Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Black Walnut

A cluster of 2 Black Walnuts
This weekend’s high winds knocked many of the Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) out of the trees and prompted me scurry around like a squirrel and stash a bunch of nuts for the winter. Continuing in the vein of last month’s posts on Manchurian Walnut (Juglans mandshurica) and Japanese Walnut (Juglans ailantifolia var. cordiformis), I thought I would start with a detailed description of the species.

Deep braided fissures of Black Walnut bark
Notice the fine hairs in the vein axils
Black Walnuts are the largest of 6 species of walnut that are native to North America, often reaching 130 feet tall. They are frequently planted outside of their native central and eastern US range, and it not uncommon to find them scattered throughout our region, especially east of the Cascades next to farmhouses, and in parks and yards. Black Walnuts have brownish grey bark with braided fissures. Twigs are also brownish grey with sporadic small lenticels and heart shaped leaf scars. The pinnately compound leaves are 8 to 24 inches long with slightly hairy petioles, especially near the base. Each leaf usually has 15 to 19 lanceolate leaflets that range from 2-6 inches long and roughly ¼ as wide. The terminal leaflet is very small and sometimes absent. Leaflets are often slightly curved and have serrated margins; the upper surfaces are smooth except for small scattered hairs on the veins, and lower leaf surfaces are minutely hairy, but more conspicuously so at the axils of the leaf veins. Fruits are spherical, 1.5-3 inches wide, and are typically found in clusters of 1 or 2 but sometimes in groups of 3. 

According to the US Forest Service Silvics Manual, Black Walnuts do not produce heavily until they are over 20 to 30 years old, at which point you can anticipate good nut crops 2 out of every 5 years. They fall in September and October about the same time as leaf drop, and I think they look like small green tennis balls before their hulls blacken and shrivel.

Several bags worth of walnuts in a pile
I have never been able to collect Black Walnuts in very large quantities, but this year I found an irresistible tree only 3 blocks away from my house that had dropped a thick layer of walnuts all over the street and sidewalk. I grabbed a large paper bag and my camera and headed down the street to pick. 5 minutes later, my bag was full! I dumped it out in a pile and filled it up again… and again… and again. In just a few hours, I could have easily filled my pickup truck with walnuts from just one tree if I had permission from all the adjacent landowners and if all the walnuts were on the ground.

The husks break off easily when you stomp on them.
Already having more than a year’s supply, I stopped collecting and started processing. I spread the walnuts out on the concrete and stomped on them to break open their green husks and reveal their fissured walnut shells. The husks are very resinous and quickly stained my hands, shoes, and anything else that touched them, an iodine color. I spread my Black Walnuts out on baking sheets to slowly dry in the shell. In a few months, I will crack them with a hammer and do a taste comparison with the other species of walnuts that I have been fortunate enough to collect this year.

After removing the husk I lay my walnuts on a baking sheet to dry
Husk, shell, and nutmeat comparison for 3 species of walnut

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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Hunting for a Sense of Place

Awaking well before sunrise, I slid out of bed, ate a light breakfast, and slipped quietly from the house. The cool moonless sky greeted me; stars were twinkling over the faint city glow. After three days of stormy weather, this clear morning was an unexpected surprise. Getting into my truck, I noticed Orion twinkled brightly overhead and smiled to myself, thinking of our shared purpose. A few bullets, my grandfather’s .270, an orange vest, hunting license, a knife… I went over the things I needed for my food harvesting mission. I was ready.

Driving east out of town, the road was empty underneath the orange vapor of the street lights. I couldn’t help but remember the years I used to wake up in the dark and run under the same lights to the YMCA to workout with my Dad before school. I crested Alabama Hill and headed around Lake Whatcom, past the house I grew up in with the now neglected hedge I used to have to trim, past the homes of several successive best friends, and past the wind hewn sandstone caves overlooking Agate Bay that I used to ride my bike out to and imagine camping in.

