©Joe Medieros

Living Lightly

Rivers of Birds, Forests of Tules: Central Valley Nature & Culture in Season
By Lillian Vallee

39. “The Place That Waits for Me”

I am gathering Valley Oak acorns in thick oak leaf duff when I am jolted out of my historical time frame into something I can only call, helplessly, mythic time. The sudden shift is triggered by the jigsaw puzzle pieces of leaves, their smell, the shape of the acorns, the way they feel in my hand, the screeching of jays, the acceleration of clouds in cooler, autumnal skies. I could be a woman gathering acorns from trees that rimmed the Fertile Crescent or a California Indian woman feeling the soreness in her lower back from stooping repeatedly to gather the “splendid affluence” of oaks.

Up close, I notice the acorns have a sunburn line: they are chocolate-colored up to the knobby caps. I discard the ones with holes or bumps, signs of someone smaller having gotten there before me, someone who will come crawling out if I take those acorns home. I spend hours cracking the shiny, aerodynamic shells to get at the cream-colored meats. I do this the way women have done it from the beginning of time: with rocks that fit neatly into my hand. I pulverize the acorn meats to make a meal that has to be leached with water. After a week of leaching out the tannins, I cook the meal and the smell launches me back into the remote annals of balanoculture, a word coined by David Bainbridge from the Greek word for acorn, balanos.

According to William Logan in his magnificent book, Oaks, The Frame of Civilization, “balanocultures were among the most stable and affluent cultures the human world has ever known….Every culture has a mythic history of a former golden age of plenty. It may be that these sacred histories are, on the literal level, memories of balanoculture.” In Logan’s view, “people followed the spread of oaks in the waning of the Pleistocene and the growing warmth of the Holocene.” The Holocene, or the present epoch, began about ten thousand years ago, and Logan refers to it as “the age of oaks and humans.”

In so-called “vertical” hunting and gathering economies, oak uplands could support villages of up to 1,000 people and enough acorns could be gathered in three weeks (in a “mast” or good year) to last two or three years. Logan maintains that harvesting acorns required just one tenth of the labor required to cultivate grains, and an acorn diet was “far more nutritious than one based on wild game.” Grinding tools, he adds, “existed long before any evidence of cultivation of grain.

Acorns were the staff of life in many cultures and made good soup, mush, bread, and tofu- or custard-like jelly (Logan describes finding acorn jelly in a Korean market). Without a strong flavor themselves, acorns are ideal for flavoring with plants or meats; I marveled at Logan’s account of Delfina Martinez’s earth oven casserole that could be over four feet high: layers of leaves, acorn mush, salmon, more leaves, acorn mush, venison, etc., were covered with earth and left overnight, slowly roasting, so the acorns could absorb the salmon and venison juices. Pomo children scrambled over one another to get the first taste. “Only a single constellation of balanocultures survived into historical times,” writes Logan, “the cultures of Native California.”

Donald Culross Peattie relates how Fremont and his men came upon a California Indian acorn cache in 1844. The people had fled the village but had left behind “several neatly made baskets, containing quantities of the acorns roasted. They were sweet and agreeably flavored, and we supplied ourselves with about half a bushel, leaving one of our shirts, a handkerchief, and some smaller articles in exchange.”

The settlers who followed Fremont were more likely to fatten their hogs on acorns than to eat them, and I wonder, upon reading Logan’s book, if we would have lived differently in California if we had made provisions for the survival of balanocultures by creating customs that expressed some understanding of them and the oaks that sustained them. In Germany and Switzerland, Logan notes, there were laws requiring that young men intending to marry had to plant two oak trees prior to nuptials so their children had two more mature trees to bear fruit. “In medieval Irish law,” Logan writes, “oak was listed as the first of the seven chieftain trees, for its size, its beauty, and the generosity of its fruits.” The Cahuilla referred to their oak holdings as Meki’i’wah or (could there be a more poignant way of expressing the need to be tended and used?) “the place that waits for me.”

Gathering and preparing acorn foods was, apparently, mainly the work of women and children, though the men might help by climbing up the oaks to knock the acorns down before the birds and squirrels and bears got them.

