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 and a celebration of 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 a hundred 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 the 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 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 - the rare tree that grows up on either side 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 some critter. 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.
Last week, my friend Brendan and I were out digging holes and planting acorns. We lined and covered the holes with aluminum window screen, because I’d learned my lesson about how much the critters love acorns.
The Autumn wind on my face, the dirt under my nails. The smell of the soil and my sweat. The acorns, shiny-hulled and shapely, beautiful, resting in the earth, soon enough to grow tall. During the repetitive process, a procession of possibilities grew in my imagination. There were long stands of towering, noble oak trees. There was me, old with white hair, watching pigs root around under the canopy, eating acorns. There were deer migrating in to forage acorns at the edge of the farm, and there were young children collecting acorns, and a woman grinding acorns into flour, a traditional food-way restored. On the ground, a 7-inch layer of oak leaf duff building soil over what was once rocky ground. There were meticulous, innovative plant breeders domesticating the oaks here to produce larger and larger acorns, until they grew to the size of apples. There was the farm in emergency, without electricity or water rights, but the oaks’ 30-foot taproots grew down and drank from the groundwater, still producing without irrigation. There were generations of oaks, past and future, perfectly-adapted, always producing vitality for the animals around them.
I placed five acorns in the soil and reflected on how the oak savannah ecosystem, now endangered, is one of the most biodiverse and soil-rich habitats in the Pacific Northwest. The oak trees need and deserve our help, because they are not competitive on their own, but they are endearingly generous. They provide food and shelter for all the creatures around them. They inspire questions that every living thing should ask more often: “What can we give? What can we share?”
To plant an Oak Savannah is to ask those questions, and to act out an answer: we can give our time, and share our world, to provide more abundance for all of the creatures around us.