I turned and drove up into the hills above Lake Whatcom and parked my truck beside a gated logging road. It was still completely dark, but having walked the road a couple days earlier in the light, I didn’t feel the need to use a flashlight. I walked ½ a mile along the logging road, climbed up through a recent clear-cut, and found a spot to stand at the edge of the forest in an area where I had seen fresh deer tracks and browse a few days earlier. Silently, I watched as the sky lightened, the stars faded, and the ground around me begin to take shape. A Barred Owl hooted in the distance and a slight breeze loosened yesterday’s rain drops from high in the trees behind me, causing them to patter sporadically in the darkness. A delicate fog drifted across the clearing and slowly melted into the ground as twilight faded into morning.

High above, a Raven cawed, as if proclaiming my presence to the world. Coarse wing beats carried the black form across the soft gray sky, and then it circled and called rapidly above the middle of the clearing. Was this a sign? Berndt Heinrich writes about Ravens helping Wolves find deer, and Sam has noticed unusual behavior among the birds before kills. No deer were in sight, but perhaps around the corner…. 5 minutes later, I heard a long flat call that didn’t sound like any bird I knew and then in another 5 minutes, movement! I slowly raised my binoculars. Three Black Tailed Deer were working their way along the edge of the forest. The lead, a 2 point buck was just entering the forest. The other 2 trailed by 20-30 yards, and I couldn’t immediately tell if they had antlers or not. I slowly lowered my binoculars and the lead buck flapped his ears and turned to face me. I paused and the buck resumed its slow progress through the forest. I slowly reached for my gun, and raised it to follow the buck, but it was too far into the shadow of trees to risk a shot. I was going to have to move.

I lowered my gun, pulled off my shoes, and started stalking the deer. 10 slow steps later, I caught a glimpse of the deer’s tail as it flashed and trotted deeper into the forest and over a small hill. The forest floor was soft with fresh rain and I quietly crept amongst the Sword Ferns towards the top of the hill. My plan was to crawl to the crest of the hill, and hope to get a shot at the deer on the other side, but the way ahead was strewn with dead branches and I realized that I wasn’t going to find a silent path through. I crouched down and decided to take another look at the two trailing deer. They were nervously following in the footsteps of the lead deer and I was now in their path. As they approached, I noticed short antlers, which meant that I could legally hunt them in this area. I quietly chambered a round and waited to see what would happen. The first of the two crossed my path not more than 30 feet away, sniffed at the ground, paused, studied me briefly, and then continued on.  I raised my gun and studied the other deer through my scope. If it followed the same path, I would get a broadside shot. I took a few breathes to calm myself as it walked straight towards me, but finally it turned to the side, walked behind a tree and paused as it emerged on the other side.

I knew this was my moment. I found the deer’s shoulder, shifted my aim slightly back, and squeezed the trigger.

Having never shot a deer before, I had only the stories of a few friends to guide my expectations. They spoke of some deer running several hundred yards before lying down, and so I had practiced tracking deer to give me more assurance that I would not waste the precious life that I hoped take. However, this deer moved little and died calmly as I whispered my thanksgiving. I will eat its flesh and wear its skin with newfound reverence for the world that sustains me and the soul that trusted me, to take life and carry on living, respectfully.

I removed the guts thinking of the morning’s message from the Raven and hoping it would enjoy the bits that I don’t care to use. Then I hauled the deer the half mile to my truck and drove out to Dad’s house. He showed me how to hang the deer up, and using his father’s old skinning knife, we pulled the hide off. It has been 55 years since he last dressed a deer with his father, but his stories of how my grandfather butchered game were both instructional, and grounding.

Generally, people that hunt grow up in families that hunt and learn through emersion and mentored experience. Certainly, that is how I learned to fish. Dad taught me how to tie flies, how to cast, and how to land a fish. I didn’t have to discover where the fishing was good, we just went to places that he knew were good. For the last decade, I have wanted to hunt my own meat, but Dad didn’t hunt when I was growing up and so I didn’t absorb it like I did fishing. I slowly had to develop my own tracking skills, scout out my own places, and develop my own sense of confidence that I needed to hunt. Despite all this, having shot my first deer, I am still struck by the power of place and resilience of knowledge. It is no accident that my first deer came from hills that I explored when I was young, or that my long deceased grandfather contributed the tools and know-how to kill and butcher my first deer. Knowledge is rooted in place and the deeper I connect myself to my natal bioregion, the more its natural and cultural heritage speaks to me. A sense of place can be cultivated individually over the course of a lifetime, but only really flourishes when developed communally, over the course of many generations. Landscape becomes an ancestral journey and stories become rich with context and meaning.