I bake the leached and cooked meal into cookies (adding honey, chocolate and golden currants) and eat them, wondering what my body will make of this satisfying food, so efficient at quelling hunger. The recipe comes from Suellen Ocean’s cookbook devoted exclusively to using acorns in preparing various foods, cheesecakes and enchiladas included. Everyone who tries the acorn cookies pronounces them “Delicious!” (I’m sure the Scharffenberger chocolate didn’t hurt either.) Only my spouse is a little suspicious, and I notice he washes his cookie down with a little whiskey, just in case. If I had known about it at the time, I might have offered him some acorn liqueur instead.

“In any landscape” Logan writes, “oaks are the keepers.” And I suppose that is one way to express the power of a tree that tethers you to a place even as it unleashes your psyche to prowl the ages.

ACTION: If you are interested in learning more about the oaks of Dry Creek Regional Park and the La Loma neighborhood, please join me for our monthly Oak Apple Nature Walk on Saturday, December 1, at 10:00 a.m. We will meet near the playground in Kewin Park.

Sources: William Bryant Logan, Oak: The Frame of Civilization; Suellen Ocean, Acorns and Eat’em; and Donald Culross Peattie, A Natural History of Western Trees


Ancient astronomical and geological factors weigh in alongside current human-produced greenhouse gas emissions.


Agreement was reached by participants of the Modesto Junior College “GREENovember” symposium entitled “Global Climate Change: What is Our Response?” that we indeed are experiencing a trend toward global warming, and panelists admonished citizens of the need to vote for measures that would promote a decrease in local greenhouse emissions.

The symposium, presented by Modesto Area Partners in Science (MAPS) together with the MJC Civic Engagement Project and the Student Environmentalist Organization and facilitated by Dr. Richard Anderson, professor of biological sciences, included two student demonstrations, five speakers and a small panel of community members, who each addressed this topic from a local perspective of scientific and socio-economic disciplines.

MJC astronomer Dr. William Luebke provided evidence for astronomical cycles that affect Earth’s climate independent of human activity. The primary factors of solar luminosity, Earth-sun distance and asteroid impact are important natural considerations in climate variation. The sunspot cycle is periodic and during the time period of 1620 to 1700 a sunspot minimum occurred which corresponded to “The Little Ice Age.” Earth’s orbital changes such as precession (wobble) eccentricity and tilt affect the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface. Secondary factors influencing climate change include the greenhouse effect and plate tectonics. Although the Vostok Ice Core data do suggest CO2 and ambient temperature coincide, he noted that the Earth naturally outgases CO2 and that water vapor is also major greenhouse gas. In his final remarks, Dr. Luebke noted that impact events such as the asteroid collision with Earth 65 million years ago also have caused significant change in climate, and extinction of numerous life forms. Global warming and climate change have natural astronomical forces driving them.

Geologist Garry Hayes followed, reminding the audience that a scientific theory is the best explanation of phenomena supported by considerable peer-reviewed data and experimentation. A theory is a confirmed scientific “working truth,” not a belief based on personal dogma - a point which he felt necessary to make, since according to recent surveys only 28% of the U.S. population is scientifically literate. Geologists can see warming events recorded in the geological record such as in the Athabasca Glacier in Canada, the Vostok Ice Core from Antarctica and in plankton types found in ocean sediment cores. He also noted that coral reef growth in the tropics, stalactite growth in caves and dendrochronology in old trees such as bristle cone pines show rings of growth that correspond to changes in climate. Heating and cooling both correspond with extinctions of living things. Finally he pointed out how we have never had more than 300 parts per million concentration of CO2 until now. Researchers have eliminated, through experimentation and modeling all known influences that could explain this warming, except for human-produced greenhouse gases.

MJC biologist Elizabeth McInnes presented data that when put into computer models predict the effects of global warming and climate change on air quality, biodiversity, desertification and fresh water availability. She cited current examples of global climate change effects: coral bleaching in the tropics; the invasion of Neodenticula, a North Atlantic phytoplankton species, into the Labrador Sea because of the melting northern ice cap; increase in infectious diseases such as malaria; invasion of giant jellyfish in Japan. McInnes warned that conservative computer models using data from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientists suggest that even modest increases in CO2 concentrations from human activity will influence global climate change, which in turn will strongly influence a decrease in biodiversity and higher extinction rates.

