Posts Tagged ‘huckleberries’

Of Apples and Accordions

Monday, June 5th, 2017

Thinking of You

Thinking of You by Todd

“Around 50 to 65 million years ago, the apple ancestor separated from its Rosaceae cousins on the evolutionary pathway.” Dr. Roger Hellens

Long before there were humans, there were apples. More recently, as in right now, for the first time since I moved to Mendocino twelve years ago, the local apple crop is minimalist, and some orchards hereabouts have set no apples at all. Last year was an epic apple year, and this year the blackberries and huckleberries are promising massive fruit deliveries; but the wonky weather, the cold persisting after blossoming—something—blocked the fruiting of many of our local apple trees.

Last year our own seven not-very-big apple trees produced more fruit than Marcia and I could greedily consume. We canned several big batches of spicy applesauce, gave bags of apples to friends and horses, made gallons of apple juice, kept big boxes full of apples that lasted until January, and refrigerated several dozen apples, too, with some lasting until May. But today I counted but a couple dozen apples on the trees in our orchard, so we will have to go begging or buying apples this year. Darn.

 “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” Kurt Vonnegut

I was trying to remember the name of a certain apple and resorted to a favorite book I got at a yard sale in Berkeley twenty years ago: Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory, subtitle: an inventory of Nursery Catalogs Listing All Fruit, Berry and Nut Varieties available By Mail Order in the Unites States. My paperback edition came out circa 1989, and a quick search of the interweb shows there have been subsequent editions with web sites added to the information. The Inventory, however, seems to be out-of-print, with used copies going for hundreds of dollars. My copy, albeit out-of-date and falling apart, cost me a dime and has provided me with many hours of delightful reading.

Trusting the editors of the Inventory won’t mind, here are a few tasty tidbits from their goodly tome.

PEARMAIN, WHITE WINTER (Winter Pearmain) — Oldest known English apple; dates back to 1200 A.D. Medium to nearly large, round to oval, light greenish fruit turning pale yellow with numerous dots. Fine-grained, crisp, tender, juicy flesh. Pleasantly rich, aromatic flavor. Fine quality, all-purpose apple. Excellent keeper. Tree is a healthy, vigorous grower; bears regularly and heavily. Splendid vitality; widely adaptable. Excellent pollinator. Old favorite dessert apple of the Middle West in early 1800s. Today is grown primarily in warm winter areas where its low chilling requirement renders it one of the few possible apples there. Ripens in late October.

Wow. I have never knowingly eaten such an apple, but reading about the White Winter Pearmain makes me want to plant seven White Winter Pearmain trees and eat hundreds of White Winter Pearmain apples every year.

POMME ROYALE (Dyer)—Greenish yellow fruit usually covered with veins of russet. Fine, highly spicy flavor. Believed to be an old French variety brought to Rhode Island by some Huguenot settlers who fled France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Introduced in 1685.

Fleeing France in 1685. What shall we take to the New World? Cats, of course, to quell the rats. Favorite vegetable seeds. Pumpkins and rutabagas? And, of course, Pomme Royale rootstock so we can grow our trees and harvest apples from which we will make the hooch that has gotten us through hard times for generations, while from those same sacred orbs we will make our famous spicy Huguenot apple pies.

SCARLET CROFTON —Small to medium, flattish fruit. Orange-yellow with brilliant scarlet flush, sometimes solid scarlet, always overlaid with singular network of russet veins and conspicuous dots. Crisp, juicy flesh. Old Irish apple from County Sligo grown since Elizabethan times. Brought to general notice by John Robertson, famous Kilkenny pomologist and nurseryman. Introduced [to America] in 1819.

Oh wouldn’t it be wonderful to be a famous Kilkenny pomologist bringing apples and intriguing short stories to general notice. I wonder how John Roberston went about bringing things to notice. Did he have a wide correspondence with other pomologists? Did he wander around Ireland giving talks and preaching the gospel according to apples? Did he have a column in a popular Irish newspaper?

