Posts Tagged ‘wheat’

Unscholarly reactions to The Parable of the Tares

May 20, 2016

I was in a church the other day and there was a reading that jumped out at me. It was The Parable of the Tares from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 13. Here it is in the King James version, with an engraving by Crispijn de Passe the elder for your viewing pleasure:

tares(‘Parabolarum: The parable of the Tares’, 1604 – source)

The same day went Jesus out of the house, and sat by the sea side.

And great multitudes were gathered together unto him, so that he went into a ship, and sat; and the whole multitude stood on the shore.

And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying […]

The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field:

But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.

But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also.

So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares?

He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?

But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.

Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.


Then Jesus sent the multitude away, and went into the house: and his disciples came unto him, saying, Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field.

He answered and said unto them, He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man;

The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one;

The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels.

As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world.

The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity;

And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear. (Matthew 13)

Now, this is my first attempt at biblical commentary so you’ll have to bear with me. Where shall we start?…

It strikes me as a rich metaphor, placing the Christian philosophy deeply in the context of an agricultural society, along with the parables of the Sower, the Mustard Seed and the Leaven which were all supposedly aired at the same seaside event, all related in the same chapter. Naturally, as one who identifies with the plant and animal species maligned as ‘weeds’ and ‘pests’, I get all hot under the collar when people dismiss them as worthless, evil (the work of the devil, no less!) and deserving of total destruction. For me this points immediately to the pathology of monoculture – the farmer’s problem based on his insistence that the land produce only one species of his choosing and nothing else. Consulting the footnotes of the Wikipedia page, I see that Jesus knew his audience and deliberately spoke in terms they would understand:

[…] while the color is local, the protagonist of the story is not a peasant like many of Jesus’ hearers; he is a wealthy landowner, whereas the farmer in the parable of the sower could easily have been a tenant farmer, a fellow peasant. Against some interpreters, peasants would not necessarily resent the figure, although they would not fully identify with him; they might recognize in the protagonist a benevolent local patron on whom they might be dependent. Peasants might even prefer to identify with characters of status greater than their own if those characters were benevolent; we often tall stories as a means of escaping and reflecting on our own social reality.

The protagonist’s authority suits him as an analogy for God. A well-to-do man would easily be a “head of household”, which figured as an illustration in rabbinic parables, and even Greek philosophers could employ a householder as an analogy for God. Given the agrarian character of much of ancient life, it should not surprise us that fields figure prominently as settings in rabbinic parables, but that their meaning is entirely ad hoc rather than standard. (Craig S. Keener, ‘The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary‘ pp.385-6)

There is general agreement that [the parable] describes a large estate run by slave labour. We need not presume that the owner is a foreigner. Jewish landlords too were quite capable of acquiring and running large estates. The intimate relationship portrayed here between the slaves and the owner, with the slaves concerned for their masters, perhaps makes Jewish slavery more likely.

‘A Jewish slave had an interest in his master’s affair, if for no other reason, because he himself was affected by the prosperity or otherwise of his master’s business. But quite apart from that, owing to the enactments of the Jewish Law and the tradition of centuries, the relations between a Jewish master and his bond servants was generally speaking, more than merely tolerable.’ (Ramesh Khatry, ‘The Authenticity of the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares and Its Interpretation‘, p.387)

The ‘tares’ are thought to refer to a plant called darnel, which closely resembles wheat until past the point where you could weed it out without damaging the roots of the crop plants. According to Keener:

Despite their willingness to try – workers regularly uprooted weeds before their roots were entangled with those of the wheat – it would be difficult for the workers to root out so many tares without damaging the wheat at this stage. They had grown enough that their roots were already intertwined with those of the wheat but not far enough that it would be easy to distinguish them from the wheat; uprooting thus might endanger the wheat. After the wheat and the darnel were grown, they were easily distinguished and reapers could gather the darnel, which did have one use: given the scarcity of fuel, it would be burned. Wheat was normally gathered and bound in sheaves, then transported, probably on donkeys, to the village (or, in this case, the large estate’s own) threshing floor, then stored. (Keener, p.387)

This growth habit earns darnel predictable abuse from those ensconced in the monocultural society, such as ‘pestilent enemy among the corn’ (Culpepper), ‘a bastard – a degenerate form of wheat’ (rabbis paraphrased by Khatry, p.37, footnoting Kingsbury: ‘This view of the Rabbis is best reflected in haggadic etymology, according to which the Aramaic word for darnel, zunin… is derived from the verb zanah, which means to “commit fornication”.’) and these lines spoken by Cordelia in Shakespeare’s King Lear:

