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Selecting Naturally: Local Tree Foods

The location of my experiment with tree crops and the forces of nature are right here on a raw, steep 20-acre homestead. The land is on the margin of foothills and valley, the margin of coniferous forest, oak woodland, and grassland. For the last 36 years we have attempted the good life in the sylvan burbs of Boonville. Our houses and buildings were resurrected from slash piles of the recent logging that contained older growth quality trees that did not meet the mid-seventies milling criteria. Over the years we supplemented the slash pile freebies with second growth logging for sunlit space and lumber milled by local portable millers.  The sun, the biggest honcho in the sky, has been good enough to run passive solar houses, photovoltaic solar collectors, solar hot water collectors, and all other life forms here at Rancho Kai Pomo as well as elsewhere on the planet. In the winter we cook and heat with wood and use the leftover slash for compost and biochar. Yes we are beholden to the energy from native tree crops. Also we are almost entirely dependent on our gravity feed water that has the dysfunction of not flowing when it does not rain. Trees are even a solution for this, the worst cumulative drought year in recorded history. This year we lost our ‘free’ gravity feed water in early July and played drought water games until, miraculously, in late November with essentially no rain our gravity feed water came back. Why?  Shorter days, less tree transpiration, and a great big coniferous north-slope sponge, that has become our reservoir of hope.

Of the economic trilogy Wine, Weed, and Wood (which are really only water and sun transformed) we put our faith in wood, that is tree crops. Our land is ever potentially abundant for food possibilities but not enough to go to market. Although I have flirted with the other primal commodities as well, apples were the signature crops of AV when we arrived and we imprinted on them and wasted little time implanting them, not thinking of the dismal market return from the right livelihood of tree crops. Each year we plant and graft new apples; so far this process has not gotten old. All the homestead elements seem to revolve around tree crops, whether acorns for the sheep or the precious organic matter for the garden. Since everything does connect to everything, it is senseless to posture the annual garden against the orchard or the domestic animals against the wild. Essentially acorns run a big part of the natural show. And we all are connected to that!


Pears are an important crops in themselves whether pear champagne or brandy; our Bosch, d’Anjou, and Warren and other European and Japanese pears (Chojuro, Ya Li. Shinseiki), yield crisp melon like flavor, or cherimoya essence, and provide special niches for our natural sweet tooth and those of all our four footed neighbors.

Prunes used to be a staple here in AV, and they still qualify for a top dried fruit along with raisins--think pre-dried wine. There are varieties, colors, flavors of European and Japanese plums that make each early spring a pleasure as we, along with the hummingbirds and honeybees watch the breaking buds and fruit set on. Our nut or protein/oil crops are very promising. We usually fail to gather much in the way of almonds and filberts from our bearing trees, but walnut is king nut and an exponentially growing harvest. It has taken 35 years to achieve a decent production. Time is an invaluable commodity in homesteading.

In terms of work we don’t irrigate, fertilize, spray or prune our trees every year. The magic of clay soils is that they yield to the right rootstock, which mines down like native plants do in this protective soil medium for water and nutrition.  It would be far more of a chore and art to achieve the market standard, artificial as it might be, for these fruits. Essentially our biggest job is harvesting and processing. Root cellar storage and sun dried fruit are our easiest and most rewarding form of preservation, although homemade wine is a blessing as are the plethora of fermenting techniques easily available for most foods. As well as protein from nut crops, fruit juice, syrup, wine, sauce, butter, and dried, the uses of fruit forms seem limited only by our imagination. Natural fruit gives needed sweet nutrition where the unneeded sugar laden industrial concentrated sugar foods tend to give disease.

Persimmons are exotic, yet easy to grow wonders, as are mulberries. Pomegranates and a whole host of subtropical and Mediterranean species such as pineapple guavas are possible dreams in our watershed.  Our chestnut trees have grown fairly well but suffer from a sexual malady, a lack of cross-pollination, which we have yet solve. So our chestnut crops are practically non-existent. However the Pam Armstrong and Tom Brewer chestnut orchard and the perennial resource of the Zeni homestead chestnuts provide plenty.