Or was there a large board affixed to the south-facing wall of the Kilkenny Post Office known as the General Notice Board upon which John Roberston posted articles about apples as well as compelling short stories with endings that could be interpreted any number of ways, so the people of Kilkenny were forever discussing John Robertson’s stories over apple crumble and tea? No wonder the man was so famous!

So…I was in the middle of writing this article when I took a walk into town, the town of Mendocino in County Mendocino, and in our post office box (I’m not making this up) there was a letter to me from Ireland writ by the marvelous accordion player and composer Karen Tweed, and included in the missive was a handout informing her many admirers of what she’s up to these days. And front and center in the handout (which is no doubt the very kind of thing John Roberston posted on the General Notice Board at the Kilkenny Post Office) was the following:

New & fruity project all about apples. Karen TWEED (accordion)—Karen STREET (accordion/saxophone) & Fiona TALKINGTON (voice) explore fact, myth & magic through music, cider, crumbles, poetry & spells…

Karen Tweed Update

Huckleberries

Monday, April 10th, 2017

turn left at the moon tw

Turn Left At the Moon painting by Nolan Winkler

“For when you see that the universe cannot be distinguished from how you act upon it, there is neither fate nor free will, self nor other. There is simply one all-inclusive Happening, in which your personal sensation of being alive occurs in just the same way as the river flowing and the stars shining far out in space. There is no question of submitting or accepting or going with it, for what happens in and as you is no different from what happens as it.” Alan Watts

If even half the blossoms on the huckleberry bushes in the Mendocino area this year become fruit, then the huckleberry harvest will be by far the greatest since I moved here eleven years ago. Bushes on our property and in the surrounding woods that previously sported no blossoms or only a few are now white with hundreds and thousands of the lovely little bell-shaped flowers. And friends in nearby Albion report the huckleberry bushes thereabouts are also heavily freighted with flowers.

My guess is that the great rains of this seemingly interminable winter following four years of drought inspired the huckleberries to such prolificacy, though we must be careful not to celebrate too soon. Those myriad flowers must be pollinated, and the primary pollinators of huckleberry bushes are bumblebees; and the bumblebee population has been in decline due to the use of pesticides that should never have been invented, let alone deployed.

Alas, even if you and I and our close neighbors don’t use those ghastly poisons, it only takes a few shortsighted fools in the watershed spraying their shrubbery with bad stuff to decimate the bumblebees and honeybees in our area. Thus the fate of those blossoms is, literally, in the hands of fools and which way the winds blow.

But assuming we do have a bumper huckleberry crop, a few days of picking will fill our freezer with the dark little orbs for smoothies and pancakes and crisps throughout our next winter. And if the harvest is truly epic, we will make great quantities of jam and not have to wonder what to give our friends for Christmas this year.

Whenever I see huckleberries on their bushes, and especially when I am standing by a goodly bush grazing on the delicious fruit, I think of two novels by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife. These marvelous books are about a small population of hunter-gatherers living in Siberia 20,000 years ago, when wooly mammoths still roamed the earth and wolves were yet to be domesticated. And in each of these books there are vivid scenes in which bushes of wild berries are all that save the people from starvation and dehydration.

We think of the wild huckleberries hereabouts as delicious additions to our store-bought main courses, but twenty thousand years ago, such berries might have been the only thing we could find to eat for days on end, and we would have been gleeful to see the bushes as laden with blossoms as they are in Mendocino these thousands of years after the last wooly mammoth succumbed to human hunger.

I am currently reading a collection of intoxicating essays entitled Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie, a Scottish poet with a most intriguing way of writing about birds and stones and landscapes and the ocean. Published in 2012, two of the longer essays in this volume are about remote islands—St. Kilda and Rona—off the coast of Scotland. Jamie writes with exquisite sensitivity about the birds and plants and seals that live on these islands, and the killer whales patrolling those seas. Inhabited by humans for hundreds of years, these islands are no longer home to any people, with only the decaying ruins of the old colonies remaining.

