining sticky burrs to indicate where I was most likely to find a community of younger plants poking through. (The plant is biennial – forming a rosette and taproot in the first year, hibernating through the winter, then lunging back upwards in its second summer with huge leaves and flowerstalk before going to seed and dying back in the autumn – and the best time to harvest the root is during the first autumn or second spring when most of the energy is still underground.) It was during this time that I found some properly massive specimens, growing in gravelly clay soils by an artificial irrigation ditch.

These gave me my first indication that it might be possible to subsist entirely off foraged foods in this country (hence the triumphal, ‘take that, surburbia!’ pose struck in that second image, my sometime banner photo for this site), especially after I got my eye in over several long-distance walks and started noticing the plants growing in large patches in many different places, especially along roads for some reason (probably having to do with water run-off and heat absorption by the dark tarmac). My eyes swelled with fatness* from seeing a new abundance of food in the landscape in this way, but I also felt a new sensitivity towards the plants themselves and a growing reluctance to swoop in and put an end to all their hard work before they even got the chance to reproduce. I couldn’t just take from these beings. Even if some degree of respect lay in the simple, very personal act of expending work calories in exchange for the carb storehouses they had established (which would then fuel more work calories…) – couldn’t a bankrobber make the same claim in defense of his actions? Just because you could do something, it didn’t necessarily follow that you should. So for a long time I avoided digging plants up or, more generally, any kind of harvesting that would prove fatal to them. A small portion of the leaves, fruits, seeds – okay; whole roots – no no, unless they had to come up for other reasons, eg: gardening operations.

Lesson #2 – Don’t kill unnecessarily. Consider the plant’s needs and, where possible, try to fit yourself around them so that both parties can get what they want.

A couple of things clicked in me over the following years. First I heard about Australian aboriginal practices of digging up edible roots and replanting the crown and the rosette so the plant would grow back again, allowing for a sustainable harvest, albeit over a long timespan. Then I saw Derrick Jensen talk about the fundamental law of the predator/pray relationship – ‘If you consume the flesh of an Other, you now take responsibility for the continuation of the Other’s community’ – and how life was only possible through this respectful bargain of looking after the land and all the species sharing the same space with you. Most importantly ensuring that the sum total of your actions contributed to the health and resilience of the community, because in the end every species gets weighed in the balance† and those that are found wanting lose their right to life and become extinct. Finally I got to grips with the notion that humans weren’t exempt from this law, and the rather counter-intuitive idea that our direct involvement, even through heavy-handed, apparently destructive techniques such as fire setting, coppicing, hunting etc, could actually have a beneficial impact on ecosystems, as well as for the individual plant and animal species concerned. As Kat Anderson put it in Tending The Wild, an exploration of land management in preconquest native Californian cultures:

Several important insights were revealed to me as I talked with elders and accompanied them on plant gathering walks. The first of these was that one gains respect for nature by using it judiciously. By using a plant or an animal, interacting with it where it lives, and tying your well being to its existence, you can be intimate with it and understand it. The elders challenged the notion I had grown up with – that one should respect nature by leaving it alone – by showing me that we learn respect through the demands put on us by the great responsibility of using a plant or an animal.

Many elders I interviewed said that plants do better when they gather them. At first this was a jarring idea – I had been taught that native plants were here long before humans and did best on their own without human interference – but it soon became clear to me that my native teachers were giving me another crucial gift of insight. California Indians had established a middle ground between the extremes of overexploiting nature and leaving it alone, seeing themselves as having the complementary roles of user, protector, and steward of the natural world. I had been reading about how various animals’ interactions with plant populations actually benefited those plants – how grizzly bears scattered the bulblets of Erythronium lilies in the process of rooting up and eating the mature bulbs, how California scrub jays helped oaks reproduce by losing track of some of the acorns they buried – and it seemed plausible that the many generations of humans in California’s past had played a similar role. If it was true that native plants did better with our help, it meant that there was a place for us in nature. (Tending The Wild, p.xvi)

I remembered that in the footage I’d seen (has anybody else come across this? I did find it on youtube a while ago, but haven’t been able to track it down for the life of me) Ray Mears had in fact made a point of planting the seeds from nearby mature plants when harvesting his Burdock root to help the plant propagate itself and hopefully replace what he had taken.