MJC Meteorologist Noah Hughes focused his remarks on California and specifically the Central Valley climate. Since we have a Mediterranean climate, we have wet winters and hot, dry summers. In normal precipitation years Californians rely on the slow release of water from the snow pack to meet our agricultural needs, important locally. With rising temperatures the snow pack will be less, and more rain will mean we will have to change our strategy for water storage in California. In addition we will not have a fire season, but instead fires may become a year-round reality. Most dramatically he pointed out that even if global warming and the increased CO2 concentrations are not from human origin, we still have dangerous levels of air pollutants in the Valley such that the health of children is at great risk. We need to take CO2 emission seriously and take steps to curb these emissions, so that we do not exponentially add to the problem at hand.

Ron Lamont, MJC Economist, rounded out the speakers by explaining some existing economic tools that can be used to address global warming. For example, in a Cap and Trade system, the government would set pollution limits by issuing pollution permits to industries. In this trading scheme industries can buy and sell their pollution limits between themselves such that some companies can pollute more while others pollute less, but overall pollution is reduced and companies have a monetary incentive to lower their pollution emissions. This has worked with SO2 caps in the 1990’s as a result of the Clean Air Act, but doesn’t work if there are too many permits as has been the case in Europe. A carbon tax is another strategy that would work, because it, too, internalizes the externalities: people pay for the real costs.

The community panel, composed of Modesto City Councilman Garrad Marsh and long-time resident farmer and former MJC Counselor Don Lundberg, both addressed the issue of what can be done locally. Mr. Marsh asked everyone in the audience under 35 to stand, which was about half the audience. Then he asked those who were not registered to vote to sit down, and half of those standing sat down. Then he asked of the remaining, for those who did not vote in the last election to sit down. Again most sat down. His point, nothing changes locally without voter input, so get involved and vote. Mr. Lundberg followed by emphasizing something no one else addressed, and that was the need to limit family size. By voluntarily reducing the number of people produced you increase resources for all and reduce many kinds of pollution, including CO2.

In the end, everyone agreed that we are experiencing a global warming trend, but the controversy is how much, if any, has anthropogenic causes and what realistically can be done to reduce or reverse this trend. This symposium served as a beginning to a local conversation, by successfully blending scientific data into our local consciousness. Perhaps the most important aspect of this presentation is that it was well attended by high school students, the very people who will be deciding the future of our response to global climate change.

ACTION: Call Richard Anderson at 575-6293 to join with other citizens interested in decreasing Modesto Area's greenhouse emissions and promoting green stewardship in our region. For presentation abstracts and references see http://virtual.yosemite.cc.ca.us/MAPS/

The author is emeritus professor of biological sciences, Modesto Junior College

How many earths?


In a recent “Weekly Grist”, an online review of environmental information, there was a link to an interactive website game called “Consumer Consequences”. I played the game by clicking on values that represent my transportation use, food choices, home energy consumption, and shopping habits. Since I consider myself more-than-moderately attentive to how my lifestyle affects the environment, I was shocked to discover that if everyone on earth had my lifestyle, it would take 3.6 earths to sustain everyone!

As I played the game, statistics regarding topics of Home, Power, Trash, Transportation, Food, and Shopping popped up. These facts included:

I played the game a second time, to see how I could improve my score (my highest consuming scores were in Home, Transportation, and Food). Since I can’t do too much about the house score (mainly due to number of people in the home and house size), I “became” a vegetarian, cut out most coffee consumption, bought more organic/local foods, and began walking/biking/carpooling more frequently, and reduced my score to 3.0 earths. Still, way too much.

The game also offers the option of changing public policy. I clicked on more fuel efficient cars, more energy efficient buildings, and increased consumer conservation (I didn’t click on the “renewable” energy option since it included nuclear energy). My score went down to 2.4 earths.

With serious environmental issues such as climate change, water and air pollution, topsoil depletion/erosion, overpopulation, decreased biodiversity, and SO many more, “Consumer Consequences” points out the need for everyone to reduce their consumption of resources and the need for stronger environmental policy.

This “game” was really fun, and took about 15 minutes. You even get to create your own avatar. Mine had a Mohawk hairdo and lots of piercings. Go to http://sustainability.publicradio.org/consumerconsequences/ to see how many earths are needed to sustain your lifestyle. You will be astounded.

