Welcome to 2024!

Acorn gathering, druids, and oaks

And now for something completely different- it’s what the old timers call a “good mast year”- meaning the nut crop is heavy. Not surprising as the last frost was in April in this area this year.

This means that one of my favorite homesteading hobbies is on- gathering acorns for flour. Gathering acorns was done by some Native American tribes, not sure which ones. I only know that because that’s the first reason why I ever tried to do it. After later research, I learnt that my Celtic ancestors had done the same, as I’m sure basically all peoples have done one time or another throughout history. Acorns take a bit of work to process, but for hunter gatherers, or anyone in a lean year, they are a surprisingly calorie-rich, healthy food, so I'm sure wherever there were oaks and humans, acorns got eaten.

*10/17/2019 update- I found this awesome, detailed blog/recipe by a Native American of the Northern Sierra Mewuk of California, which gives an idea of the processing involved with acorns - http://www.nativetech.org/recipes/recipe.php?recipeid=115

It also reveals how some cultures were able to build a large part of their diet around acorns. Interestingly, it seems the diversity of subspecies of oaks in California was uniquely suited for this dependency on them for food, as the variance in productivity for different types was a good way to hedge your bets.

(To this day, I wonder if "hedging" means more than just to protect something with a metaphorical hedge, and actually is referring to fruit and nut trees and other "foragables" being viewed as a security crop to fall back on when more variable pursuits would fail. Planting your own backup plans?)

The commonly believed etymology (word-history) of the word druid is actually connected to oaks, and I theorize, acorns. In Proto-Celtic, dru-wits was literally an “oak-knower,” or better put, “one who knows the oaks.” Funny enough, the -wits, connected to the words that eventually became our words for wise, wisdom, and German weissen, was the past participle of “to see.” It’s not uncommon in Indo-European languages for a past participle (seen, taken, sung, etc) to later be repurposed as an active verb of its own, receiving its own preterite-past and past-participle endings. So, often, to know something was simply to have seen it. By implication, these past participles that are roped into becoming their own verb, tend to imply a certain amount of frequency. One who frequently sees the oaks, is in fact, one who knows the oaks.

All of this rambling is to say that knowing the etymology of this all, helps me really appreciate gathering acorns every few years. It's cool to think about how, with no effort on my part, the two mighty oaks on my property provide such an abundance of calories. Not for me specifically- that is some serious hubris from monotheism (actually, most formal religions) that tells us its all for us- but for itself. Its own attempt at bountiful propagation is there for the taking- usually by squirrels and deer, wild boar, bears, and sometimes by me, an invasive African ape. The “generosity” of the oak is a lesson in what we do as humans, and how much can come to us by not always seeking to do. Doing is a spinning away from the center, to borrow a phrase from Masanobu Fukuoka. In the center is being. Being another creature that happens on what the oaks produce, and knowing their worth, through your own eyes. To see them frequently, to see them continuously, to not mentally delete them as “background noise” in your mind’s eye. We often view ourselves as the only real doers and agents in this world, and nature as an other, but it's worth double checking the family tree and remembering we're just another being among beings.

In some languages, the verb to see is used as another way of saying to respect. Even colloquial English has this- if I say “I see you, man”- you’re saying I see your point of view. I respect you.

Humility, in a pure form built on a solid intellectual framework, implies that in knowing someone, you respect them. If to see frequently is to know, and to know is to respect (because you intellectually respect all beings as a matter of principal), it suggests to me that our first act we have to do is to see.

I suspect that in the minds of the ancient Celts, the sharpest minds among them were those who memorized where the best oak trees were, whether it was for their own food or knowing where to hunt the game that knew the location. I’ve also read that individual oaks vary heavily in their heavy and light years, and they also vary in their tannins, the bitter tasting part that must be leached out by several changes of water. A druid of a tribe would not only know where the oaks were, but would know many of them on an individual basis, for their qualities of tannins and productivity.

Living a semi-primitive life for a while, I often get these anthropological theories based on this one fact- the modern human brain has been around a while. Our overwhelming technology has not. That means millions of Einstein-like minds have existed over time, and had nothing to chew on but relatively naturalistic problems. I can imagine, thousands of years ago, that the geniuses of most societies must have seemed like prophets in their time*. Imagine a druid who had learnt to watch (to see continuously) the oaks for their budding signals and how that connected to the mating seasons of hunting game, to the seasons of other things, to predictions of how the year would turn out. If you knew the oaks, you could see into the future like no other.

Anyways...I just want to say that when you can, take a look at an oak, and respect it. See it, and keep seeing it. If it weren’t for the invention of the grain combine, I assure you, you’d know where they were, and treasure that knowledge.

*I have this theory that almost all early religious classes of societies were just convenient repositories for their smartest people. Imagine being an Egyptian genius who has memorized when the Nile is likely to flood based on several environmental signals you watch carefully, but you need to explain to the other villagers why you’re more useful not being one of the hundreds of people doing dangerous, body-crippling work in the fields. Tell them that you need to talk to the Gods about the Nile-flood timing, and get a sweet gig as an intellectual. Religion, at least the more organized kind, is tightly connected to the complexification of society and the need for specialized thinkers. Like the Greek idea of a philo-sophos, a lover of knowledge. You had better be pretty useful, in early society, to get out of the backbreaking labor, and so I think it was smart people providing prognoses (Greek for fore-knowledge) for the farming, gathering, or hunting season. Not knowing why they "saw the signs" and others didn't, the Gods was a pretty convenient explanation.

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