“He was met even now
As mad as the vex’d sea—singing aloud;
Crown’d with rank fumiter and furrow weeds,
With burdocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers,
Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow
In our sustaining corn.” (link)

::Shudder:: We know about this: in order to destroy something outside yourself you first have to destroy that part of yourself which relates most strongly to it. Disavowal and denial of responsibility: “This plant has nothing to do with me; nothing to show me or teach me. It has imposed itself upon my designs totally without provocation, and my actions of cultivating the soil to favour its close cousin do not indicate any responsibility on my part or suggest any alternative course of action that I might take to procure my food. It is an evil, worthless plant and it is my duty to destroy it to the best of my abilities.” Terms of abuse of course facilitate the process of eradicating something that is seen as fundamentally Other…

Darnel hindered the growth of crops and made them fruitless. Darnel seeds ground up with wheat made the flour bitter and spoiled bread. Fungus in the darnel could cause poisoning, giddiness and vomiting. If too much of the darnel existed in flour, death could follow. It took up valuable space; but hardly had any use at all, being used mainly as chicken and pigeon fodder. Even this was not recommended. Since forests do not abound in Palestine, fuel was scarce. The darnel could be used for fuel, but it made less heat than noise! So, economically, the landowner had nothing to gain; but much to lose. The darnel-adulterated wheat would sell with difficulty. (Khatry, pp.33-4)

So, in agreement with Keener’s interpretation, when the master in the parable casts them into the fire he’s not doing it necessarily to destroy them out of spite, but potentially getting some use out of them as fuel. I’m not sure if that makes me feel any better – for the darnel or for myself on the other end of the metaphor… Is God using the burning bodies of the Damned to heat the many mansions of his house? The Problem is the Solution! Khatry continues:

Why do the servants ask about their master’s ‘good’ seed? Does not every farmer sow the best seed anyway?

The servants most probably had a hand in ensuring that the seed the master sowed was free of darnel-grains. The fact that darnel abounded in Palestine made good seed hard to come by. The following observation valid for Syrian scabious applies also to the darnel.

‘…the grains are similar to those of certain wheat varieties, and since they are reaped, threshed, and sieved together they continued to be sown together year after year, producing bitter flour and bitter bread. Sometimes the weed overwhelms the wheat, so that the farmer is forced to harvest it instead of the sown plant. This is a classic example of the conversion of a weed into a crop…’

Sieving was the most obvious way of making sure that the wheat seed was as pure as possible. The servants could have probably done it repeatedly for the sake of their master because bad seed was usually the result of insufficiently cleaned wheat grains. […] To servants who had probably sieved the seed themselves or bought the best they could find and had prepared the soil by careful ploughing (which would normally bury and kill the weeds), the emergence of the darnel would naturally surprise them and cause the to question the ‘good’ seed their master had sown. (pp.33-4)

And what of the master’s certainty that ‘an enemy hath done this’, ie: sown the darnel seeds in his pure wheat field? Is this more disavowal and denial of responsibility? By analogy does the Christian God wash his hands of the behaviour of sinful humanity even though he created us that way? I’m sure I must be missing something… Anyhow it seems in Jesus’ time this was known to happen at least in the literal sense:

[A]lthough sowing darnel is not something very common in modern, western farming, such sabotage does belong to the local Palestinian colour in which the parable abounds. We have in mind the usual village quarrels when ‘it is not uncommon for a man to have his private enemy, and for trees to be cut down and crops burnt as a result of such feuds.’ Almost as a proof of this, a man of antiquity has described how he took revenge against his neighbour.

‘I went to Abu Jassin’s kitchen garden. It was freshly ploughed. There I scattered the kusseb-seeds. The new year had scarcely come before the garden was thick with kusseb. From that day to this – it is now some twenty years – he could not plough a single furrow in it for the mass of kusseb. The olive-trees withered away…’

Sowing tares was also done elsewhere, as Oesterley reminds us, ‘Even at the present day in India one of the most terrible threats that a man can make is: ‘I will sow bad seed in your field…’ However, the most striking evidence lies in the existence of a Roman law dealing with such incidents. This law clearly assumes that sowing tares could happen ‘secretly’, possibly through a nocturnal act, as in our parable; and was not infrequent.