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Monday, October 8, 2012

Wapato, cultivating native tubers

Robin egg like Wapato tubers from Dees Slough
Shoreward, Cottonwood and Western Birch blaze gold against the clear blue skies and slopeward, Maples burn fleeting red hues amongst the more temperate evergreens. It is the season of contrast and each day of sunshine is preciously coveted by veterans of our gloomy Cascadian winters. When will the weather turn? Our first heavy frosts signal the beginning of the season for harvesting the tubers of Wapato (Sagittaria latifolia) and Jack Frost’s pigmented associate does not fail to notice Wapato’s arrow shaped leaves, painting them a delicate yellow. For Wapato, it is the season for attending to future growth, and rhizomes that have stretched horizontally through soft silt and muck all summer now squirrel away the last golden rays of sunshine into egg shaped tubers deep beneath the mud. From these tubers will hatch the promise of Wapato’s future when the sun shines anew next spring.

Wapato seed clusters easily shatter into hundred of seeds when ripe
Not all is invested in the tubers. As cool weather drives away Wapato’s final pigments and the entire emergent body of the plant prepares to wither to the detrital depths, the spherical seed clusters shatter into hundreds of embryonic vessels that disseminate across the water’s surface until they strike sticky bare sediment suitable for growing a new generation of roots.

A healthy patch of Wapato in the Coeur d'Alene watershed
Prior to contact, Wapato grew abundantly along the lower reaches of the Fraser and Columbia Rivers as well as in the Coeur d’Alene and Yakima Rivers in the interior. Wapato was managed in carefully tended family garden patches and gathered throughout the fall and winter as a staple root vegetable. Sto:lo elder Ralph George told me that he remembers raking away the detritus from sloughs near Chilliwack BC so that the Wapato would grow better, and Melissa Darby writes of family owned patches being carefully market and cleared of large woody debris by the Chinook near Sauvie Island (formerly known as Wapato Island) on the Lower Columbia (see Keeping it Living). During the winter of 1805-1806, Lewis and Clark noted that Wapato was the “principal article of trade” along the Columbia. In 2007 archaeologists from Simon Fraser University excavated a 3000 year old Wapato garden along the shores of the Fraser River. They discovered a conspicuous rock layer at the bottom of the Wapato bed that likely limited the depth that the tubers could burrow, making them easier to harvest during the cold winter months. Unfortunately habitat loss due to the construction of dams and dikes as well as predation from introduced carp have severely restricted the abundance of Wapato throughout much of its former Northwest range. Native American use of Wapato for food has suffered a similar fate due to loss of access to the tubers and the hyper-availability of introduced foods.

Today, Indigenous people are working to revitalize this once important root vegetable. The Coeur d’Alene host an annual Wapato digging festival at Heyburn State Park. The Yakama are working to remove dikes and restore Wapato habitat (see here for more details), and Roma Leon of the Katzie First Nation has started teaching people how to harvest the tubers from the Lower Fraser River valley (see here for more details).

Amongst driftwood Wapato can be difficult to harvest
I too want to be part of the restoration of such a valuable food source, and last weekend Katrina and I gathered some Wapato tubers to transplant to my dad’s pond and experiment with other methods of cultivation. We chose Dees Slough as our source population and carefully extracted about 1 dozen tubers from the cool dark muck. The mud was thick with branches and driftwood making it impossible to employ the “wapa-tip-toeing” method of churning the soil with your feet and waiting for the tubers to float to the surface. Rather, we tickled the roots of the plants until we located a rhizome, and then slid our fingers along the bottom of the rhizome, loosening the soil around it by wiggling our thumb and forefinger and raking away the loose soil with our other hand until we traveled the 6-18 inches of rhizome to the tuber. This method may be best called “wapa-tickle-hoeing.”