For me, Jamie’s collection of essays composes a deep meditation on the interaction of humans with the natural world, and how that interaction has evolved into estrangement for most of us, though we need not be estranged. Jamie is obviously enmeshed with the natural world, and her essays show us how we might experience ourselves as integral parts of the fantastical whole of life on earth.

I’m hoping the local huckleberries will set in profusion and turn darkly purple and come to taste of divine earthly sugars, so I may stand in the dappled forest light and eat my fill as I give thanks to the nature spirits for bringing me the boon of life.

Ball Bear Cat Piano

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2011)

“A hot dog at the ballgame beats roast beef at the Ritz.” Humphrey Bogart

Jon Miller, my favorite bard of baseball, recently used the words egregious, preposterous, cerulean, prodigious, and greensward whilst painting verbal pictures of our San Francisco Giants sweeping the Rockies and the Snakes, and making history as they did so. Jon revealed today during a lopsided loss to the Cubs, that no team in the long history of baseball had ever won six home games in a row in which they scored less than four runs in any of those six games. I agree that isn’t nearly as important as the ongoing meltdowns of the Fukushima nuclear power plants, but it does prove we have some mighty impressive pitching.

Sometimes Jon will quote the Bard (Shakespeare) himself. Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
 Hover through the fog…” might have been written expressly for baseball in San Francisco in July, except those prescient lines were written in England five hundred years ago. Yes, a baseball game announced by a gifted raconteur is an entirely different game than the same game seen on television. How can this be? Because television leaves nothing to the imagination, whereas visualizing a game while listening to an artfully improvised run of words is a prodigious imaginative feat; and every listener’s imagining of the game is unique.

Another wonderful thing about listening to intelligent, witty, insightful people (with great swaths of time to fill when nothing much is actually going on) is that they often say amazing and thought provoking things. Case in point: did you know that though the average major league baseball game takes roughly three hours to play, the action of the game—everything that actually happens other than the pitcher pitching and batters swinging or not swinging—takes only about six minutes of those three hours?

Here’s something else amazing that Jon recently imparted to us in his mellifluous voice. (Yes, I’ve heard Jon use the word mellifluous, too.) “From the time the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, it only takes the ball a quarter of a second to reach home plate. A quarter of a second. That’s how much time a batter has to decide whether to swing at the pitch or not.” Heck, I can’t snap my fingers in a quarter of a second, let alone swing a big old bat accurately enough to strike a nearly invisible little orb hurtling toward me at ninety-five miles an hour. Hence the famous quotation from Ted Williams, the last player to hit over .400 in a season (1941): “Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.”

So a few days ago I was listening to the Giants battle the Arizona Diamondbacks (the Snakes) when my phone rang and it was my neighbor Cindy calling to say there was a bear in their front yard finishing up some leftovers in the garbage can they hadn’t gotten back inside the bear-proof shed quite soon enough. This news interested me more than the game (that particular game at that particular moment) because I’ve lived in this house on this land adjoining a remote part of Big River State Park for six years and had yet to encounter one of our local bears. I had frequently seen the aftermaths of their visits—bear scat, flattened deer fences, broken boughs in apple trees where bruins had climbed in pursuit of apples—but I had yet to actually see a bear.

“How big is he, or she?” I asked, thinking I might tip toe through the huckleberries to get a peek at the bear.

“He’s sitting down,” said Cindy, “and his head and shoulders are visible over the front end of the overturned garbage can. One of those very big cans. What’s that? About three feet?”

Three feet to the shoulders while sitting down? Hmm. I decided not to go have a look, recalling a frightening documentary about bears in which it was said they can outrun humans, no problem. Or what if this was a sow with cubs lurking in the huckleberries? So I turned the game back on just as Cody Ross smacked a double—nice to have Cody getting his stroke back—and the phone rang again, Cindy telling me the bear was now heading my way on the footpath through the rhododendrons.