So, how does the master know an enemy has done it? Answer, simply because sowing darnel was a common act of revenge in his culture. It was an educated guess conditioned by the environment the master dwelt in. Although it is true that the enemy is later allegorically identified as the devil, the fact of an enemy sowing darnel is historically plausible and need not be seen as a secondary accretion to the parable. (Khatry, p.35)

tares2(Detail from Abraham Bloemaert – ‘Parable of the Wheat and the Tares‘)

It reminds me of my half-serious, slightly silly suggestion that seed bombs might be used in clandestine operations on arable fields in order to ‘diversify the monocrop’ – not something I’ve yet attempted, for revenge or any other reason(!) That would make me The Enemy, for sure. But would it be such a bad thing to have a farmer denounce you in that way? If it interrupted or even sabotaged his operation wouldn’t that create the space for some of the nondomesticated plants & animals to start coming back in? You know, the ones whose global population has halved in the last 40 years, mainly through the direct & indirect effects of agriculture? Sounds more heroic than spiteful in those terms, but I don’t know if darnel or other resourceful arable weeds particularly need any help from wild-minded humans to do their work. The farmers have already created perfectly adequate conditions for that.

Does this analogise further into Christian morality and restrictive notions of ‘sinful’ behaviour? What seeds might The Enemy be sowing in the moral fabric (tattered though it may be) of the civilised societies? Or has the attempt to banish these behaviours and attitudes created the same perfectly adequate conditions for them to thrive and multiply? I’ll leave it there and let you think about it. Feel free to leave your tuppence in the comment section. I’ll just say that I am burdened and saddened by the knowledge that the society I was born into does not view me or the things I create with the best parts of me as a worthy ‘crop’, but rather (when expressions of this come to light) as a pernicious weed which must be attacked on sight for the threat it poses to the careful, ongoing cultivation of the social field*. I must ask, though, that even if you don’t make use of these fruits at least refrain from hacking the whole growth down and casting it into the furnace. That’s my life you’re talking about.

To finish with here are a few stories from Maude Grieve’s Darnel entry in the ‘Modern Herbal’ of 1931:

[I]t may be of interest to relate an experiment made by a friend of the writer. She procured some ears of Palestine wheat and also some of Palestine ‘Darnel’ (‘tares’), for the purpose of illustrating the truth of the Parable of the Tares to her Bible-class. After sowing both kinds in a patch of ground she asked her scholars to watch the appearance of the respective ‘blades’ as they appeared. They attached small strands of wool to distinguish each. In many cases wheat grew from the tare seeds, and tares from the wheat.


a quotation from an old newspaper: ‘The Country of Ill-Will is the by-name of a district hard by St. Arnaud, in the north of France. There tenants, when ejected by a landlord, or when they have ended their tenancy on uncomfortable terms, have been in the habit of spoiling the crop to come by vindictively sowing tares, and other coarse strangling weeds, among the wheat, whence has been derived the sinister name of the district. The practice has been made penal, and any man proved to have tampered with any other man’s harvest will be dealt with as a criminal.’

What’s that Fukuoka quote about those who cultivate the soil literally sowing the seeds of their own misfortune†? The question becomes: What has the landowner and slavemaster of the parable (or by extension, God) done to earn himself such a dedicated Enemy? Sorry Christians but evil deeds don’t exist in a vacuum. Either he did something to piss off the people working for him (and what self-respecting slave wouldn’t get annoyed at their master, no matter how benevolent he was?), had a row with a neighbour, or simply mistreated the land (as monocrop farming does by definition) and reaped the consequences of his own actions.

*** Addendum the morning after ***

Second thoughts on ‘that’s my life you’re talking about’: I seem to be taking this rather personally, don’t I? It’s a bit rich coming from someone who earns his living by fostering monocultures of grass and removing unwanted plants in peoples’ gardens. Nevertheless it’s the weeds I identify with, and I have undergone something of the same experience (though not resulting in death obviously) at the hands of parents, educators, bosses, clergy, policemen and even just random acquaintances who perceived Unacceptable thoughts or behaviours in me and stepped in, unasked to weed them out. This can happen in a more gentle way, with permission granted  (someone at a Charles Eisenstein seminar I went to described the empathic listening he was trying to encourage as ‘being gardened’), but most often it comes as a violent intervention, leading to trauma and a long, slow recovery. Like a dandelion yanked out and having to regrow from a segment of root left in the ground.