I planted half the tubers in my dad’s pond and used wire tomato trellises to mark their location and protect them from hungry ducks. I also cast a generous layer of Wapato seeds throughout the area. In the wild, Wapato doesn’t generally grow in stagnant water, but I am curious to see if my transplanted tubers will come up next year. Wapato seeds evidently take 2 years to germinate. I planted the remainder of the tubers in a 30 gallon plastic tub (a “wapatote”) that was half filled with loose silt/organic soil and topped off with water. I buried the tote in the ground so that it won’t freeze solid this winter and plan on circulating the water with a pump once they start to grow next spring. After I establish a healthy population, I can then study the how the yearly process of disturbing the soil to harvest tubers affects their size and abundance.

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Thursday, October 4, 2012

Chokecherries- from the dry side of the mountain

These large Chokecherries were 1/2" in diameter!
This year I have had a couple opportunities to travel over the Cascades to explore the bountiful foods of north central Washington. The dry pine forests east of the Cascades are home to a native species of cherry called Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) that is harvested in abundance during late Summer and early Fall by the Okanagan, Sinixt (Colville), and Native Americans throughout the plant's range. In Canada, they are among the most widely used fruits by Indigenous Peoples (See Kuhnlein and Turner).

The purple-black variety near Yellowstone
Chokecherries are most palatable late in the season after a frost when the cherries darken from a bright red to a purple-black, or in some varieties from a bright red to a dark red. While some plants produce chokecherries that are tasty straight off the bush, most are astringent and leave you with a furry sensation on your teeth. Fortunately, a little processing will produce an excellent tasting product.

The dark red variety near Wenatchee
Both cold storage and drying diminish the astringent properties. My experience with cold treating chokecherries is limited to a single attempt with Sam Thayer when we refrigerated a few gallons of chokecherries that we didn’t have time to process. We found that after a couple days, the fruit tasted much better. Our experience is supported ethnographically by the Okanagan-Collville who store entire branches of chokecherries in cool, dry places and pluck the cherries from the branches as they needed them throughout the winter (See Kuhnlein and Turner).

Chokecherries ready to go in the dehydrator
This year, I have dried chokecherries on a number of occasions, and enjoyed the results of all of them. Perhaps the simplest way to preserve Chokecherries is to just dry them the way they are, pit and all. While the product is slow-eating, it is fun for people accustomed to nibbling on sunflower seeds and probably good for those trying to quit smoking and looking for alternative ways to keep their mouth busy. Place the Chokecherries one layer deep on a tray and set them in the sun for several days or leave them in a food dehydrator overnight. While this method produces a tasty product (no astringency at all), it is hard to imagine getting substantive nutrition from the tedious nibbling they require.

Dmitri grinding Chokecherries
Removing the pits from Chokecherries is impractical when processing them individually by hand, but a few fruit mills are capable of handling the large pits and greatly increase your pulp production efficiency. Sam reports that his Victorio Mill will do the job if he removes the tension spring.  A light steaming will soften the fruit and make straining out the pits easier. Those desiring Chokecherry juice, syrup, or jelly need only steam the cherries and strain them through a cheese cloth placed in a colander to obtain a fantastic juice.

Jill and Ray grinding Chokecherries
Traditionally, Native Americans mostly eat Chokecherries by grinding up the whole fruit with a mortar and pestle until the pits are too small to notice. A young boy named Dmitri and his father Jay recently showed me their method of grinding Chokecherries at the Saskatoon Circle. First they ground about 20 pounds of fresh Chokecherries with a hand-crank flour mill equipped with course iron burrs that mashed the fruit and cracked the pits. Then they ran the entire product through the mill a second time to grind everything more completely. Finally, they formed small round cakes with the resulting mash and spread them out in the sun to dry.
Chokecherry pit fragments being sieved out with a fine colander
Since then I have experimented with this method on my own and found that most of the cherry pit fragments are still noticeably large and detract significantly from the quality of the Chokecherry cake. To strain out the pit fragments, I reground my dried Chokecherry cake with a Vitamix to produce Chokecherry flour, and then sieved the flour with a fine mesh colander. My Chokecherry flour can be mixed with water to produce a nice Chokecherry spread, re-dried for a better quality fruit leather, or simply added as flavoring to smoothies, pastries, or other baked products; it can even be added to preserved meats such the traditional pemmican. While there are still some fine shell fragments in the Chokecherry flour, they don’t detract appreciably from the eating experience. In the near future I aim to purchase some fine flour sieves to catch all of the pit fragments.