I went to the window at the west end of our living room and looked down the gravel driveway toward our woodpile, but my pickup truck was blocking the view of where the aforementioned footpath meets our driveway. I was certainly hoping to see a bear, but I wasn’t expecting to see such a big bear. This guy (I have good reason to believe the bear was male) was huge. And when he came around the nose of the pickup truck and went up onto his hind legs and looked in the passenger window of the truck, I gasped, because this bear was much taller than my truck. Indeed, this bear seemed to be roughly the same size as the truck. Of course he wasn’t really as big as the truck, but let us say that had he been human, he would have needed a bigger truck.

Seeing or smelling nothing worth eating in the diminutive vehicle, the bear dropped back down on all fours and continued into our front yard—a small meadow ringed by rhododendrons in glorious bloom and huckleberry bushes laden with blossoms presaging another abundant late summer harvest. I expected see the bear traverse the meadow and disappear into…

The bear came directly to the bottom of our front stairs. I know this because I was standing at the front door, the sliding glass variety, looking out at the bear looking up at me from six stairs down. That’s how many stairs there are: six. Then the bear rose up onto his hind legs again, perhaps to show me how big he was, or to reveal his gender, or to get a better look at me. In any case, he stayed upright for a long moment and then went back down on all fours and started up the stairs.

Two things struck me in that moment. Well, more than two things struck me, but two things struck me harder than the other things that were striking me. 1. For some reason I was not particularly frightened, though I thought I should be. 2. The bear looked goofy. He did not look anything like the bears I saw eons ago in Yosemite, nor did he look like the bears I’ve seen in National Geographics, the magazine or the documentary films. This bear looked goofy. He had lopsided floppy ears, and one rheumy eye noticeably larger than the other rheumy eye, and flies buzzing around his goofy face, which made me think he might be a very old bear with failing eyesight, which would explain why he was wandering around during the day instead of being appropriately nocturnal.

In any case, when he placed his enormous paw on the second step from the bottom, I banged on the glass, made what I hoped was a frightening face, and I growled. Roared, actually. To which that huge goofy bear responded by turning tail, so to speak, and hurrying away.

“Good pitching will beat good hitting any time, and vice versa.” Bob Veale

Relieved to have so easily vanquished the bear, I turned the radio back on just as Andres Torres smacked a double down the right field line—so nice to have Torres back in the leadoff spot—and I noticed our cats Hootie (slender and black) and Django (fat and gray) were nonchalantly sprawled on the sofa as if nothing untoward had just happened. Important factoid: Hootie and Django are cats who run and hide when I, the person who feeds them and pets them and calls them silly names, makes too sudden a movement or raises my voice much past a whisper. Hootie and Django will catch a whiff of something (a passing mountain lion?) and thereafter refuse to leave the house for days on end. These are cats who scurry under the bathtub when people they’ve met seventy times come to visit. Yet these scaredy cats seemed utterly clueless that a gigantic bear had just been moments away from breaking down the front door, ransacking the house, and eating them! Why were the cats so unmoved by the bear?

Because maybe the bear wasn’t a bear. Maybe the bear was a spirit being disguised as a bear. Wouldn’t that explain the goofy face and floppy ears? Maybe the bear was the embodiment of some old terror of mine, some old unfinished business that was now finished because I banged on the glass and made a terrible face and growled. I had become the bear. I had become my fear and thereby released the fear to be carried away into another dimension by the spirit bear being. Or maybe the cats knew this bear, knew he was goofy and harmless, and so were not afraid.

“A baseball game is simply a nervous breakdown divided into nine innings.” Earl Wilson

So…after the Giants won a nail biter on Cody Ross’s walk off single in the bottom of the ninth, I sat down at the piano and played for a while. And as I played, one of my favorite things happened. Hootie hopped up beside me on the piano bench and listened to me play. Or maybe he wasn’t listening, maybe he was just hanging out and enjoying the vibe of the person who feeds him enjoying playing the piano.