Referring this back to Christianity, I see there has been an attempt to stress the interpretation of this parable as one where God is left to judge and condemn sinners, with the implication that humans shouldn’t appoint themselves reapers, gathering the tares and ‘bind[ing] them in bundles to burn them’, (as one might expect from people whose entire subsistence depends on a take-no-prisoners attitude to food production coupled with the outgrowth of cut-throat competition in the market economy) but rather allow dissenters and heretics to live alongside the True Christians. For example here’s a passage from a sermon Martin Luther preached on the parable:

Again this Gospel teaches how we should conduct ourselves toward these heretics and false teachers. We are not to uproot nor destroy them. Here he says publicly let both grow together. We have to do here with God’s Word alone; for in this matter he who errs today may find the truth tomorrow. Who knows when the Word of God may touch his heart? But if he be burned at the stake, or otherwise destroyed, it is thereby assured that he can never find the truth; and thus the Word of God is snatched from him, and he must be lost, who otherwise might have been saved. Hence the Lord says here, that the wheat also will be uprooted if we weed out the tares. That is something awful in the eyes of God and never to be justified.

From this observe what raging and furious people we have been these many years, in that we desired to force others to believe; the Turks with the sword, heretics with fire, the Jews with death, and thus outroot the tares by our own power, as if we were the ones who could reign over hearts and spirits, and make them pious and right, which God’s Word alone must do. But by murder we separate the people from the Word, so that it cannot possibly work upon them and we bring thus, with one stroke a double murder upon ourselves, as far as it lies in our power, namely, in that we murder the body for time and the soul for eternity, and afterwards say we did God a service by our actions, and wish to merit something special in heaven.

Therefore this passage should in all reason terrify the grand inquisitors and murderers of the people, where they are not brazened faced, even if they have to deal with true heretics. But at present they burn the true saints and are themselves heretics. What is that but uprooting the wheat, and pretending to exterminate the tares, like insane people? (link)

I suppose I should be grateful – instead of getting burned as a heretic in this life I get to wait until the angels do it after I die… (!) There’s still no recognition of the ‘tares’ as valuable plants in their own right. A few sentences later there’s an interesting description of how ‘the field of itself yields nothing but tares, which the cattle eat, although the field receives them and they make the field green as if they were wheat’. He’s talking about the ‘false Christians’ he perceived as predominating in the established church of his time, but I like the idea of the field ‘receiving’ the tares, even if the farmer doesn’t. It reminds us that we’re not the only ones permitted to exist on this planet, that other creatures might make good use of the plants we consider undesirable; that people left to their own devices might create beautiful things – in service of the living world, not the Monoculture.

Okay, we’ll finish the sermon with a song by George Brassens, ‘La Mauvaise Herbe’. Go here for a decent translation & interpretation.

“Je suis d’la mauvaise herbe,
Braves gens, braves gens,
C’est pas moi qu’on rumine
Et c’est pas moi qu’on met en gerbe…

La mort faucha les autres
Braves gens, braves gens,
Et me fit grâce à moi,
C’est immoral et c’est comm’ ça !
La la la la la la la la

Et je m’ demand’
Pourquoi, Bon Dieu,
Ça vous dérange
Que j’ vive un peu…”


* – For a description of how this happens in latter-day secular societies see Media Lens’ brilliant two-part ‘Anatomy of a Propaganda Blitz‘ which shows how dissenting figures and official state enemies are attacked, ridiculed and marginalised in the major media outlets, the purpose being to delegitimise criticism of – and opposition to – the corporate, neoliberal hegemony dominating the western so-called ‘democracies’.

