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Stories and green tips related to nature, adventure, placemaking, and food systems, written by a beginning farmer/gardener and seasoned sustainability educator who loves to grow, cook, ferment, and eat local and ecologically happy food.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Native plant uses class

This Saturday from one to two in the afternoon, I attended a native plant uses class, led by city naturalist Eric Nicholas. The class took place at our city’s new historic park, the Alviso Adobe Community Park. Located where Ohlone Indians once lived, where a dairy farm once ran, and displaying the Californio period of adobe brick, a historic building from 1854 and a newly built hall sit upon seven acres of land in the foothills. Old oak trees and a multitude of newly planted native plants are being naturally propagated and harvested under the expert guidance of Nicholas.


I walked up to the main building and met Nicholas, a City of Pleasanton baseball cap on his head and a braid falling onto his back. No one else had arrived for the class, so Nicholas suggested I look at the Pleasanton Art League art show going on in the main building while we waited for more people to arrive.

A few minutes later, I walked back to where Nicholas stood, talking with a mother and two elementary school boys. So the class wasn’t going to be a one-on-one lesson, after all—but it’d still be a pretty small group. We sat on some log stump seats while another mom walked up and sat with her son, who was enthused about what Nicholas was talking about. Both boys seemed to have an avid interest in nature and had apparently just been learning about the Ohlone Indians and the landscape. They had met Nicholas before when he spoke at a field trip.

In the Bay Area, Nicholas said, there are only three city naturalists. In the entire country, perhaps only 400. But, he continued, that number will continue to increase because the population is opening their eyes to the importance of habitat and the environment. “Naturalists are continually researching,” he said. “Try and stump me so I can do some more research.”

We walked over to a small deck near the entrance to the park. The two boys looked over the railing to where a boulder had been worn into various mortars, with pestle rocks sitting upon them. A plaque on the deck talked about the Ohlone Indians in 3240 B.C using the mortars to grind acorns, seeds, and various other plants. Nicholas told us that the particular mortars we were looking at were probably not used to crush acorns; they’re too shallow and there isn’t a continual flow of water nearby. Rather, he said, they may have been used to crush small seeds, medicinal plants, or in some sort of ceremony.


Nicholas then made the distinction that the Ohlone Indians who occupied the land were not hunter-gatherers as is commonly thought. They were "landscapers," knowing the land well and helping to maintain it. They didn't go around gathering whatever they could find; they knew where everything was and what it was used for. They'd have controlled burns to keep underbrush down so they could utilize the various plants and trees they needed. They'd propagate various plants, though it wasn't quite agriculture. Rather, they allowed the plants to be spread about and grow. They pruned willow stems so they'd grow long and straight to be used for baskets. When settles arrived, they said that the area was "reminiscent of English gardens" because of the controlled, though not unnatural, habitat. Though humans were controlling what plants flourished, they were a part of the ecosystem, rather than outside of it as we often are today. Nicholas made a metaphor for the land: just as we go to the store to purchase our food, the Native Americans utilized their "store" of useful plants for their various needs, be it medicinal, for food, or for creating tools. Tribes also "attached themselves" to different trees and knew their seasons, knew when they would bear the necessary parts the Indians utilized.

When they were building the park, there were tight restrictions on protecting the trees. Oftentimes, construction sites remove or damage the trees nearby. Because the trees are native, integral aspects of the park, extra precaution was taken to see they were not harmed. All of the new plants are either native, medicinal or from the Mission era.

Nicholas then went into how acorns are harvested. It's not as simple as you think. They are gathered in the fall and set aside in a dry place for 6 months to a year. (They can safely be stored for 4 to 5 years if they don't mold.) They are stored in upside-down baskets on stilts in a granary. Once they are cured, they are cracked open (possibly with a mortar and pestle). The seeds of the acorn are then separated into their different components (similar to a walnut's two parts). The thin skin on the acorn is very sour, so the seed is soaked in water to separate it from the nut meat. They are again set aside.


Once ready, the acorn is finally ground, as we traditionally imagine when we think about acorns and harvesting them for meal. The Native Americans traditionally created a sand hill, firmly packed. They would remove the top to create a rounded bowl depression in the sand. Leaves were set into the sand bowl and then the crushed acorn was placed on top of the leaves. Water was then poured over the ground acorn and leaves to leach out the acids and chemicals inside the acorn nut. (Almost all nuts have acidic chemicals in them. The chemicals create a protection from invaders or predators who would otherwise eat the nut so that the nut can eventually germinate into another tree. That's why you shouldn't eat apple seeds!)

After the chemicals have been leached from the meat, you can cook the acorn. It's a well-rounded, nutritious source of protein, Nicholas says, and will probably eventually become a big part of our diets once we realize its benefits. It helps to fight diabetes as well as help with circulation.