Lesson #3 – Ultimately Others have to die so that you can live. In return you have an obligation to look after their brothers and sisters and help their kind to thrive. Someday you too will die and the loan these others have given to you will be repaid in full.

This year, as part of my herbal apprenticeship, Sarah has suggested making a tincture or vinegar from Burdock and Mullein roots. Unfortunately I’ve not yet seen the latter growing anywhere near to me, but about a week ago it felt like a good time to go out hunting for Burdock again, so I grabbed my digging stick (made from a stout piece of Hawthorn), a small hand-trowel & fork and headed down to the river, where I’d gathered from successfully in previous years. Unfortunately there were no signs of growth yet in any of the usual spots, so I made do with some early Ramsons and baby Nettles, and started making tracks back home via a different route. All of a sudden, in a sunny patch by the side of the path, I spied some old flower stems, and – hooray! – some of the flannely, white-bottomed leaves just starting to emerge from the sandy soil in several places nearby.

(Note the shiny, darker green leaves of Lords and Ladies in the top right of the picture.) I judged that there were enough new plants to spare three for my purposes, so I selected a small group suitably close together and set about digging my trench.

The digging stick did most of the work in loosening the soil for me to scoop out with my hands, but there were several tree roots that impeded my progress and the hole started to get too deep for convenience. I think a long-handled fork would have sped things up considerably. In the end I think it took me 1/2 to 3/4 of an hour to get more-or-less to the bottom of the three roots and pull up the best part of them.

It was hard, sweaty work! A few horseriders and dogwalkers came past during this time, which made me slightly nervous because technically I think you need permission from the landowner before uprooting any plant in the UK. Because this was beside a public footpath I didn’t know who to ask, so I went ahead and assumed it was okay as long as I tidied up after. Who within a ten-mile radius, apart from me, considers Burdock anything other than a noxious weed, if they even can even recognise it in the first place? Hopefully the above writing should make it clear why I disagree with Richard Mabey when he instructs his readers:

Never pull up whole plants along any path or road verge where the public has access. It is not only anti-social and contrary to all the principles of conservation, but also, in most places, illegal. (Food For Free, p.23)

(Honestly, I don’t care what the current lot of bandits and gangsters ‘in charge’ of this country have defined as ‘illegal’, and generally view these as suggestions that I’m free to ignore as long as someone isn’t actually there & prepared to back up the law with violence or the other usual forms of coercion.‡) Anyway, luckily they didn’t seem to mind, and appeared interested when I explained what I was doing. When I was done I scooped all the soil back into the hole, tamped it down a little, seeded it with a few handful of burrs and covered it with a loose mulch of leaves and twigs, making sure to thank Burdock for its generosity, explain my intentions and promise that I would be back in the future:

Can you tell anyone’s been there? It occurred to me that loosening the soil in this way would ease the growth of any new plants germinating either from the seeds or the remaining chunks of root. In time, if I continued to frequent the patch, digging up a few plants here & there maybe every other year, my activities would change the growing conditions for that whole plant community, perhaps leading to larger, fatter roots or more vigorous above-ground growth. A low-key form of cultivation that would truly tie my well being to the plant’s existence (as Kat Anderson would have it), taking the form of a mutually beneficial longterm relationship. Anti-social, my arse!