Chokecherry products showing the size of pits from large to small (left to right)

Chokecherries after the 1st (right) and 2nd (left) grinding
Ground Chokecherries are much richer than Chokecherry pulp. As soon as the pits are cracked the kernels released a scrumptious and intense Maraschino Cherry aroma and flavor, and add significant amounts of fat and protein to a fruit that is otherwise mostly sugar. WARNING: Avoid eating the crushed Chokecherry pits right away as the crushing process converts amygdalin into poisonous hydrogen cyanide (prussic acid), but this toxin boils away quickly at temperatures above 79° F and is probably absent in all but trace amounts when ground Chokecherries have been properly dehydrated. To be safe, I advise grinding and dehydrating Chokecherries in a well ventilated area.

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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Saskatoon Circle Report

Gathering to share the time honored traditions of all human ancestors, primitive skill experts and enthusiasts came together this week to celebrate foods, crafts, and skills that are intimately imbedded in a variety of earthen landscapes. The Methow Valley on the eastern flank of the North Cascades was our meeting place, and when the air wasn’t thick with the smoke of nearby wildfires, the warm vanilla aroma of Ponderosa Pine wafted through our peaceful camp.

I was invited to the conference to lead ethnobotanical walks (as a second rate substitute for Nancy Turner) and shared what I could of a valley that was brimming with food plants. On the drier west facing slopes we plucked a few remaining Saskatoons (Amelanchier alnifolia) that were dried on the bush, dug under the withered leaves of Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) to expose its resin scented anchor, and plucked the plump hips of Rose (Rosa spp.). A seep on the east facing slope gave rise to a lone Blue Elderberry (Sambucus cerulea) and abundantly fruiting Chokecherries (Prunus virginiana). Finally, the Ponderosa Pine and Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) in the valley bottom gave me a chance to talk about the many forms of edible cambium in the Pacific Northwest. From what I hear, the area is brimming with Bitterroots (Lewisia rediviva), Biscuitroots (Lomatium spp.), Mountain Potatoes (Claytonia lanceolata), and Yellow Bells (Fritillaria pudica) in the spring, but all lay dormant under the cool soil to avoid the scorching late summer heat.

When I wasn’t babbling about botanicals, I did my best to take advantage of the wonderful workshops hosted by the other instructors. I brought a Yew (Taxus brevifolia) wood bow that I have been working on for a while and eagerly received instruction on how to complete it from bow making master Jose. Benjamin taught me how to bark tan fish skin. I occasionally looked over the shoulder of Jill as he scraped the membrane off of deer hides.

There were far too many activities to take in over the course of a single week. Workshops included several types of basket weaving, felting, back-strap loom weaving, flint knapping, animal processing, friction fire making, shelter making, gourd bowl making, and leather working, as well as pottery, archery, and many more.

Lynx shared a short movie about her Stone Age Project in which she takes a small group of people out into the wilderness for three weeks without metal, plastic, or anything else that they haven’t made or harvested themselves from the wild. I have found that many folks that teach primitive skills lack much knowledge of edibles, but Lynx really impressed me with her knowledge and regular use of wild plant foods. I similarly found kindred spirits in the organizers, Cameron and Eric. With luck I will get to join them all next year to harvest spring roots and the mid-summer Saskatoons.

For me, the high points of the Saskatoon Circle came every evening when the light faded and cool temperatures brought us, with outstretched palms to the central campfire. Personalities ranged from the deeply rooted to the radically nomadic, but we all embraced impassioned conversation on sustainable living and outdoor adventure.

Though I was called away early (to another conference of a similar ilk) I look forward to next year’s gathering and staying in touch with my new circle of Saskatoon friends.
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