Nicholas then went on to discuss soap root, a plant I remember well from my second grade field trips to the ridge. It's a plant native to the area that grows on hillsides that are damp but that dry quickly in summertime. "What are its uses?" Nicholas asked. "Besides the obvious." It turns out that there are at least 8 uses for soap root, a record, Nicholas says, he holds among the naturalist community. The first, of course, being soap. He pulled a soap root plant from his weaved basket, a long root with grass-like fibers coming from the top. With a knife, Nicholas scraped away from of the root, exposing the moist inner meat of the plant. He walked around to the five of us sitting on the deck and asked us to take a little of the gooey looking substance that had come from within the root. "Press your fingers together," he instructed. After a few seconds, the substance became sticky and made my fingers feel like a light glue was between my fingers. The second use for soap root is glue. The third, he went on, is paste. The fibers of the root can be made into a small brush, and the paste can be applied to the fibers to create a hard brush handle--four. The fibers are flammable, six, and the root can be baked and eaten, seven. And eight was my personal favorite: the root can be smashed into a mush and spread across a creek, creating a toxic zone where fish die from breathing in the chemicals from the root. The fish die and viola--dinner! How genius!


The basket Nicholas had pulled the soap root from was made from weaved tule grass, another native plant. Before Pleasanton was developed, the land consisted of marshland and rolling hills (and was Grizzly bear territory!). Tule grass thrived in the marshy areas and made for an easily-accessible resource to weave easy-to-make (yet not highly sturdy) baskets. The basket Nicholas had was a berry-picking basket, but the tule grass can be used to make rope (which when placed in water becomes stronger) as well as homes.

Poison oak has a interesting history among the Natives of the area. Its roots were used to create a black dye--but if you or I tried to extract the roots of poison oak to make dye, we would get itchy and infected. Somehow the Indians were immune to the poisonous oils. One tale, which hasn't been proven because no one is willing to attempt to replicate it, is that the Indians would feed their children small doses of the plant to create an immunity that would stay with them--similar in a sense to vaccinations we use today.

Nicholas mentioned that fact that historically, whenever one people has invaded another, the first to be killed or ostracized are those with medicinal/plant knowledge. Often these people were considered witches or warlocks, categorized as working for the devil. We're reading The Crucible in English class and earlier this year we read The Scarlet Letter, and what he said reminded me of those two books. In both, there are aspects of superstition, and especially in The Scarlet Letter, the image of witches in the forest signing their names in blood in the Devil's book comes to mind when I think of witches, as though the medicine people were the Devil's followers. But fortunately, Nicholas remarked, those times have passed and naturalists can be open with their knowledge.

Plants Nicholas discussed & my notes:

-Mugwort - creek plant, nice-smelling, likes both sun and shade, helps with stomach ailments; if you place in cloth under your pillow at night, when you sleep and move your head around, crushing it up, it makes your dreams more vivid and easier to remember.

-Pine needles contain a lot of vitamin C and can be steeped into a vitamin C-packed tea (which I already knew from reading Backpacker magazine); rose hips (seed pods) as, well.

-Bay laurel - medicinal, helps with blood flow, respiratory infections; used to be rubbed on temples to help blood flow to brain; hikers can place in boots to increase blood flow to feet and reduce pain when hiking.

-White willow - uses similar to aspirin.

-Cactus (from the Californio period) - good for creating walls/fences; spines can be removed by placing pieces of it in a fire - food source; skin protection (antiviral); regenerative, so aids in healing.

-Yerba buena - mint, helps with fever (all mints are refrigerants so help in cooling the body--mint tea can help); aids in digestion (why they give you a mint at restaurants...and also for your breath!); calm, weak sedative.

-Mexican marigold - used to make yellow dye...all dyes used to come from natural plants...today they do not :(

-Elderberry bush/tree - used to create arrow shafts, flutes; berries can make wine, jams--important to avoid red berries because they are poisonous!

-Golden poppies - light sedative tea; help rid of lice.

-Eucalyptus - non-native; similar to bay laurel (their distinct aromas means antibacterial/antiviral); can be steeped for tea to protect against skin viruses; because it's non-native, it's bad for California habitats because its chemicals harm natives; they were planted to aid against erosion, but actually do not help with this; the Australian tortoise berry eats its leaves; it's flammable, which is why so many houses burned in Berkeley and Oakland so quickly; Eucalyptus is good for the great horned owl, so Nicholas is going to try and get one to live there and put up a video to track the owl's life.

The class concluded with the eucalyptus lesson, so we stood around and talked a bit afterward. The class really interested me. Earlier this year, I read The Clan of the Cave Bear and its sequel, The Valley of Horses. Both are about our cave-dwelling ancestors and deal a lot with medicinal plants. I signed up to take a Botany class next year, but unfortunately with the budget cuts, it was canceled. I hope to volunteer at Alviso Adobe this summer to learn more about the plants and take some time to work with nature and get better in tune with how the Natives once lived here. I will be updating with any new information I learn about the park and its plants. Perhaps I have a career as a naturalist in my future!