† – ‘[W]hen you cultivate, seeds lying deep in the soil, which would never have germinated otherwise, are stirred up and given a chance to sprout. Furthermore, the quick sprouting, fast-glowing varieties are given the advantage under these conditions. So you might say that the farmer who tries to control weeds by cultivating the soil is, quite literally, sowing the seeds of his own misfortune.’ (One-Straw Revolution, p.38 – pdf)

Coming down from the mountain #2

September 6, 2013

The long awaited

Before it slips too far out the back door of my memory I’d better do a brief report back from the ‘final’ Uncivilisation Festival as organised by members of the Dark Mountain Project (the founders say it’s just the end of the ‘official’ festival as an annual event because they want to focus more on publishing the writing and other works, but others are free to organise their own events under the same banner). I missed the first one in Wales, but have attended the subsequent three at the Sustainability Centre in East Meon, Hampshire. All three have been slightly strange experiences in different ways, but over all very satisfying and good for my general mental wellbeing. The effect of it wears off in time after returning to the lowlands, but while it lasts there’s a feeling of serenity, magnanimity and generosity towards others, and a sense of having finally been listened to with the certain darker portions of the psyche brought to light and acknowledged instead of forever being suppressed and attacked – both by others and by the dominant Self. All this seemed to happen regardless of how much speaking I actually did…

One of the big selling points of the festival has been this thing of creating the space & time, as well as a particular kind of psychological opening for a certain kind of conversation to take place – a kind of talking it’s more or less impossible to find anywhere else. So the important stuff doesn’t really happen in all the scheduled events so much as in the incidental conversations that happen over lunch or by the fire or inside a hexayurt at two in the morning. While this always sounded good to me in theory, in reality it led to a ridiculously high expectation which was bound to end in frustration. Dammit, I’m a shy guy who has been routinely damaged by attempting to engage others in Deep&Meaningful conversations in the past only to be misinterpreted or rebuffed by denial, existential freakouts or personal attacks. I have responded by keeping most of that shit underground until the foundations of a solid relationship have been built, interpersonal ties have settled in and there’s enough trust to feel secure enough to embark on that Difficult Journey. Since there’s never enough time to do that in modern living I have mostly responded by keeping that shit underground. And then I expect to have the ability to blast all those barriers wide open, with no preparation or any kind of ‘halfway house’, for just one weekend among near total strangers? WTF, of course that’s not going to work!

What has happened has come in fits and starts, and the beginnings of relationships that get built on slightly via email and very occasional meetups thenafter. It’s good stuff though. Not exactly life-changing (or world-changing) in a big way, but important baby-steps nonetheless. So without further ado…

This year’s lesson was Humility. The weather kicked my ass in a big way. I was trying to be all primitive with my tarp and groundsheet (I tried making pegs out of broken twigs but they wouldn’t go in the ground until a neighbouring woman lent me her tent-peg mallet) and it was more or less okay for the Friday night, but the rain through Saturday crept in and puddled in a few places making it impossible to sleep, even fully clothed. I tried my damndest of course, even with a sore throat and a cough coming on, but gave up at about 1am with water starting to squelch around my knees. Such an idiot… I eventually got my damp stuff together and wandered to the main building of the centre, intending to sleep on a bench or something, but a guy there told me there was a fire at the woodland stage cob-walled building and I was less likely to get disturbed there in the morning. So that’s what I did, finding Chris T-T and a few others wrapping up a fireside jam. I played some L.Cohen and other songs on the travel guitar while attempting to dry my sleeping bag out on the back of a couple of chairs (moderately successful) and eventually got an okay night’s sleep  on a rather hard bench next to the fireplace. Later I heard Martin Shaw talk about his arrival that same night and his awe at the deep mists that were supposed to represent female sexual arousal or something in Chinese mythology and how there was always something to learn from the weather; something to appreciate. What a bastard…

So what things did I go to?

Friday night I watched a bit of the music in the woodland stage. The Songlines Choir made some pretty awesome sounds and had a good attitude and rapport. Marmaduke Dando’s set was relentlessly depressing but in quite a beautiful way and he holds himself and grabs your attention quite well. The folks playing homemade instruments did some interesting things and some rather limp neo-folk. Then Tom Hirons fireside tale went on for ages but was awesomely well-told and well-accompanied by Rima Staines as usual. Unfortunately my body wouldn’t allow me to stay right through to the end. Probably something to do with being up since 5.40am and working all day despite my boss originally telling me I could have the day off. Grrr…

Saturday I woke up with enough time for porridge and tea, then went to the intro talk and the next one in the main marquee ‘The Death of Nature Writing’, which was okay as far as I remember. The main point: there should be no ‘nature writing’, just ‘writing’ because everything is ‘nature’ so don’t try to parcel it off as marginal interest. I made some point in the Q&A about making editorial space for lengthy pieces because soundbites and twitter posts aren’t adequate for effectively challenging the manufactured ‘common sense’ of the status quo, which requires detailed, in-depth debunking and then regular recapitulation in order to neutralise its toxic effects. Felt a bit weird mentioning Noam Chomsky to that crowd, but I used his ‘brevity favours propaganda’ spiel as an example [quote now in comment thread].