I don’t play written down music. I improvise on themes and patterns and inventions I’ve found over forty years of playing every day for an hour or two or three. And on that day the bear came to visit, I played with the bear in mind, the music changing from somber to funny to nostalgic to grandiloquent to sweet—our little black cat sitting beside me the whole time.

Todd’s new CD of piano improvisations Ceremonies is available from underthetablebooks.com and downloadable from iTunes, Amazon, and CD Baby.

Your Inner Bushman

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2011)

“The five groups of San or Bushmen are called the First People. Most call themselves Bushmen when referring to themselves collectively.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas from her book The Old Way

I wanted to open this article with that quote from Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, a great friend of the Kalahari Bushmen, so I would not be accused of using a derogatory term when speaking of the people from whom all humans on earth are descended. One of my favorite scientific discoveries of the last few decades is that every human being currently alive on the planet can trace his or her lineage directly to the same Bushman woman who lived in Southwest Africa 172,000 years ago.

The gathering of pertinent genetic data from around the world, as well as the complicated figuring that went into determining the identity of our great Mother, has now been duplicated by multiple scientific teams, and there is today universal agreement among physical anthropologists and geneticists (though not among members of Congress) that Eve, as the European-centric researchers have named her, was, indeed, a Bushman. The name I prefer for our Very First Lady is N!ai, the exclamation point indicating a loud click made by pressing the tongue against the top of the mouth and popping it down simultaneously with the sound ai (I).

Among the many groovy things about tracing our collective beginning back to N!ai is that until the 1950’s there were still extant bands of Bushmen in and around the Kalahari Desert living very much as they had for tens of thousands of years, and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and her parents and brother were among the first and last non-Bushmen to gently interface with these people and to record in great detail, in writing and film and sound recordings, how our Neolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors lived. Thus we know, in a tangible way, from whence we came.

“Interestingly, no anthropologist wanted to join us, although my father tried hard to find one and would have paid for his or her salary and all expenses. However, unlike the modern Kalahari, where the anthropologist/Bushman ratio often seems to be one to one, in those days (1950’s) no anthropologist took an interest in our project.” from The Old Way

The first book I ever read about Bushmen was The Lost World of the Kalahari by Laurens van der Post. What a great adventure story! I was sixteen and intent on becoming an actor and a musician, but I was so thrilled by van der Post’s book I decided if I had to go to college to avoid going to Vietnam, I would major in the study of Bushmen. I subsequently devoured the sequel to The Lost World of the Kalahari entitled The Heart of the Hunter, and then I found Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s The Harmless People and read it twice. By the time I matriculated at UC Santa Cruz in 1967 with a major in Anthropology, I had read virtually everything there was in print about Bushmen.

Upon my arrival at that bucolic campus, and much to my dismay, I was informed by my snooty professors that Laurens van der Post and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas were to be ignored in regard to Bushmen because, heaven forbid, neither was an accredited anthropologist, and thus their data was suspect and I was a fool for admiring them. Nevertheless, their books introduced me to Bushmen and I have subsequently been privileged to correspond with Elizabeth Marshall Thomas about many things, most especially about the first people.

“What determined the size of our groups? Water was the single most important factor—water and the food supply around it.” from The Old Way

This may come as a surprise to you, but there was no pasta in the diet of the first people. Indeed, the so-called hunter-gatherer diet now being hailed by avant-garde nutritionists as the healthiest possible diet for most human beings contains no dairy, no gluten, no wheat, almost no grain, and very little sugar. I know several people currently reveling in newfound health since making the shift away from a grain-based diet to one composed largely of fruits, vegetables, nuts, tubers, and…wait for it…meat. And why is such a diet so good for most humans? Because, quite simply, our metabolism, our inner Bushman, if you will, evolved over hundreds of thousands of years eating what our hunter-gatherer progenitors ate and not much else.