Olives are sort of a new/old kid on the block. We see success for ourselves in fruit production and success in our more ambitious and hard working neighbors in oil production, which is one of the essential foods of our diet.

Of the wild crafted tree crops, acorns are again the staple and hallmark crop helping to sustain Pomo culture for thousands of years, along with the botanical gifts of pine nuts, buckeye, manzanita, toyon, and madrone berries, etc. By the way, most mushroom species are dependent on the forest soil matrix for life.

Of course the forest clearing has yielded an opportunity for grasses, pasture, and grains. But the loss of forest cover has generally also yielded a drought stricken watershed, with little water, no salmon, and like much of the rest of the planet, incipient desertification.

Again as everything connects to everything, I cannot omit ocean resources as they relate to tree crops. Especially the beleaguered salmon whose amazing migratory journey brought into the outer reaches of the watersheds of the West Coast and great valleys untold mega tons of nutrients for the beasts, the fowls, the forest, and people alike. What would our Navarro look like today without over logging, over grazing, or over extraction of the watershed resources?

How does my humble homestead activity relate to Charles Darwin or Luther Burbank, Monsanto, and GMOs or the 31st annual Fruit Tree Grafting Workshop and Seed & Scion Exchange at the Fairgrounds on February 1st?  Please stay tuned.

Towards the beginning of time on earth the ginkgo tree and the redwood tree evolved, predating and surviving the age of dinosaurs.  I find it interesting that the gingko tree had an edible fruit well before the monkeys could have a go at it. The primates were not the first orchardists spreading seed, as most all creatures great and small interact as vector forces with the living mantle of the terrestrial earth.

Although certainly primates and tree crops are inseparable, the Darwinian big picture is that all food and living matter are an evolutionary process--that is until the GMO monster appeared. Even when our hairy cousins came out of the tree canopy to encounter the savannah, they did not abandon tree crops. Gaining accouterments like opposable thumbs and accessing the use of fire started us on an accelerated journey in the use of trees that is exponentially increasing today--as the number of trees decrease accordingly…family planning anyone?

Whether it was Pomo native people casting Pinus Sabiana cones into the fire for the roasted nuts or earlier relatives doing the dinosaur BBQ, the discovery of fire led directly to more nourishment and pretty soon bigger brains, then to the family tribe, technology, and finally to the mess we call progress today! I say this only because everything relates to everything.

In the continuum of evolutionary human history, the assigned beginning and ending days for the events of ancient history remain very conservative, tentative, and nearly always are proved wrong as more ‘hard‘ evidence filters in from lab and field about when we walked, when we talked, and when we became exactly human. Why the creation of life all happened is still at the Baltimore Catechism level of explanation. Answering why to these ultimate questions often escapes the boundaries of science. Life is interactive and interdependent, so, yes, we come from primates but also from every other common ancestor, which is just about every life form on the planet, like the trees and bees.

If I take my dinosaur brain, primate fingers, and apply it to evolutionary history the big picture becomes hopelessly holistic, thanks to Charles Darwin’s ‘discovery’, that people are part of nature. Mataquiasi, to all my relatives, was a common sense perspective for Native peoples, yet for those of us born into the epochs of scientific and religious revolution (there are surprising parallels between the two), the idea that we are part of nature is possibly the most controversial and repressed ‘discovery’ in the history of science or non-science. Pandora and her opening of the box is an example of non-science or mythological explanation for our human situation. Another mythological explanation is the knowledge of good and evil encapsulated in the innocent apple on the tree in the Garden of Eden. The absurdity of the concept that man can divorce nature is basically what Charles discovered, but the big difference between Charles and mythology is that Charles proved it, and evolutionary science continues to prove it after a century and a half of observation. Religious and fundamentalist wistfulness aside, we all dangle fundamentally from a dramatically changing tree of life, which really looks like a lopsided bush. This tree of life is our family logo, which interestingly proves the best graphic for our place in the universe-- fourth branch, last twig.