Back home, after a couple of days I got round to scrubbing one of the roots, slicing it up, leaves’n’all in the food processor and dunking it in vinegar for a liver-supporting tonic that should be ready in a month or so:

(Note the dark ‘ring’ in the cross-section, which I’m guessing marks the end of the first year’s growth as it does in trees.) The following morning I sliced up another half-root’s worth to go into a breakfast fry-up:

(Ingredients: eggs, bacon, onion, red pepper, beechnuts, nettles, linseed, butter all fried together, plus tea, toast, tomatoes, salt, pepper, herbs, ramsons butter, nettle infusion. Mmmm…) The root has a very distinctive smell when freshly cut. A sharp, slightly abrasive smell at the same time earthy and musty that seems to reach deep into your throat and lungs. Like it’s angry about being exposed to the air. The taste is more pleasant – vaguely nutty and radishy raw, more bland when cooked. I slice it at an angle to get bigger chunks and make chewing easier, as the fibres get tough and stringy length-wise, given half a chance (although I’ve seen a recipe that called for ‘julienne’-style matchsticks).

There’s a fourth lesson Burdock has played a part in teaching me, having to do with those greed-swollen eyes I was talking about, but I’ll tell you about that some other time. It has to do with Civilisation’s love affair with carbs and the kind of work they, uniquely, can provide the fuel for. Suffice it to say I’ve grown disenchanted with simply attempting to find alternative kinds of food to feed the slave classes…

If you want to read more about the medicinal side of things, I recommend you read about Home-Sweetening Christine’s experiences with Burdock and check out this comprehensive page of info. I’ll report back in a month or so about how I get on with the vinegar infusion. PFAF go into some of the other edible uses for the aboveground parts.

I wish you luck and excitement as you get to know this remarkable plant.


* – Psalm 73

† – Daniel 5 (dunno why all these biblical references are springing to mind – maybe because it’s Lent?)

‡ – As I’ve written elsewhere, ‘People (or a class of people) who have degraded and brutalised the landscape so comprehensively over the last few centuries/millennia have no business telling the rest of us how, when (or if!) we will relate to the land.’ See also Banksy’s comments on advertising, where he writes:

You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.

(which strikes me as an appropriate attitude towards most landowners) … and finally Umair Haque’s handy little saying: ‘If you want to live an empty life, follow the rules.’ (thanks Vanessa)

Acorns & Good Times Bread

November 17, 2011

As promised, I here present Ian’s step-by-step guide for processing acorns. If you like, watch this Ray Mears video to get yourself in the mood (starts at 3:36; continues in pt.2 from 8:34):

Step 1 – Gathering. Find a tree! Not all Oaks will crop heavily (and if it’s not a ‘mast’ year you might struggle to find a single acorn). As previously discussed your best bet will be to find a specimen with lots of space around it and a canopy open to the sun, especially on the South facing side. Stand-alone trees or those on the edge of woodland normally produce more nuts than those in the middle of the deep, dark forest. Some of the best I found this year – a) in front of H’s driveway:

b) a young fella on the common, branches still low enough for me to climb up into him and do a ‘shakedown':

c) a gaggle on a golf course:

d) street-corner guardians:

(I think these were all English/Pedunculate/Common Oaks, Quercus Robur, though I’m not sure I could differentiate this from Britain’s other native Sessile Oak, Q. petraea. Not that this would matter particularly as, while more bitter than their managed American or S. European cousins, the acorns of both species are equally edible after processing.) You should be able to find at least one tree that drops a good quantity of large, sound acorns. As you can see from the above pictures, it’s useful if the ground is reasonably clear, but also soft enough to not damage the nuts after their fall from a great height. Tarmac makes things easy, but a lot of the acorns from tree a) and other ‘street trees’ I gathered from had extensive ‘bruising’ where the nutmeat had hardened and blackened at the point of trauma and along fracture lines. This got progressively worse the longer I kept them before processing, I assume because the black colour is caused by oxidisation which is limited when the whole nut still has its thin inner skin surrounding it. I’m not sure if the hardened/blackened acorns are unusable (I spent quite a while cutting out the ‘bad’ bits just in case) but I found they were also the most likely to spoil and/or go mouldy.