Green Gal

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A tree uses what comes its way to nurture itself. By sinking its roots deeply into the earth, by accepting the rain that flows towards it, by reaching out to the sun, the tree perfects its character and becomes great. Absorb, absorb, absorb. That is the secret of the tree.

-- Deng Ming-Dao

Thursday, May 28, 2009

My week--and green things!

On Monday, my dad and I continued fixing up the old shed in my mom's backyard; we put in some flooring and painted. The yard used to be green, delightful, and full of life. But in the past few years, it's been taken over by weeds and is now merely dirt and trees. I've been thinking a lot about how we're going to redesign the garden and yard, so I've been looking through garden design books, reading through the first issue of Green Gardening magazine (an offshoot of Fine Gardening magazine), which is an incredible resource that I came across at Lowe's, and trying to come up with visuals in my mind of what our possibilities are.

We don't want too much grass because it sucks up water, but our yard looks nice with grass, especially with the green trimming on the shed. We want a vegetable garden and I am hoping we get a compost bin going sometime soon. We've planted some petunias in the window boxes of the shed, but that's pretty much the extent of the greenery that is currently flourishing (besides a pink flower bush and the trees).

There's definitely something to be said for the calming effect gardening (or in my case, the planning of gardening) has on a person. And when seeds sprout, it brings about an even more exciting, creative calm that makes you feel you've accomplished something.

Last night I was stressed over some homework, and then my mom told me that the sweet peas we planted had sprouted--three little green shoots! Instantly, I felt better knowing that they were alive. (The basil, foxgloves, and columbines have yet to make an appearance--I'll let you know when they do.)

On another note, today I rode my bike to school and then rode to the small bookstore in our downtown to purchase a book I'd ordered--Ready, Set, Green: Eight Weeks to Modern Eco-Living by Graham Hill and Meaghan O'Neill. I cannot recommend this book highly enough--it has been the inspiration and resource for many of my blog postings and for a lot of the things I've been changing about my environmental impact lately. I found it at the local library and just had to get a copy of my own to highlight and use as a resource.

And, finally, I just want to inform you about an awesome team I've recently become a part of--Be the Change Cyclists. We're a group of people who are being the change we want to see in the world (Gandhi, we're following your wisdom!) and riding our bikes rather than driving to reduce our carbon footprints. It's a local group, but if you're interested, why not start one where you live? Check out our blog at http://BetheChangeCyclists.blogspot.com.

Green Gal

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Human consciousness arose but a minute before midnight on the geological clock. Yet we mayflies try to bend an ancient world to our purposes, ignorant perhaps of the messages buried in its long history. Let us hope that we are still in the early morning of our April day.

--Stephen Jay Gould, "Our Allotted Lifetimes,"
The Panda's Thumb, 1980

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Meatless Mondays (and Tuesdays, and Wednesdays?)

Did you know that cows are big contributors to global warming? Their waste gives off methane, a greenhouse gas that causes global warming. According to HowStuffWorks.com, "Cows emit a massive amount of methane through belching, with a lesser amount through flatulence...Some experts say 100 liters to 200 liters a day..., while others say it's up to 500 liters...a day...[either way, it's] an amount comparable to the pollution produced by a car in a day."

So avoiding beef and dairy products helps reduce your contribution to global warming by reducing the need for as many cows in the world. Of course, one person boycotting the beef industry for a day won't do much, but if hundreds or thousands of people did, the need for beef and dairy would reduce and there'd be less cows polluting the skies.



In fact, all animals raised for food contribute to the use of resources and water--everything does, of course. So reducing the consumption of chicken, turkey, and other farmed animals again reduces your environmental impact. And if you generally buy your meat from Safeway rather than locally, you decrease your carbon footprint by avoiding meat because you aren't consuming something that was driven from far away.

During World War II, Meatless Mondays came into effect to conserve meat to send to the troops overseas. Today, the environmental movement and those concerned with their health (and their wallets) have taken that alliterated term and used it to reduce meat consumption. Back then, they were more concerned about conserving beef, as you can see below in the old poster from the U.S. Food Administration, but for today's purposes, why not eliminate poultry and all meat and dairy products?

I started participating in Meatless Mondays two weeks ago and found that it isn't very difficult. For one day in the week (doesn't have to be Monday), just opt for a vegetarian or vegan diet, depending on how far you want to take it. Here are the official guidelines set out by the Meatless Mondays organization.

If you want to go for completely zero-dairy, zero-meat, like I've been doing, try these options: For breakfast, pull out that cereal box and pour some soy or rice milk on it. Or slap some Earth Balance buttery spread (dairy-free!) onto some toast. Before you make that turkey sandwich for lunch, how about classic PB&J? Rather than have chicken or beef for dinner, have beans or opt for a no-protein dinner and stick to the veggies and starches.


