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25 May, 2009

Modern Foraging: Part 2

Yeah, so first of all, I decided that that passive "Gathering" headline screamed idiocy and passivity. I may be shiftless, but it's not like I (only) take such bounty as falls into the bed of my truck.

Nope. And that's why Part 2 would be further subtitled "Tis the Season," were sub-sub-titles not an egregious breach of blogging etiquette (at least that's the case in the former (future?) Soviet bloc, where most of my readers live).

Seasonality: the cyclical redundance of nature's and cultures' bounties, the daily-monthly-yearly arrival of certain gifts. The biggest misconception I had before living in Hawaii was that there were no seasons, lessened only a bit when I came to know about the drySummer wetWinter seasons. There are mango, avo, guava and all the fruit seasons (the former transcended by a miraculous tree I once met in Lahaina, bearing nearly all year, and easily the coolest thing about Maui); there were the short and long seasons of the pakalolo; tourists from various parts of the globe ripened in Waikiki at different times as well.

The point is (magical trees near Moku-ula aside), it don't do you no good to go foraging for mango in guava season. Know the opportunity of the season, be it a certain berry along Highway 12 or the semi-annual large trash pick-up day in the ritzy neighborhood.

Being prepared means being a season, or a year, ahead. Tis the season right now, for instance, to spot the blooms that will become blue, salal, and huckleberries in a while, to note the heavy flush of petals in the not so obvious spots so that I can harvest in abundance and peace. Last month, I scarcely paid attention to the road in front of me (don't try this until you have driven-cycled-walked your foraging routes enough for your very bones to navigate them) as my eyes swept the periphery for flowers of wild cherries and blackberries. Before long, I'll be paying attention to the fruitings most massive and ignored, evaluating and planning for next year.

And I won't tell you a damn thing about where they are.

09 May, 2009

Cap City

Why is it that I always end up living in the capital of whatever place I am in? If you know me, you know that my shiftlessness index is too high for it to be intentional. Childhood in the Virginia capital? My parents' doing. College in the nation's capital? Free tuition and easy access to punk bands. 1990s in the Hawaiian capital? Just wanted to escape the DC = Center of the Universe syndrome, putting as much distance as I could without getting a visa (because not only am I shiftless, I lack gumption). And now Washington's capital? Seeking gainful employment.
And so it is that my life has been spent in capital cities. Honolulu and Richmond were both double-capitals: centers of state government now, with pasts as the seats of a kingdom and a breakaway republic, respectively. For that matter, Honolulu and Olympia were both territorial capitals, if you want to keep score.
I suckled at the federal teat briefly and indirectly, but broke myself of the habit before it transformed me into one of those hapless fiends who commutes for hours every day to and from a cubicle neck-deep in meaningless bullshit, resigned to apparatchikness or conniving to float to the top of the cesspool. Two states have now been kind (or blind) enough to employ me, both times as an archaeologist working on state lands and waters. Both have had the lassitude to allow me the latitude to work on behalf of peoples who arrived millenia before state government. Both have been amenable to men able to think beyond the iron cage of bureaucracy. Both have tolerated me, and enabled my mojourning instincts.
A capital's capital extends beyond the employment opportunities. Culture congregates there, performers and provincials, emissaries and emigres, mosaics and mixing pots. Money flows there, funding opportunities and facilities disproportionate to the population. Education accumulates there, schools and scholars more abundant than many larger and richer cities.
Often, capital cities offer resources of megalopolises, without the accompanying accumulation of irritation. I'll take Olympia traffic and prices over Seattle's any day. Seattle-ites may disdain Oly like Manhattans dis Albanyans, or San Franciscans snub Sacramentos, but that's OK. [In a rare case of the Simpsons being way off of my wavelength, Cap City is to Springfield as Portland is to Salem. Hmm.]
Where next? I'll probably just hang tight until Cascadia gets a capital.

Flora 11

And now, how about a couple of plant shots?

Both happened to be frame 11 on their respective digital rolls.

04 May, 2009

Modern Gathering: Part One

I have this fuzzy recollection of an anthro class in which we learned that !Kung people of the Kalahari maintained a phenomenal memory of where resources were. One example was that a family might know where a water-rich root grew, and keep that knowledge for years until it became necessary. The implication was that we middle class American kids ought not to feel so superior, and should recognize that 'primitive' cultures had knowledge that was every bit as useful and sophisitricated in their domain as was our knowledge of algebra. That mastery of solar navigation and the atlatl was every bit as important as being able to command technological marvels like the electronic typewryter.

Meanwhile, I was answering the questions that would hone the skills of the modern gatherer. When and where did the free-food-heavy happy hours ripen? Where could you pee or get bus change with no cost? Which yards held the untended fruit trees?

Years have passed in which I've gathered food and furniture, trash and treasure, and learned the lessons I needed to avail myself of the free fruits of modern life. Learn the neighborhood and its resources, be they apple trees or rich-to-the-point-of-foolishness households that toss good goods. Identify the Overflow, the perfectly good stuff stripped of value by our society, and free for the taking. Find the "commons," the between spaces and untended grounds that yield wild foods and firewood. Cruise at twilight before Large Trash Pick-up Day (just snagged a fine charcoal grill that way--there were so many that this Beggar could be a Chooser).

We may be facing hard times, and I'm sure there are more competitors out there than there used to be, but gathering has only gotten easier over time, and even the dire downturn of 2008 hurt trustafarians far more than foragers in this country. Freecycle and craigslist allow me to forage virtually before dropping a dime on gas. Municipalities seeking to sort waste and minimize landfill volume mean that most dumps have a place where you can shop for free stuff (like some dressers we've owned, or our shop-vac) or loads of compost and mulch. The steady march of Consumerism has so deadened the minds of Gen X and beyond that they are blind to the resources before them, while mine eyes have seen keener each season the glory of the overflow.