Award to Salida Elementary School for Trekking the Tuolumne River

By LYNN M. HANSEN-Biologist and TOPS Scientist for Salida Elementary School

According to Richard Louv (Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder) children today are in danger of losing their connection to nature and with it the source of creativity and healing nature provides. Children today are so protected from nature that most are no longer free to explore the forest, stream, or tide pools on their own or even build tree-houses. The cause of this alienation from nature is attributed to fear and litigation. Louv notes that if you asked a child today where is their favorite place to play they might be like Paul from San Diego who said, “I like to play indoors better, ‘cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” But for students at Salida Elementary School, exploring nature is part of the outdoor classroom at Big Bend on the Tuolumne River. On December 1, 2007, Principal Jeri Passalaqua and 4th Grade teacher Don Howell will accept the Golden Bell Award from the California School Boards Association (CSA) in recognition of their excellent outdoor science education program, which has been ongoing for the last three years.

The Salida program is an outstanding example of community teamwork. First, the program centers on a science standards-based curriculum, Trekking the Tuolumne River, written by Lynn M. Hansen, retired biologist from MJC, and Meg Gonzalez, Education Coordinator for Tuolumne River Trust. Using this curriculum, Salida Elementary teachers provide investigative experiences for children on the Tuolumne River at Big Bend. With the assistance of equipment from backpack science stations, students determine the health of the river by sampling and conducting chemical tests on river water. They also examine the sediments in the river and measure how much sediment (turbidity) is in the water. In another station they observe the microscopic creatures that live in the water or sediments and learn how these creatures fit into the river food web. Students then trek through the riparian forest to observe the variety of trees and shrubs living near the river and determine what animals live there by identifying tracks and scat samples. They also learn how Native People used the riparian resources, then play games like Native children did to strengthen their hunting skills. Finally students plant native trees, vines and shrubs at the Big Bend site as part of a community service project to restore the riparian forest. When they return to their classroom, they write poems or stories and create multimedia presentations featuring their restoration project and inform the community about the riparian and river ecosystems.

Second, none of this river education experience for the children would have been possible, if it were not for the community partnerships and commitment of the Salida Elementary School teaching staff. The Tuolumne River Trust, Water Resources Board, Pacific Gas and Electric Company and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Foundation have provided grant funds to support the purchase of supplies, student transportation and the training of teachers to implement the curriculum at the river site. In addition, the Great Valley Museum provides traveling teachers to assist in instruction and interactive exhibits about the river. The East Stanislaus Resource Conservation District purchased the Big Bend property, now used as the outdoor classroom.

Because of effective collaboration between the agencies and the school, students at Salida Elementary School have the opportunity to achieve their goal of knowing about the river that runs through their own back yard. This makes them less likely to suffer from “Nature Deficit Disorder” and more likely to be better stewards of their local natural resources in the future.

ACTION: For information on how to implement Trekking the Tuolumne River in local schools, contact Meg Gonzalez of Tuolumne River Trust, meg@tuolumne.org or 209-236-0330.

Energy sucks


You may not have had any vampires suck the blood (and consequent energy) from you recently, but you're likely being "blanched" by an electrical "vampire" draining energy from your household outlets, slowly but surely. You may still have all the energy you need, but you're paying for it, and so is the environment.

Do you leave your cell phone charger plugged in when you're not using it? That sucks (electricity). Do you leave your computer on "standby" mode rather than shutting it off? That sucks too. The fact is, most homes allow at least five percent of their electrical usage to be "used" (that is, not used) by keeping their electronics plugged in without actually using them.

Did you know that California lawmakers passed a proposal last year—the (unofficial) "Vampire Slayers Act"—to add labels to consumer products, detailing how much energy household (consuuuuumer ) electronics use? Most of us have little idea what amount of energy the plethora of electronics consume in our homes. When you consider everything from electronic chargers to your microwave, hair dryer, coffee maker, etc., you can understand why your bill may not be small.

There is no intention here to induce useless guilt. We live in an era of electrical dependence, after all. The point is simply to lessen our "carbon footprint," not to mention our energy bills.

If your household is similar to mine, you — we — have an average of more than one clock per room, including coffee makers and microwaves. And then there are the hairdryers/curlers, toothbrushes and other "trivial" energy users. (Yes, they may seem slight, but they add up, continually and "incidentally" from all of us.) Many of these "trickle" a charge even after the device has been fully charged. Constantly. Daily. Lithium-ion batteries typically shut off automatically, so they aren't a problem.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), about 40 percent of the electricity used to power your home electronics is consumed in "standby" mode. Focus on that small fact and you'll make a difference. Every coulomb counts.
What to do? Frankly, I'm personally not going to unhook my coffee maker daily, and thus its auto-start function and clock. Nor will I unplug my microwave when I'm not using it. I doubt you will either. However, one can have fewer electrical appliances plugged in when not in use. Also, using the clothes iron within 30 seconds of plugging it in and unplugging it immediately upon task completion is easy to do. I encourage the same for hair appliances. Most of these household appliances heat up within 15-30 seconds and there is no excuse to allow them to "sit" doing nothing for longer periods.)