Gathering was speediest throwing handfuls onto a tarp or jacket before funneling into a plastic bag, but just placing them in the bag directly worked out fine too. I did try raking directly into bags, leaf-litter, twigs & all, but this just meant I had to pick out the good nuts back at home anyway. It doesn’t matter if the acorns have been lying under the tree for quite a while – the hard outer shells are designed to last them through the winter before weathering finally wears them down enough for the sprouts to push through in the spring. They also protect against insects, moulds, bacteria etc. but not small mammals who sometimes take a nibble (or, if you’re lucky, large ones who eat them whole). A little ‘rain leaching’ might give you a head start for Step 5 too! However watch out for little holes in the acorns – these are the work of the acorn weevil which uses sharp mandibles to chomp into and lay eggs in the acorn when it’s still young & tender. A little white grub then gorges on the nutmeat for the next couple of months before chewing its way out and trying to find somewhere safe to pupate. Sometimes you’ll catch these little blighters in the act – probably giving them the fright of their lives! – inside acorns you previously thought were sound. Unfortunately they don’t leave much for you, but they make a good snack for the birds (or maybe they’d be tasty if you fried them up directly?) Otherwise I tend to only go for the dark brown glossy nuts, just because they somehow look more ‘healthy’ to me, even though they dry to the same light tan colour after a couple of weeks in storage. I also avoid cracked or damaged shells as these won’t keep so well. Here’s a load I picked up just yesterday afternoon from around tree d). It took me around twenty minutes to gather just under 8kg:

Step 2 – Storage.

Keep in a warm, dry place, preferably in open-sided containers that allow the air in to circulate. If the nuts were particularly sodden when you picked them up, maybe give them a head start against any cheeky moulds by putting them in a low oven or up against a radiator for a spell. If you want to make acorns your staple food you might have to take this part a bit more seriously:

My family and I have been known to gather tons of acorn. In the past my Great Aunt Mary had a room in her house where we would deposit all of the acorn we gathered. This was a 10’x12′ room, with a four foot board across the doorway. This room was always full of acorn. As children we used to fight for the right to jump into the acorn and stir them up. Anyone bigger than a child would crack the hulls. This had to be done twice a week so that moisture didn’t build up and that the acorn dried properly. Traditionally our people stored acorn in ‘Chukas’, acorn graineries made of cedar and California laurel. These are cylinder in shape and raised above the ground on stakes about three feet. Lacking a spare room for my acorn, I store mine in gunny sacks and hang the filled bags from the rafters in my garage. My sisters living on the rez, use the huge army surplus bins my parents bought. They keep them covered and stir them twice a week. No matter how you store your acorn it is essential that you add a generous amount of California laurel with the nuts. Laurel or bay leaf is a natural insect repellent and keeps the bugs away from the acorn. […] We let the acorn dry or season at least for a year, this assures that the nuts are well dried. (Kimberly R. Stevenot, Northern Sierra Miwok – link)

Step 3 – Shelling. This is a pain if you try to do it straight away with fresh acorns. If you let them dry for a bit the nutmeats shrink away from the outer skin, allowing you to open big cracks along the length with a quick hammer-blow to the head, which then makes it easy to prise the innards out whole with a knife. Here’s a picture of my set-up, along with my favourite anvil:

This part of the process takes up the most time. I like sitting down in the evening and listening to music, watching online documentaries or crappy comedy shows on the TV while I do this. It gets nice & hypnotic after a while… Mind your fingers!