Wanting to do something physical, I decided not to go to Gathering Night (‘A vivid imagining of how it might have been to live during the Mesolithic period’) author, Margaret Elphinstone’s talk and do wiry Brazilian, Jorge Goia’s capoeira-based ‘Games you can’t play alone’. Good fun and nice building trust with others in fall&catch style games. A couple of women fell through at or just after my point in the circle (one stands in the middle while the others support and spin them round the perimeter) because I was trying to avoid touching their breasts and couldn’t get decent purchase anywhere else. Managed to drop in on Elphinstone by the end of her talk, where my friend Nick was giving her the third degree over something-or-other. Bought her book and got her to sign it as well as getting a few leads off her for info on the Mesolithic and Hunter-Gatherer life in Britain. Seemed like a nice lady, eager to talk and enthuse even when hungry for lunch.

I stuck around for a few minutes of the ‘Taking it Home’ discussion on where now for DM, but soon decided to go to the construction of the Life Cairn in the woods. ‘What does it mean to be alive in the midst of the sixth mass extinction?’ Obviously I had to be there. It was raining and there were only a small handful of us, but we went ahead with the ritual of naming extinct species from Andreas Kornevall’s little scraps of paper. I didn’t know most of them, so it felt slightly alienated until we started talking a little about the lives of these creatures, where they were from, how they were killed off, how they affected the ecology around them while they were alive and what effects their disappearance caused. It was quite poignant and solemn in the end, with the bell ringing after each naming and several glugs of mead in a wooden Saami spoon that got passed around. Mead was supposed to represent the tears of the Earth Goddess (Freya?) or something in various Norse cultures. Definitely a valuable thing to do. I didn’t realise the Galapagos giant tortoise was totally extinct. I asked what it meant to mourn the passing of species with whom us civilised humans have no ecologic relationship with, but I wasn’t really expecting an answer and didn’t really get one other than an acknowledgement that it was a good question. It was more a statement of exasperation anyway. By the twisted values of civilisation the extinction rate is actually a measure of success as more land comes under sole cultivation for the human demand and the biologic wealth swells in the storehouses, stolen from the others who must now starve to death.

I went on Fergus Drennan’s wild food walk, which was good although he recapped a lot of what I saw him talk about two years previously in exactly the same spot. I told him I’d send some money to support his proposed ‘Wild Food Year‘, which looks like it could turn up some really interesting things.

Next, more humility as Naeem Akram put us through our paces and basically told us that everything about how we stand, move, walk and run is wrong and has been fucked up by shoes and other aspects of civilised living. We went for a barefoot run in the rain and I learned that landing on the balls of the feet, as I’ve been teaching myself to do for the last couple of years in an attempt to do away with the damaging heel-strike, might not be appropriate for walking and jogging (although perhaps for sprinting) as it can seize up the calf muscle and disallow the full rocking flex of the ankle joint. Seems like flat-foot landing is the order of the day, with a reduced stride length trying to keep the legs under the torso and keeping the big toe pointing forwards to keep the knee in line. Big project… Also we were all humiliated by his core strength / connective tissue exercise of lifting the whole body while face down with only the hands and toes touching the ground. He was able to lift himself bodily a good distance off the ground, while the rest of us strained and folded up at our weak points. So that’s something to work on… Damn you Naeem – I though I was good at this stuff!

The Arcadia talk was all right. Marmaduke introduced it with a reading from Kevin Tucker’s preface to the Against Civilization book edited by John Zerzan. A few people in the audience objected to the generalised ‘romanticisation’ of the primitive lifestyle which they clearly felt was more ‘nasty, brutish and short’, although they didn’t supply any contradictory evidence. My contribution was to point out the high rates of defection from early European settlements in the Americas to their native tribal neighbours – it got to the stage where they had to outlaw & punish it harshly, but whites continued to leave and never come back, even leaving wives, husbands and children behind. Clearly they knew what was good for them. I felt the urge to butt in on a few more exchanges, but held my tongue for fear of monopolising the discussion. I wish in hindsight that I’d shared more of my understanding of the spread of agriculture through Europe and its arrival in Britain, though. The discussion would have benefited from being pinned down to the specifics of this island rather than dealing in nebulous terms of civilised vs. primitive. Who were the uncivilised native people in this country? Are they still here in any form? What can we learn from them? How can we ‘go native’ ourselves without their living example to consult and emulate?