I cannot recommend highly enough Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s book The Old Way to anyone interested in his or her origins. Ms. Thomas published this remarkable volume in 2006, nearly fifty years after publishing The Harmless People, having decided to revisit the copious notes she made while living with the Bushmen in the 1950’s, and to tell a new story imbued with experiences and insights accrued over her long life of study, exploration, and contemplation. I have loaned my copy of The Old Way to several people, and every one of them reported that the book inspired a profound and positive shift in their perceptions of themselves and the world.

For those who prefer fiction to non-fiction, as I generally do, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has also written two great novels—Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife—of what may ultimately be a trilogy of interconnected sagas focusing on a group of hunter-gatherers living somewhere in the northern hemisphere at a time when mammoths still roamed the earth, and when lions and tigers were much more likely to kill people than vice-versa.

“We lived in groups; we could dig roots; we could find water; we could catch grubs, snails, tortoises, porcupines, and other small animals that were not fast runners (sometimes called “slow game”); some of us could run down large antelopes; and we had fire. We had lived on the savannah for a million years.” from The Old Way

We lived in groups, and we dined in groups, and we shared our kills and harvests with friends and loved ones, which brings to mind our dear friend Juliette White, globetrotter, cellist, and patron of artists and friends, who died a little over a year ago. She was, among many things, the hostess of wonderful spontaneous meals devoured by lucky last-minute invitees to her cozy cottage a couple miles inland on Albion Ridge Road.  I met Juliette three years before she died. Her gift to me at the end of our first meeting was her blessing to marry her good friend Marcia, which I did. Thereafter, I was invited to a number of spontaneous dining soirees in Juliette’s commodious cottage; and some six months before she died, Juliette asked me to help her write her obituary.

So one morning over a breakfast of buckwheat pancakes bursting with huckleberries plucked from bushes growing in the forest surrounding her house, I interviewed Juliette about her long and multi-faceted life, and quite unexpectedly she said, “That was the year we went to Africa and lived with the Bushmen.” I nearly fell out of my chair. But it was true! Juliette had gone to Africa and made the long and dangerous trek by land rover into the Kalahari Desert to live for a time with the same Bushmen people that Elizabeth Marshall Thomas lived with and wrote about; and Juliette had several gorgeous photographs of those Bushmen people to prove it.

I then had the pleasure of sending copies of Juliette’s photographs to Elizabeth, who then wrote to Juliette and told her that she recognized the people and was glad and very touched to see them again.

And that story reminds me of huckleberries, which Juliette loved, and which the hunter-gatherers in Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s novels are frequently saved by in the absence of water or any other food as they trek across the rugged earth seeking food and safe shelter and, with any luck, dry firewood.

This past fall the huckleberries were thick on the bushes that grow around our house on the edge of the redwood forest. We picked several quarts to freeze so we would have berries through the winter and into spring, and this morning I made gluten-free pancakes with some of those huckleberries, and I thought of Juliette and Elizabeth and of the hunter-gatherer diet, and how chocolate is not on that diet, but honey is, because Bushmen love honey. Oh, yes we do.

There is a bird that lives symbiotically with the Bushmen of the Kalahari, a brave and beautiful bird called the Honey Diviner. And this Honey Diviner comes to the Bushmen camp singing, “Hello my friends, I bring tidings of a big tree where the bees have amassed a great store of honey that is at this very moment oozing out of the hive and crying to be harvested. However, I do not have hands to get that honey from the bees, but you do, and I know you love honey as much as I do, so…”
And so the people follow the Honey Diviner to that big tree, even if it means running many miles across the desert, for they love honey as much as they love meat. And when they have braved the stings of those angry bees and filled their ostrich-shell bowls with honey, the people give the Honey Diviner a generous share of the sweet ambrosia, for without her they might never have found the hive.