Step 4 – Grinding. I ‘cheat’ and use a food processor for this stage. The idea is to increase the overall surface area in preparation for Step 5, which will go faster in relation to how fine you grind the acorns. I like to leave them in rough milimetre cubes, as I’ll be fine-grinding them later anyway and hopefully would like to keep some of the nutrients in there in the meantime. Of course, I’d prefer to do this part ‘aboriginally’ but on my own it feels too much like hard work. Apparently acorn-based ‘balanocultures’ used social technology to lighten the load:

At the edge of the village a group of women sit together grinding acorns. Holding the mortars between their outstretched legs, they sway back and forth, raising the pestles and letting them fall again. The women are singing together, and the pestles rise and fall in unison. As heavy as the pestles are, they are lifted easily – not so much by muscular effort, but (it seems to the women) by the powerful rhythm of the acorn-grinding songs. The singing of the women and the synchronized thumping of a dozen stone pestles create a familiar background noise – a noise that has been heard by the people of this village every day for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. (Malcolm Margolin, quoted in Suellen Ocean’s Acorns And Eat’empdf)

If you want you can keep the nuts whole, as the ancient Europeans appear to have done (ibid.), although this will leave you with a different foodstuff at the end.

Step 5 – Leaching.

Soak the acorn meal in cold-tepid water to leach out the tannins, using a thin-weave material to keep the solids separate (I used an old pillowcase). Change twice a day until the water stops turning a deep brown and/or the acorns lose their bitterness. This can take from 3 days to over a week. You can speed up the process by using boiling water which you pour off repeatedly, but cooking denatures the starches/sugars, and you’ll also lose much of the oil content, so I prefer not to. Other methods vary from dunking the meal in a stream as Ray Mears does in the above video, burying caches of whole acorns in boggy ground, cooking in a ‘lye’ made from the wood ash of deciduous trees or with iron-rich soils/clays, and even putting them in the (cleaned) cistern of a flush toilet 8O Other Native American methods include pouring water onto ground acorns in a sand ‘colander':


And this one, which I probably won’t be trying:

The aboriginal people of the Columbia River valley used urine to cure acorns. The settlers of European origin in that region gave the dish the name Chinook Olives. About a bushel of acorns were placed in a hole dug near the entrance of a house. The acorns were then covered with a thin layer of grass and then 6” of earth. Every member of the family regarded this hole as the special place of deposit for his urine, which was on no occasion to be diverted from this legitimate receptacle. In this hole the acorns are allowed to remain four or five months before they are considered fit for use… the product is regarded by them as the greatest of all delicacies. (‘Indigenous Acorn Facts‘)

If you want you can leach the acorns whole, just pouring the water off and re-filling. This will take a lot longer, though (unless you use boiling water). Mine started to bubble and smell slightly ‘fermented’ after about five days, so I finished them off with a slow roast in the oven:

They are tooth-breakingly hard by the end, but cook up to an acceptable squishy texture in porridge (and – I’m guessing – in stews, soups, etc.)

Step 6 – Drying, re-grinding. If you want to keep the acorn matter for a long time and don’t want to use it immediately as a ‘mush’ or in a soup etc. then you’ll need to dry your acorn grounds. If you get freakishly lucky with the Autumn weather you can leave this job to the sun, but mostly I have to put them in a low oven for a couple of hours to speed up the process.

They will tend to clump up during this stage, no matter how finely you ground them originally, so if you want a flour (as opposed to ‘grits’) you’ll have to grind them again. Tip: you can often find old-style manual coffee grinders in charity shops.

Leave out someplace warm & dry for another day or so to evaporate the last bits of moisture, then store in glass jars or paper bags. Some people say the fat/oil content will make the flour go off after a couple of months, but I still have some left over from my first experiments over two years ago, and it still looks and tastes just as good as it did back then. Maybe the final heating in the oven stabilises it somehow?

Step 7 – Eat! Most people say to treat it like corn/maize flour, for example mixing it 50:50 with regular flour to make breads, muffins, pancakes, tortillas…etc. It doesn’t contain gluten so will need to be mixed with something else that does, or with a different ‘sticking agent’ (e.g. egg). It’s a lot denser than wheat flour, so if you’re using it to make bread you’ll need much more yeast to make it rise – my one attempt at a 50:50 loaf two years ago, while deliciously rich & nutty, did not rise at all.