The word modern is always going out of fashion as technology and time make new modern. But what is essentially not new is that nearly all food crops, fruit, nut, grains, and vegetables are ancient or prehistoric. What force then wrought these foods crops which we inherited, but what advanced science has done very little to advance? Natural selection, which is the driving force of evolution, and a very curious, hairy, and hungry human being are responsible. Fortunately, for Anderson Valley’s own Sierra Beauty apple, this evolutionary process did not occur in seven days, which is more like GMO time. The development of the Sierra Beauty is an example of the ongoing selection process we call sustainable agriculture and it is a generational legacy.

Poco a poco we hunted and gathered, tasted and selected, planted, harvested, and became the stewards of the culinary legacy we now call food. Everything from an avocado, or a gourd grown for seeds that were selected to a Delicata winter squash, to the biggest and best nut, the coconut, have been both naturally and intentionally selected for more useful qualities throughout the millennia. We and our ancestors are responsible but we must remember that these living organisms also selected us as vectors in an important way, we become important for their survival. Yes, it is an interactive botany of desire that got us here. As an aside, natural selection has been working on the human species in the same way as it has on the coconut, but alas we continually fall far short of the perfection a coconut!

When we turned aside from hunting and gathering tree crops to sedentary living allowed by grain and grass growing, termed the Agricultural Revolution, we opened Pandora’s box anew. Yes, some of us got money, power, population, civilization, and cities but according to the evolutionary record preached by Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, we also got stratification and specialization of human social roles, a debilitating diet, and pandemic diseases along with that loaf of San Francisco French bread.

So back home here we have the 31st Annual Grafting Workshop & Scion and Seed Exchange to the rescue. This local event is the present culmination of people’s use of natural selection from that Edenic garden apple, of our botanical, genetic heritage to locally adaptable trees. Over the last 31 years we (Barbara, Rob, Patrick Schafer, and Mark Albert, Linda Mac Elwee, Andy Balastracci, Richard Jeske, Tim Bates, and others, have sold around 500 plus apple, pear, peach, plum, cherry, walnut, and other root stocks each year. These have been grafted and dispersed widely by mostly local people in Mendocino County, making for about 16,000 trees with perhaps an overall survival rate of 75%.   This humble legacy is bearing untold tons of fruit, blossoms, seeds, wood, leaves, organic matter, oxygen, shade, fragrance, and beauty, thanks to all those curious bipeds that have been coming over the decades to participate in this ancient ritual. We are a vector force for fruitfulness. We most especially include grafters, seeders, and scions of the ridges, foothills, and valley floor of Anderson Valley and Mendocino County who throughout the years have been adding to their and our food abundance. This process of gathering the seeds and scions of interesting, new, and old varieties and passing them on for propagation, is a similar process to the myna bird eating a guava and spreading the seed along the forest floor, but it is not nearly as anal.

I need to digress here to encounter the unnatural selection, the big GMO, which, at first glance, might appear just an accelerated form of natural selection but in fact GMO takes a chancy detour right out of the evolutionary record and process, which is the record of life on earth. The way this GMO corporate for profits story goes is that we just got smarter than nature, and thru applied technology have created the new series of wonders of the world: the sheep genes in ‘farm’ raised salmon, or the unfreezable potato, or the Hollywood terminator gene that is supposed to trump all other life forms from competing with Monsanto super corn or soy genes. (How dare they!)

Some futurists say there is no going back for us moderns, its space colonies or bust. But as I read the geologic score we have gone back five times—five relatively severe to almost complete extinctions--in our planetary evolutionary past and we survived with modifications. Yes we are almost certain with our curious hubris to go for a sixth major planetary extinction, brought to us this time by our very own Sapiens sapiens species. No worries, the seventh time is a charm! Yet how can this apparent intentional suicide be when our natural purpose is survival as a species? We can’t win even the dating game, which insures the continuity of progeny. It seems to me there might be an option to appreciate what we have and use it better. Do we really have to give all for the monolithic pleasure of a Big Mac? Come to the workshop to find out.

(For more information of the 31st annual Fruit Tree Grafting Workshop & Seed and Scion Exchange or for the previous articles in this series, please go to In two weeks Tom Melcher will feature Patrick Schafer and his Arboreum Nursery in an interview for Connecting With Local Food #17.)

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