Why Plant an Oak Savannah
Every autumn for thousands of years, the valleys of the Pacific Northwest would fill up with smoke. Low-intensity fires would spread through the grass, and then fizzle out when the first rains came.
These fires stopped after the Oregon Trail. The white settlers who came and manifested destiny lit fires only to cook and keep warm. They wielded the axe and the plow, and millions of acres were transformed, and biologically simplified.
The attitude of those settlers persists today. Our culture tends to ask: “How can we get the most out of the land, in the shortest time?”
As our technologies have quickened, this attitude has become an expectation. Our media celebrate and offer instant gratification. We want a lot, and we want it now. On one level, this seems reasonable: the future is never guaranteed, and so it is risky to plan far ahead and to exercise patience. Yet there must be better questions that we can ask ourselves, and better answers, than "we want a lot now."
The indigenous people of the Willamette, Cowlitz, Puyallup, and many other valleys lit broad-acre fires every autumn in order to make the landscape more diverse and abundant. The fires incinerated douglas fir seedlings and stimulated the growth of camas (a wild edible tuber), mariposa lily, and hundreds of other bounteous wildflowers. The low-intensity fires opened up the country to make hunting easier, and toasted crickets (delicious, proteinaceous snacks). The fires encouraged an expansive, regal landscape with a singular type of tree as its crown.
The Oregon white oak, or Garry oak, is not a competitive tree. It grows rather slowly and tolerates no shade. In the absence of low-intensity fires (which it is adapted to live through), Oregon white oaks will quickly be crowded out by fast-growing Douglas firs. Without the land-management practices of indigenous people, the valleys I mentioned above would have been wooded with conifer forests in 1826, when the botanist David Douglas first noted their edenic prairies. There are compelling reasons to think that the main motive for the annual fires was to favor the oaks.
Let’s step forward in time to this year, 2017. It was late summer, hot, windless; a perfect day to float on the Yakima River. Five of us drove up with our floats to the northern corner of Spoon Full Farm, the furthest upriver point, a place rarely visited. I hopped out of the truck and noticed her for the first time: the queen tree of this land. Leathery green leaves (well-adapted for holding water during midsummer’s dry heat) sprouted from a canopy as oblong and round as a brain. Among the leaves there dangled little acorns, still young and green. There were hundreds and hundreds of them. I grabbed a low-hanging branch and tugged on an acorn — but it wouldn’t come easily… it wasn’t yet ready.
Central Washington has its share of beautiful trees. The burly Ponderosa, with its puzzle-piece layers of armor. The exuberant cottonwood, which seems to exude a golden light of its own on evenings in autumn. But to me the most beautiful tree in our region is the Oregon white oak - yes, this oak grows on both sides of the cascades.
So I kept coming back to check on the queen tree and her acorns. I started spotting more and more oak trees growing in thick stands. Whenever I drove upriver on highway 10, I would stop, pick an acorn, and twist its little cap, which would only come off easily if the acorn was ripe. My drives took longer, and my walks on the farm always seemed to take me to that northern corner. I started being late for appointments. I started dreaming about acorns, and big oak trees, and the hundreds of species of flowers, bugs and birds that they enable to grow.
When the season was right, I’d rise at first light to collect acorns for a couple of hours before our farm meeting. I would startle some mule deer, who’d run away to a distance and watch me in confusion: What was this human doing tugging on branches? I wonder if they knew I was stealing their food (though only to plant for more future acorns).
I stashed the acorns in a bucket full of soil, and then spent a whole morning depressed after I discovered the bucket broken open and ransacked by a critter. Probably a rat. Most of the acorns were gone, eaten, never to grow up to an oak. So I had to go back out and keep on collecting.
“Why?” my friends asked. Why was it worth my time and care, which could be spent on more pressing matters, to collect these acorns? Why was I such a squirrel?
I shrugged. At that point, I could not explain my compulsion.
Have you ever eaten an acorn? Raw, the acorns of the Oregon white oak have a tantalizing sweetness, immediately smothered by an astringent pucker. That pucker is caused by tannins, natural preservative agents in the acorn. These tannins necessitate a meticulous process to make acorns edible, with the following steps: Gathering, drying, storing, cracking and shelling, winnowing, pounding, sifting, leaching, and cooking. Each step in this process has a chapter unto itself in Beverly Ortiz’s marvelous little book, “It Will Live Forever: Traditional Yosemite Indian Acorn Preparation.”
In 1851, a battalion of American soldiers came to evict the native Ahwahnechee people from the Yosemite Valley. They found (and burned) over 5,000 bushels of acorns stored away. This was by far the natives’ most abundant food crop. In terms of nutrition, the black oak acorns that the Ahwahnechee ate are a marvel, consisting of 4% protein, 9% fiber, 14% fat, and 42% carbohydrate, along with many antioxidants.
The lifeways of the valley people of the Pacific Northwest were, by my reading, not so different from those of the Ahwahnechee people, and Oregon white oak is not so different from the black oaks that grow down in Yosemite. So it’s reasonable to assume that the oaks and acorns here held similar importance to the natives of the Northwest, as a main source of sustenance.
All of this is interesting history, you might say. But who has time to go through 10 steps to make a food that nobody you know has ever eaten before? And don’t you have better things to do than to collect acorns? Shouldn't you be writing a blog post?
Fair enough, I would reply. But still, I would go collect acorns, and store them, and research various methods of oak propagation, wondering at myself all the while. Usually, I figure out why I should do something before I actually do it. This time, it was the other way around. But the next Spring, I realized that my efforts had utility.
The acorns that I had saved over the winter, including those that I planted directly into the ground, sprouted. The first thing to emerge, before any leaves was a long, roving taproot. The oak was reaching for water. That taproot, I realized, was a hedge against climate change. My compulsion had come from instinct.
That taproot, if undisturbed, will gradually grow 40 feet deep, pushing down through soil and rocks, to drink groundwater. Drinking this water, the oak can produce, literally, a ton of acorns. That’s a lot of food, in an uncertain time. If climate models come true, then the annual snowpack in the Cascade Mountains may disappear. That would mean an end to irrigation from the Yakima River — an end to our farm’s ability to grow acres of produce and pasture. But it wouldn’t mean and end of productive, deep-rooted oak trees, and acorns.