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Quercus Lobata – Tree of Life

Quercus lobata

We are full-on into Autumn now. The summer's fuzzy lassitude jolted into clarity of purpose, the way it always has done, or was supposed to do, in October. This is the first California Fall in years when ubiquitous wildfire smoke has not choked off the intensely blue skies, dulled the brilliantly hued leaves, and obscured the deep-hued berries. The light glints everywhere, like a gazillion tiny knives, sharpening. The no-nonsense breeze slices off leaves, turning fruit trees and valley oaks into steel-bladed silhouettes. This year, leaves flutter in clean, metallic light, shot through with incandescent oranges, golds, and yes, browns. Luminescent brown, like bull kelp or lake water lapping above silt.

Acorns tumble to the ground for the gathering by: California ground squirrels, jays, acorn woodpeckers, pocket gophers, scrub jays, yellow-billed magpies, black-tailed deer, feral pigs, and cattle. And people.

Here is a marvelous document of the ways ancient peoples worked with oak trees to sustain life and biodiversity for ten thousand years, more or less.

Human uses

to check diarrhea
to blacken the strands of red bud for basket-making: add rusty iron to the water extract of the bark.
contain gallo-tannic acid. Green gall juice is used for medicine (?) and to make ink by allowing green gall juice to remain in contact with rusty iron.
Lichen that grows on branches of quercus lobata:
is sometimes gathered for bedding material.
[The following info about making acorn meal for bread and mush is taken from 
Chestnut, V.K. Plants used by the Indians of Mendocino County California. Reprinted by the Ukiah: Mendocino County Historical Society, c. 1974. Originally published by the United States Department of Agriculture Division of Botany in 1902. 
Another great resource:
Margolin, Malcom. The Ohlone Way: Indian Life in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay Area. Berkeley: Heyday Books, 1978. Print.]
To make acorn meal:
1.    Parties gather acorns in October into November. Sometimes boys and men climb the trees and shake them. Or long wooden poles are used to whack the branches and dislodge the acorns before they are ready to fall. Acorns are also gathered from the ground. The gathered acorns are thrown into large burden baskets carried on the back and held by a band around the forehead – a tumpline. Pickers toss the seeds into the baskets without a backward glance.
2.    The seeds are spread in the sun until thoroughly dry. Sometimes after first drying, the shells are cracked with teeth or a small stone and further dried or stored away. Otherwise they are stored after drying with the shells on.
3.    When dry, the kernels are brittle. They are pulverized on a mortar over which a basin-shaped basket without a bottom is placed. A pestle then thump thump thumps to grind the kernels into particles. The basket keeps the stuff from flying away. The thumper, usually an old woman, holds the basket in place over the mortar with her legs.
4.    The meal must then be separated from coarser particles in a separator, a circular basket inclined toward the body. The meal is tossed up and down until the coarser particles have rolled down into a waiting basket. The remaining fine meal is knocked out of the crannies of the separator and the process is repeated as many as seven times. At this final stage, the really fine meal adheres so firmly to the separator that it has to be loosened with whacks from a bone kept around for this purpose. A brush made of the outer fibers of the soaproot is used to sweep up off hardpan dirt whatever meal has escaped the baskets. The coarser particles are returned to the mortar for further grinding.
5.    Now bitter tannin must be leached out of the meal: Mix the meal with water in a depression in the sand or some porous material that allows the water to percolate through. Pat down the sand well or place a bed of fern leaves over the sand. Put the meal on top of the sand (or leaves). (I guess you just keep tasting it till it's good.) Before pouring on the water, place a mat of tule or a branch of incense cedar (Libocedrus decurrens). Pour water over the covered meal until the bitter taste has disappeared,, or, if you have a watertight basin, until the water no longer turns brown. Boiling water will leach out the tannins much more quickly than cold water, but the hot water cooks the seed's starch, which would otherwise act as gluten. So if the meal is to be used for bread, use cold water. (Valley/White oak acorns have relatively less bitter tannin and so leach out more quickly than live oak acorns.)
6.    The meal now has the consistency of dough. Scoop out the part that does not adhere to the sand and use this to make bread.
7.    The dough with sand sticking to it is used to make mush: put the sandy meal in a water-tight "feast basket". Add water. The sand settles to the bottom. Using two pieces of green wood as tongs, carry hot rocks from the fire, rinse off ash, and dunk hot rocks into soup water to cook it. Stir to keep the rocks moving so they don't burn a hole in the basket.


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