It was very surreal going from this kind of questioning to a talk by a heritage wheat farmer whose name I forget [update: his name is John Letts]. He spent the first quarter of an hour or so talking about the origins of agriculture and the domestication of wheat, airing out a lot of the usual theories and some new ones I’d not heard. He was aware of the health defects recorded in the archeology and of the ‘Diseases of Civilisation’ which were unheard of before the advent of large-scale grain consumption, and even spoke about Weston A. Price and the paleo diet, which I think he said he had tried himself (!) When pressed he admitted that he thought wheat should form only a small portion of the over all diet and not the major staple, both for health reasons and for the sake of the environment. I tried to ask about the long term sustainability of wheat farming – whether growing the plant year after year in a monocrop depletes the nutrients in the soil beyond possible replenishment – but I think my question got a bit garbled by the sound of rain hitting the parachute above our heads (plus I was getting very croaky with my sore throat) and he didn’t come up with a direct answer. Loads of interesting info though, like the prevalence of sourdough bread in medieval times; that peasants ate mostly rye with the wheat being reserved for the lords and monks or for festive occasions; that ergotism was rife but the souring process killed it off, although the ‘St. Anthony’s fire’ of the LSD-like ergot poisoning came when the peasants were given wheat bread, risen with yeast; that wheat actually doesn’t like too much nitrogen, which causes it to grow too tall and fall over (though this is good for growing thatch – a more lucrative crop for farmers to cultivate than the grain these days) – modern wheats have been bred for shortness so they don’t suffer in the same way from being drenched with petrol-based nitrates. He was also very knowledgeable about the seed-saving regulations and the predatory behaviour of Monsanto and others in trying to hook farmers and gardeners on their ‘terminator seed’ GM crops. Some really ugly stuff happening there. Also, he described industrial breadmaking as basically a recipe for widescale gluten intolerance and increased virulence in the other wheat allergies. They actually produce gluten separately and add it to the flour to make it rise quickly and conform to the fluffy texture the supermarkets have come to require. It’s all deeply fucked – see this article for example. Anyway, I had more respect for the man than I thought I would. Also I’m coming to realise that I eat a whole lot of bread and don’t seem to be able to replace it with anything else, so maybe I ought to find the best way to rewild my relationship with wheat and show some respect to the plant which, for better or worse, has gone some considerable way to making me what I am. The medieval practices certainly have a lot to recommend them in contrast to the modern techniques in fields, factories and kitchens.

I can’t remember what happened after that. There was more rain, I think, and I made dinner in a dark tent on my stove. My lighter was wet so I took the gas stove to the firepit and was about to try and light it directly from the flames when the intelligent part of me issued a cautionary alarm and I lit it with a smoldering twig instead. Got chatting to a nice young couple (I think) from near Sheffield (I think) and got them to try one of the whole acorns I had in my lentil stew after they expressed an interest. So I got to impart some of my Useful Knowledge to at least two people, and it sounded like they were keen to try out the leaching process this Autumn.

Saw some of the Uncivilised Stand-up, which was pretty rubbish although the room was in a good mood so it didn’t matter that much. I mean, not planning your act is fine, but if you’re going to bill yourself as a comedian you should at least be able to come up with a few jokes rather than sitting there like a plum and trying to get the audience to do your work for you. Anyway…

I missed the midnight ritual, which I’m told was ecstatic for some. I bet I would have hated it, just playing along with the usual phoney self-persuasion. At least the people howling in the woods for hours on end provided a welcome distraction while I was trying to fall asleep in my soggy sleeping bag (!)

Sunday was better, mostly because of the weather. I went to Steve’s ‘Full Circle’ session which relaxed a lot of mental tensions for me in a nice meditative way. My shoulders also felt better for the full-circle group massage! It followed the same pattern as the capoeira-style session in that you do the exercise and then sit down and talk about your experiences. Lots of interesting stuff came out which probably won’t sound as interesting here.