And if you were to consider as occupying some grey ground between gathering and market rate the judicious spending of coin at yard and estate sales, thrift stores, and luckless or witless ebay and craigslist sellers, then the resource catchment for the modern forager is so much the wider. For that matter, turning the gathered good into cash only makes sense. [Esoterica discarded by a former employer continues to re-fill my ebay account now and then, and more than one foraged furniture find (refurbished) has cycled back to the population via virtual and meat-space sales.]

Having the right awareness--the eye for hidden treasure and the shamelessness to pick it up--is crucial, but having the proper tools for the job helps as well. My fleet includes a Jetta (capable of carrying far larger things than you would expect, like good-sized banana trees, or box after box after box of books) and an F150 pick-up (for anything larger). Hand pruners, trowel, and shovel, friends of any archaeologist, also prove useful in liberating plants from soil about to be bulldozed or otherwise insulted.

The gatherer must also be prepared with the right receptacle: paper bags (mushrooms), plastic bags from little zip-locks (seeds) to big tough garbage bags (shrubs and sundry stuff), milk crates (even sundryer stuff), and of course the old reliable 5-gallon bucket. Most of these receptacles, the smart reader will have already noticed, can themselves be gotten at no cost.

Not being much of a parts gatherer myself, wire cutters and wrenches do not form a regular part of my retinue, but there are those who swear by them. I suppose there are those who mark maps or take GPS points, or write detailed notes, and it is possible I'd be more successful if I did so myself. But there is part of me that wants to do this relying just on memory, drawing on my inner !Kung.

02 May, 2009


The last post featured people who gather food from the land. Years ago, as an athropology student, I learned about the hunter-gatherers, and was told that the peoples of the Pacific Northwest were unusual in having developed Chiefdoms and Stratified Societies based on
Hunting and Gathering alone, that their weirdly rich environment enabled Social Complexity without resorting to Agriculture. Textbooks may not have capitalized all of these terms, but you better believe that the Discipline of Anthropology did.

Reality always outstrips Theory where Complexity is concerned, and so it is with the Gatherers. I knew this from Hawai`i days, when I realized that beyond the Agricultural Fields recognized by explorers and anthropologists were surrounded by concentric ripples of Informal cultivation crucial to long-term Survival...Hedges in every sense of the word. And so it is that the Gatherers of the Northwest, far from being passive beneficiaries of kind Nature, had the system wired.

Harvest roots at the time when seeds are ready to produce the next generation, and aerate the soil in the process. Blind luck, or Cultivation?

Pry out individual roots instead of ripping up acres of sod. Savage lassitude, or Sustainable?

Burn prairies to keep the trees at bay, fertilize the soil, and maintain habitat for tasty ungulates. Primitive pyromania, or Clever?

Producing food without massive inputs, dependence on trans-continental transportation, or global corporations. Witless subsitence, or Wise?

Just asking.

Roots, Rocks, Drums

After a week of training other people to be aware of cultural resources, I was lucky enough to get some education myself this past weekend. Headed over the mountains to attend the first foods celebration of the Chief Joseph band of Nez Perce. Arrived Friday evening to find a roomful of women getting ready to peel roots they had walked to and dug all day, women who welcomed my intrusion as a visit, answered my unpreparedness with a meal, and let me watch and learn while they worked, talked, and laughed. They had prayed, cleansed, and harvested the first roots of the year for a feast that would feed the tribe, and open the way for everyone else to begin harvesting. My contribution: helping set up chairs for the Sunday feast.

Day 2: My host took me to gathering grounds for bitter-root (better here than further south, where these roots get bigger, but lack the fine flavor), wild carrot (usually found higher in the mountains, but this patch was conveniently located lower on an ancient trail), black camas (a lomatium, rather than the lily camas of western Washington), and "little potatoes" (denizens of high ponderosa stands). Tribes are worried about the loss of gathering areas to development, privatization of public lands, cattle, and climate change. So it was a happy discovery to find that one of the good gathering areas is in a square mile of state land where I may have some say in protecting these resources.
My agency has been managing natural resources for just over 50 years, but tribes in the northwest have been doing so for about 200 times longer. By using a stick to pry up the roots just after seed set, and leaving the tops at the source, they aerate the ground and plant the next generation. Thousands of generations of plants and hundreds of generations of people have stayed happy in this way.

On Sunday, long-house services began at about 10AM and went for two hours. Drumming, dancing, and no more than 5 minutes of anything you might construe as preaching. I soaked in the songs without comprehension, feeling the energy and letting my heartbeat ride the drumbeat. After that, mats were laid out and tables set in preparation for the feast. Water, salmon, deer meat, bitter and other roots, choke-cherries and berries--all the native foods laid out in a line, each bowl of it blessed, each one tasted in order. Then an array of everything from hot dogs and apple pie to dried fish.
Drumming and songs continued during the meal, and people had the chance to speak to the gathering. My host introduced me, and I offered thanks for his family's hospitality, and that of the Nez Perce people, and of the earth that produced the food. Speakers offered family news, wisdom, and humor--everyone thanked the women who had prepared the meal. Conversations meandered around the tables, and bowls emptied. The final mouthful was a bit of huckleberries for all, and then zip-lock bags were distributed to all, so every family could leave with food for later (even visiting archaeologists), and each person got an apple as well.
On the long ride home, I stopped at a few more pieces of state land. What had looked like rocks and sagebrush a few days before, a beautiful but seemingly barren landscape, revealed a buffet of roots.