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Fall Harvest of Nuts and Seeds

By Christopher Nyerges

How Native Americans found their food

Fall Harvest

It's fall, and the weather is cooler.  You can relax just a bit now that the oppressive heat of summer is over, but you know that winter is coming soon.  For most of the Angeles National Forest, that means that soon there will be snow. 

Seasons. Changes.  The mountains are a dynamic interplay of all the forces of nature.  And the more you enter the forest, the more you explore the trails, the more you consider what it takes to sustain life anywhere, you cannot but be amazed and fascinated that Native Americans once resided throughout the forest.

I can recall back to high school days, wondering and discussing with fellow students and botany teachers: What IS there to eat up there?  How DID folks survive?

Well, we had lots of interesting speculative discussions about it, but it took years for
the answer to slowly gel.

We took it for granted that the food quest was the most challenging, and one of the most critical. After all, every child can make a suitable shelter with minimal "outdoor training."  And any good Boy Scout can make a fire with a bow and drill.

But food, that is different.  In the days before large farms and supermarkets, you had to provide for yourself.  That meant plant gathering and hunting and fishing.  You had to know which plants you could eat and which you could not. And you were very much affected by the weather in your locale.  If there was a drought, you had to work harder to get food, and maybe walk further. 

We know that countless generations of people did precisely this since their descendants are still with us.  But only the strongest and the most intelligent survived in the old days.  That was The Way.

In the wild, there is always some food.   Unlike modern farms where all foods are engineered to mature at the same time, foods in the wild mature at different times. 

For example, lots of the greens are found in late winter and into the spring.  They can often be collected over a long period of time.  In late spring, certain fruits start to mature, such as the elders and currants.  In summer, the black walnuts start to drop, and by July and August come the wild cherries. Soon the pine cones open and drop their seeds.

In fact, each fruit or nut have a prime period from about one to two months when it is best to harvest them.  Remember that in the pre-electricity, and pre-Von's days of 500+ years ago, you collected, dried, and stored all you could or you did not eat.   It was The Way.

Beginning in late September, the acorns would fall. Depending on which variety we are talking about, acorns can be picked up from September well into February in some cases.  Acorns were big business in the past, and the collecting and processing would often coincide with fall harvest gatherings and big parties. 

A good acorn crop would mean food for the year for soup and bread and pancakes.  A very heavy acorn crop would be welcomed but with a bit of anxiety since the Native people of the past believed that a heavy acorn crop preceded either a very cold, very wet winter, or a winter of drought. 

rabbit

Other fruits and nuts also matured at this time. 

In September and October, the manzanita fruits would mature. These had nearly the same importance to Native peoples as did the acorns.  Though manzanita berries were sometimes picked green for a cider, they were mainly picked when they were red and dry. The fruits were then ground, and the powder added to other foods as a thickener and sweetener.

By November, the bay nuts would fall. These are a bit bitter raw, though not as bitter as acorns. Once the fleshy layer is removed, they are shelled and either baked, boiled, or dried before eating.

When winter was in full swing, we have the fruiting of the remarkable toyon tree.  One can only imagine how much this was enjoyed, a tree which has a fruit when everything else is dormant.  Toyon berries were not eaten raw off the tree, but were typically dried or cooked first. They are then eaten plain, or mixed into other foods for its sweet, and mildly acid, flavor. 

These are just a few of the foods that our geographical ancestors knew about and utilized in their quest for food.  A 10-year-old growing up in such a culture would know how to catch a rabbit with a stick, and how to identify edible plants throughout the year.

 If we today lack this essential knowledge, it is only because somewhere along the line, we felt that we no longer needed to provide for ourselves.  Such is the folly of modern man. 

Our School of Self-Reliance offers year-round classes so that modern urban folks can re-awaken that ancient part of ourselves.  We feel that such skills, and such thinking, can always serve you well, whether in the urban flatlands or up in the forest. 

Since 1974, Nyerges has been conducting field trips to teach how to identify edible wild plants, and learn about the survival skills of the past. He is the author of Enter the Forest and Guide to Wild Foods, which contain information about the ways of the Gabrielinos in the past. Both books are available in the Echo Mtn. Echoe’s Mountain Marketplace. For a schedule of his classes, contact him at School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or on-line at www.self-reliance.net.

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Last modified: February 12, 1999

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Jake Brouwer
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Copyright 1999