Martin Shaw’s talk was as brilliant as last year’s, what with terrific praise poems about women and breasts and a wonderful recounting of an East-European folk tale which seemed to have to do with female initiation into adulthood. Many moments of hilarity, especially when he breaks style and uses modern idioms. I failed to do as instructed and retell the story to somebody, human or otherwise, within seven days. I hope the punishment isn’t too severe…

After that I um’ed and ah’ed for a bit over whether to stick around for Shaw’s discussion or to go to the Deep Green Resistance discussion in the tee-pee. I listened to him start, but it wasn’t ringing my bells so I eventually plucked up the courage to walk into the tee-pee in my perfect attire of green raincoat, green&white checked shirt, jeans and big brown walking boots and black&green bandanna holding the hair out of my face. There were only three young guys (including the one leading the talk) in there to start with but we were eventually joined by a pair of older folk and a couple of young women. The atmosphere was surprisingly pleasant, with much of the usual DGR spiel (have a look on youtube for some talks by Aric McBay, Lierre Keith or Derrick Jensen to get the general picture) being met with understanding nods and positive discussion. The guy kept using the phrase ‘destruction of property’ which made me tense until I prompted him to explain that this wasn’t the goal in itself and it wasn’t intended to be indisciminate. I guess my reaction was on the behalf of your average Briton who actually has a little bit of property which they’ve managed to wrestle off the powers-that-be and into which a lot of their life work has been invested (I know, weird, because I don’t have anything like that myself). There was a fear-response from the older guy who insisted on telling us about this supposed new government weapon of radio towers triangulating to blow up certain areas, but couldn’t tell us why he thought this was relevant. A bit of acrimony surfaced over a misunderstanding about the relative values of taking down civilisation vs. building something that will survive its collapse and provide a home for people afterward. Withdrawal vs. combative engagement, that kind of polarity. The younger women tried to laugh it off by talking about planting radical cabbages. I spoke to the representative afterwards about the fear response, which he told me was very common. We agreed that this was probably what lay behind Alistair McIntosh’s outbursts against DGR and possibly Paul Kingsnorth’s comparing them to Anders Breivik a short while after (although he has come around a little since then). This will probably change as people find they have less & less to lose. I for one don’t give a shit about drones, internet surveillance (howya doing, all you NSA operatives?) or newfangled crowd-control weapons. The state will do what it always does – what’s new there? We, however, are responsible for our own actions, be they creative or destructive. Past a certain point I think you have to operate from the understanding that this agency is primary and everything else is reactive and secondary. You do what you have to do and others either support you in that work or they don’t, that’s all. Still, getting down to talking about how this works in practice scares the pants off me, and talking to the older lady afterwards made me realise just how far off this kind of action is for me personally. I could tell that so many things were in place and ready to go for her through a long career in activism that weren’t at all sussed out in me. An emotional readiness is necessary which, I think, has to come through a great deal of pain and grief. I bought the DGR book, which is turning into a great, albeit stark and horrifying read. Also there’s now a UK-based group who have a website here [see cautionary note in comments before you do anything hasty].

Mark Boyle’s talk was pretty cool. A very down to earth guy who also name-checked Jensen and Endgame, along with a good many others. His discussion about a wild economy was priceless: (paraphrasing) A bird doesn’t think it’s doing an environmentally responsible action by shitting on the ground. It just shits on the ground. We need to get (back) to the place where we can act like any other species and do helpful, ecologically beneficial things just because it feels like the obvious thing to do.

The final farewell with the rain tipping down on our gathering will be an enduring and fond memory, although for me the winning reaction was still one of ‘I need to get somewhere dry, fast’ rather than anything more spiritually transcendent. I caught up afterwards with most of the people I’d met and come to know a bit over the years, said some goodbyes, drank and shared some nettle beer, felt all fuzzy and empathic and soon enough it was time to pack my still rather damp things in time for the last shuttle bus back to the train station. I’m glad I managed to catch Paul Kingsnorth and say thanks for organising the festivals and starting the whole project, and that personally it had been ‘something of a lifeline’ for me in the dreary commuter-belt landscape of Tory-blue Surrey. I think that’s pretty true. It’s all well and good reading these books from far-out types in the US, but there’s a real need to connect this to something real in your own country, wherever you are. I can’t afford to move to Portland, Oregon, so I’m beyond grateful that we’re finally whipping up something similar in our own neighbourhoods. Long may it continue, in whatever new forms it may take.

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 😯 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!