This year I’ve had some success with a recipe for ‘Hard Times Bread’ from The Wildfoods Cookbook by Joy Spoczynska, which she ‘unearthed’ from ‘an eighteenth century cookbook’ that traced the recipe back to ‘early pioneers in America’. She says they turned to it ‘when wheat flour was difficult to obtain or cost more than the pioneers could afford’. I’m guessing they adapted this from the Indians.

Naturally I want to change the name to break the association with famine and last resort measures to stay alive, and present this instead as a desirable alternative to the Staff of Death Bread made from farmed grains. Sure, it takes less effort for us affluent first-worlders to work a wage-job and buy a sack of flour from the supermarket, but this embeds us in an exploitative system whereby someone else, human or non-human (including the chemical remains of long dead non-humans) has been enslaved to do all the work in our stead. It’s easy, from our ‘privileged’ position, to forget just how hard it is to get something resembling food from the annual grains. Try to bake your lawn, or just watch this guy go about his business (sorry about the background music – mute and try this as an alternative):

Then have a look at this and ask yourself where the astronomical quantities of energy have come from to build, operate and maintain all those machines:

Suddenly, simply letting trees grow and crop in the Autumn for you to harvest and process through the above steps doesn’t seem so inefficient or energy-intensive, does it? Yes, you’ll find it hard work if you never had to take care of your own subsistence needs before, but I bet even ‘Seed to Loaf’ Steve would back me up in saying that we miss out on basic feelings of satisfaction from leaving this most fundamental biological activity for other people to sweat over. Also, as the wise people say: No security without food security. In other words if you depend on getting flour (or any other staple food) from the supermarket, that means they’ve got you by the balls/ovaries – you’ll comply to the demands of whoever controls the price of wheat because you have to eat. Unless you have another option…

So without further ado, here’s my adjusted recipe for ‘Good Times Bread’ – I’ve halved the original quantities:

Ingredients: 250g acorn flour, 50g maize flour, 2 tbsp butter, 1 egg, 1 tsp salt, 150ml buttermilk (or regular milk mixed with 1 tsp lemon juice or vinegar and allowed to sit for 5 minutes), 1/2 tsp baking soda (sodium bi-carbonate)

Step 1 – Sift the flours, salt and baking soda together, beat the egg and melt the butter in a frying pan (preferably cast iron) or griddle.

Step 2 – Gradually mix in the buttermilk, followed by the butter and lastly, the egg. Knead until ‘of a fairly soft dropping consistency, like a very stiff batter, but not sloppy’ (Spoczynska, p173).

Step 3 – Squish into balls and flatten on a level surface to desired size & thickness. Then add a bit more butter to the pan and cook on a medium-high flame, flipping to the other side after a couple of minutes when it turns slightly golden-brown.

Et voila. More than enough for a hearty breakfast to keep you going through the day:

These, unsurprisingly, had a delicious roast-nuttiness to them and the texture of a heavy scone. The salt made them a bit too savoury for jam, though – a later experiment with added brown sugar, chopped walnuts and dates went down a treat. I’m not sure how long they keep, but I was putting these in the toaster and they were still tasty after three days.

Aboriginally, I would be inclined to roast them by the fire on a flat stone like these guys:

For more inspiration and recipes, check out these sites:

Finally, submit your own acorn experiments to Butterpoweredbike’s ‘foraging recipe challenge’ on the Hunger and Thirst blog (thanks Annie!) Looks like there’s some great stuff up there already – I don’t think my ‘back to basics’ approach stands much of a chance of winning though…

So that’s about all I’ve got for now. Hopefully this didn’t come too late to fire you up in time for this year’s harvest. If you’re visiting SE England, I’ve still got plenty of acorns you can come help me process :) Email address buried in the comments on the ‘About’ page…

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):

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.


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.


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