It can be fun to try out interesting meatless meals. The Meatless Mondays website has a bunch of recipes you can try, as well as additional information about the organization. The website's focus is more on health than environment, but reducing meat consumption helps both. And if you're feeling adventurous, why not try to make Meatless Monday extend into Tuesday, or even Wednesday? Who knows, perhaps you'll find the vegetarian or vegan lifestyle is for you! (Just be sure you get enough protein and supplements so you stay healthy.)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Paper

Recycling paper is the least someone can do to help the environment. Rather than fill the landfills with sheets of paper and deprive our world of trees, recycling gives those papers another chance. Most people have gotten used to recycling paper, and that’s a great thing. But let’s take it one step further—reusing paper. When you print on only one side of a paper, why not use the other side?

I have a drawer near my printer filled with paper that’s only been used on one side. Look at your printer manual to see how paper is fed so you can figure out how to put used paper into the feed. I use old paper for almost everything I print, unless it’s a formal paper or something that shouldn’t have writing on the other side.

Encourage your family to use it for things they print that they will soon recycle. Or tell your sister who loves to draw to begin drawing on the backsides of papers.

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Wrapping paper is one of the biggest wastes of paper. Because of the shiny coating they put on it, it becomes non-recyclable. Each Christmas, Hanukah, birthday and time when one uses wrapping paper, long sheets of non-recyclable paper get thrown into the landfills.

Try to buy recycled/recyclable paper to wrap gifts in or use the classic brown paper packages (tied up with string!). Or use the Sunday funnies for an entertaining gift wrap.

If you want to really get into it, save used wrapping paper from Christmas (from those relatives who haven’t caught onto the green movement) to wrap gifts for next time, as well as ribbons and bags. I have an entire drawer full of used wrapping paper and bows.

My personal favorite to wrap gifts with is used cloth. I cut up my dad’s old shirts and ripped pillow cases. It makes for an interesting choice that can be used again and again. Sew or use safety pins to connect the ends.

What are you doing to save paper?

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We say we love flowers, yet we pluck them. We say we love trees, yet we cut them down. And people still wonder why some are afraid when told they are loved.
-- Anonymous

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Reduce Consumption

Our society and economy center around a cycle of purchasing, using, and throwing away. But this cycle is devastating to the environment due to its wasteful mindset.

Most of what you buy comes in packaging, which is instantly disposed of. Recycling helps, of course, but it would be so much better if the packaging simply didn't exist, or was at least reduced to a minimum. Try to purchase things without packaging--produce from the pile rather than from the cellophane-wrapped pack.

It's also important to keep in mind that consumerism is very much ingrained in our culture, and that this needs to change. Advertisements for the next best electronic make us greedy for the newest gadget--but we need to stop ourselves before we rush out the Apple store. We needn't buy the new appliance until our current one has died, otherwise we're continually fueling the landfills with perfectly good appliances. And even if we donate or recycle the old, it will eventually reach the landfill and, as you support the creation of more and more electronics, the eventual pile grows and grows at an unnecessary rate. Before you buy something, think about it and determine if you really need it. Most of the time, you'll find you don't.

My vice when it comes to consumerism is books. I see a new book and I have to have it. But I've tried to restrain myself to used book stores, which is actually where I find the most interesting books, often long-forgotten bestsellers. And for those of you who don't write in the margins and highlight passages in books, the library is a perfect place to reduce and reuse. If you're only going to read the book once, why not check out your public library? Or borrow from a friend.

Most importantly, just be thinking about your own consumer impact and how you can reduce your consumption of things that will end up in the earth for decades and centuries, leaking chemicals or piling up to the sky.

Just came across this advertisement for Buy Nothing Day.
Check it out.


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"Modern technology
Owes ecology
An apology."
--Alan M. Eddison

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Carbon Emissions Saved by Biking

I just looked up my mom's car, a 1998 Dodge Durango, to find its gas mileage. It's 12 miles per gallon, so for each mile driven, it uses 1/12 a gallon of gas.

When multiplied by the number of miles I've ridden since April 20 (7 days x roughly 3 miles), the total amount of gasoline I've saved my mom is 1.64 gallons. (Some days my dad or step-mom drives me, but mostly it's my mom, so I'll calculate based on her car.)

According to the EPA's website, the carbon emissions from one gallon of gasoline is 19.4 pounds/gallon.

1.64 gallons of gasoline x 19.4 pounds/gallon = 31.85 pounds of carbon dioxide I've kept from entering the atmosphere :)

To calculate your own, check out the formula in the upper right hand column below the quote by Howard Thurman!

(Photo credit: UNEP, www.guardian.co.uk)

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