At the edge of Indian Valley Organic Farm, where I teach regenerative agriculture, there is a huge coast live oak tree growing almost 50 feet tall, shading the gouged-out dry river canyon that runs behind the college farm. This totemic oak is a threshold plant, marking the doorway between cultivated row crops and the somber undomesticated coastal mountains of old California.
In the ancient Celtic language Ogham, in which each letter is linked to a plant name, the name for the letter D, duir (“oak”), also means “door,” an opening between worlds. The Maidu peoples of Northern California believed that liquid fire ran from the core of the earth to flow as molten sap in the arteries of every coast live oak tree, animating their ancestral land.
The oak is a keystone species, crucial to the pulse of the woodland and savannah ecosystem where it grows, providing sustenance and shelter for hundreds, even thousands of species. True oaks have their origin in the Eocene epoch (from 56 to 34 million years ago). Twenty-two native species of oaks grow in modern California, while the fossil record of the state shows that oaks were as dense and abundant in ancient California as they are today.&
The beginning of the 2015–2016 academic year on the farm was ushered in by Coast Miwok elder and tribal council member Joanne Campbell, who stood to teach under the broad canopy of the threshold oak. She reminded us that her ancestors had continuously tended the oak woodlands of Indian Valley for more than 4,000 years, harvesting food, medicine, fiber, basketry and ceremonial materials as well as dye plants and construction products from the heart of the oak forest.
The first residents of the oak woodland practiced a “kincentric” land ethic (a term coined by my beloved colleague the ethnoecologist Enrique Salmón), where humans and all beings inhabiting the land with them were considered kin, or relatives, sharing mutual obligation and respect. This kinship was fostered at birth and nourished throughout life by a wealth of traditional ecological knowledge and a rich diet of California native food crops, primary among them the acorn of the oak woodland. At the turn of the 20th century it was estimated that acorns were the staple daily food of more than three-quarters of all native Californians, providing a diet rich with 31 percent fat, 8 percent protein, and 54 percent carbohydrates.
In the intense drought and withering heat of this past growing season, the Indian Valley threshold oak and its kin continued to grow and thrive. By mid-November I turned my back on the parched crops of summer to gather plump fallen acorns just beyond the garden gate.
This was a solitary harvest undertaken after work, at the edge of dark. The acorns were swollen with first rain, some beginning to sprout under the rich leaf mold of their oak ecosystem. I entered the spirit of the hunt, seeking whole acorns unpierced by the damaging acorn moth. By the end of three days of earnest harvest I had collected a gleaming burden basket full of ripe mahogany acorns.
I dried the acorns on the warm tile floor beneath our wood stove, turning them slowly in the soft heat of winter’s banked fire. After a few days the acorns were cracked open, their rich blond meat pried out into a deep wooden bowl. This acorn meat was ground into rough meal and leached of its protective tannins under the slow drip of fresh cold water running all night long. I collected the leaching water in white pristine buckets that turned dark mustard gold overnight from the oak tannins.
At daybreak the leached acorn meal was oven-roasted at a low temperature. The fragrance of the oak forest, nut-brown and rich with oil and the memory of rain, filled the dawn kitchen. As the acorn meal cooled, it was mixed with ground cornmeal from the Seneca white corn we grew on the farm. Fresh applesauce and the pulp of Taos Blue Hubbard winter squash was folded in along with farm eggs and raw honey from our neighbor’s hives. We baked small thick loaves of acorn bread to share over the winter solstice with Joanne Campbell and friends of the oak woodland.
Kincentric practice with keystone species summons gratitude from the roots of the forest. The tannin-rich leach water was returned to the woodland soil, poured back on the ground under each harvested oak tree. The best acorns from these same trees were set aside to be replanted. Now, close to the spring equinox, most of these acorns have supple sprouts four inches long, topped with a banner of bright green oak leaves and anchored by burrowing roots pushing down into wet woodland soil.
All too soon, the upsurge of spring will banish me to the greenhouse to sow the seed of the first French lettuces of the new season. For a moment, though, I linger in the doorway between worlds, tasting the bitter tannin of the oak woodland grown sweet with kincentric practice.
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