What else can one do? Little things, like putting the computer and related accessories on a single power strip that can be switched off when you're not in use. For the record, I keep my computer on 24/7, but participate in BOINC (http://boinc.berkeley.edu/), which allows my computer to be used for scientific research.

Of course, you can also spend thousands of dollars replacing your old energy inefficient major appliances by buying appliances endorsed by the DOE and EPA under the Energy Star program. That's not necessary unless it's time for the machines to really need replacement. Besides, there's the little matter of all the energy use in manufacturing and transporting those appliances.

Likely, you can guess which appliances use the greatest amounts of energy, such as your dishwasher and clothes dryer, especially if you have children at home. But would you have guessed that your hair dryer, clothes iron and microwave use far more energy, per wattage hour, than your furnace or refrigerator? Minute by minute, many of your smallest appliances use more energy than your biggest appliances.

As you know, your water heater really eats up the energy, especially if you "need" a (long) daily shower/bath. Modifying our personal "behaviors of comfort" is easier said than done, for most, but virtues are not ubiquitous precisely because they require some discipline, no? Your refrigerator, by the way, is not on all the time, cycling on and off so that it uses less than you might expect.

As we've heard time and again, "it's the little things that count." That remains true in mundane daily home life as much as anywhere. Attention to detail, and practicing small frugalities in the minutiae of daily living, just as in your spiritual intentions and practices, does result in small, but real positive changes in the world. Even if you can't see the consequences directly, what you do matters.

Information: http://hes.lbl.gov/ Home Energy Audit


An historic opportunity to prevent farm animal cruelty


Only if enough signatures are collected on petitions, will Californians have an historic opportunity to vote for the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act on November 4, 2008.

This initiative could greatly improve the lives of millions of California farm animals and ensure that they are given enough room to turn around and extend their limbs. This modest requirement would prevent three of the most inhumane forms of confinement on factory farms:

BATTERY CAGES: California has approximately 19 million egg-laying hens confined in barren battery cages so small that they can barely move. They can’t spread their wings, nest, dust bathe, perch, or even walk. Each caged hen has less space than a sheet of letter-sized paper on which to live for more than a year before she is slaughtered. They all endure lives filled with suffering.

GESTATION CRATES: During their four-month pregnancies, nearly 20,000 female breeding pigs in California are confined in barren gestation crates ‑ individual metal stalls only two feet wide. The animals cannot turn around. Barely able to move, the pigs develop crippling joint disorders and lameness.

VEAL CRATES: Tiny wooden crates in which male calves are trapped and tethered by their necks for most of their lives. Barely larger than the calves’ bodies, the crates are so restrictive that the calves can’t turn around, lie down, or extend their limbs for months on end. Prevented from engaging in their natural behaviors, they suffer immensely.

This initiative will prevent the use of veal crates ‑ protecting animals, small family farmers, and the health of our environment and California’s residents.

Arizona, Florida, And Oregon have banned gestation crates, and Arizona has also banned veal crates. Major California companies are moving away from supporting battery cages and veal and gestation crates, and the European Union has banned all three.

This measure would also be good for the environment because factory farms are among the most serious causes of resource depletion, pollution, and global warming. It’s a public health concern and an animal health concern. California veterinarians support the humane treatment of farm animals. The cruel confinement of animals on factory farms makes them more susceptible to diseases. It’s bad for them, and it’s bad for us.

Without enough signatures, Californians will not get to vote on this important measure and time is quickly running out to get this requirement met by February, 2008. Any California registered voter can help collect signatures for the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act. This campaign desperately needs help in collecting signatures to meet the deadline.

ACTION: To help, visit www.humanecalifornia.org. To sign a petition, call (209) 549-1814 and ask for Jesse, or leave a message. Sponsored by The Humane Society of United States, family farmers, veterinarians, public health officials, and other animal protection groups.