Posts Tagged ‘The Old Way’

Slaves of Fruit

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Slaves of Fruit

Cooking Down the Apples photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2013)

“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” Martin Luther

A few days ago, Abigail Summers, cellist, pianist and yogini, came over from Willits to work with Marcia on their string camp and attend rehearsals of the Symphony of the Redwoods wherein Abby shares a stand with Marcia at the front of the cello section. When I say string camp, you may imagine groups of people sitting around campfires playing with various lengths and colors and thicknesses of strings, and perhaps weaving those strings into fanciful sculptures or useful bags for carrying fruit and such. And though that sounds like great fun, the string camp I’m referring to is Navarro River String Camp, a twice-a-year event without campfires for beginning and intermediate adult players of violins, violas, and cellos, people keen to play chamber music with other string players and be coached by great and sympathetic professional musicians.

Upon her arrival Abigail gifted us with seven gorgeous persimmons on the verge of perfect ripeness, and I placed those delectable orange orbs in a bowl on the kitchen counter next to a bowl of walnuts recently given to us by our neighbors, and there the persimmons and walnuts sat for some days until last night when…

But first I must tell you about the apple and pear harvest we attended yesterday and why we, Marcia and I, are now slaves of fruit, as Marcia so aptly described our current reality here at Fox Hollow, so named for the foxes who share this neck of the woods with us and are especially enamored of our plums.

This has been a stupendous year for pears and apples in Mendocino, and though apples may retain their perfection for weeks and even months after picking, pears are perfectly ripe for but a fleeting—a few days at best—before they devolve into inedible rot. Yet when a good pear is perfectly ripe, there is little in the world to rival that fruit for sweetness and juiciness and the embodiment of life at the zenith of fulfillment. Thus when we arrived at Sam Edwards’ place a quarter mile down the hill from our house to participate in Ginny Sharkey’s and Sam’s annual apple juicing soiree, we were heartened to discover that along with hundreds of perfectly ripe apples adorning the many spectacular old trees on Sam’s Little Acre, there were many dozens of large and very ready pears, some to be juiced and some to be ferried home along with copious quantities of huge and delicious apples.

In these terrible times of hyper-inflation—never mind the phony governmental figures to the contrary—when not-very-good apples sell for three dollars or more per pound in the grocery stores, there is something positively surreal, nay, ultra-real, about walking through an orchard of well-established and well cared for apple trees and seeing so many huge and beautiful and delicious apples there for the taking, or in our case the shaking, which is how we got a good many of the orbs to come down, the ground a thick mat of just mown grass to cushion their falls. And as we gathered the fruit in buckets and bags to carry to the juicer, I imagined we were Bushmen coming upon this fabulous forest of fruit on the fringe of the Kalahari, the generosity of nature causing us to shout and ululate and dance a thank you dance to the apple gods.

“A major harvest of this kind was very much like a successful hunt for big game, and such major bounty was shared in the manner of big game, if without as much excitement. As the owner of the arrow, not the hunter, made the first divisions of the animal killed by the arrow, so the owner of a bag made the first division of the nuts, no matter who gathered the nuts or carried the bag. This sort of food gathering was surely of recent origin (“recent” in geological time), because without large skin bags, such a harvest could not take place, and before people could obtain large skins by hunting big game, there were no large skin bags.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas from The Old Way

Back home at Fox Hollow with our booty of apples and pears, a craving for a sweet treat overtook us after supper and Marcia was about to make pumpkin bread when I happened to fondle one of the aforementioned persimmons and diagnosed the fruit to be on the verge of liquidity. “Hark fair maiden,” I cried out to my wife as she prepared to open a can of pureed pumpkin, “these persimmons fast approach the point of no return and should be used post haste or nevermore.”

And yay verily it came to pass that Marcia, with cracking and chopping and stirring help from Todd, did make a stupendous loaf of gluten free and eggless persimmon walnut date bread that pleased us mightily before we went to bed, and again at breakfast with coffee. Gads what a taste treat, over which Marcia observed, “Methinks these tender sweet pears we gained from Sam and Ginny do quickly morph from yummy to yucky, which means today is the day we must render them into chutney, lest tomorrow prove deathly to their deliciousness.”

“I cannot but agree with you,” I exclaimed, “but before we enslave ourselves further to these sugary fruits, I beg you assist me in the pruning of Marion’s apple tree, the Golden Delicious thereupon crying to be picked, the branches of that ancient tree strangling each other for want of pruning.”

So we took ourselves thither (just two doors down, Marion another of the string camp honchos) and pruned and hewed and snipped that generous tree until we’d relieved her of myriad redundant appendages, and gathered another couple bags of fruit. Then we ate lunch, ran some errands, gave a big bag of apples to Ian at ZO, Mendocino’s incomparable copy shop, and spent much of the rest of the day peeling and coring and chopping pears to be cooked and spiced and stirred and canned, with a cup of excess spicy chutney juice proving a most delicious sauce on our rice at supper.

“Adam was but human—this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.” Mark Twain

The original Hebrew text of the Old Testament says nothing about apples being the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden; and for historical and geographical and climatic reasons, it is much more likely that the forbidden fruit mentioned in the Bible was figs or pomegranates, though why any non-poisonous fruit would be forbidden is another of the great Judeo-Christian mysteries.

“About 69 million tons of apples were grown worldwide in 2010, and China produced almost half of this total. The United States is the second-leading producer, with more than 6% of world production. Turkey is third, followed by Italy, India and Poland.” Wikipedia

Now we gaze upon our hundreds of apples to be turned into sauce and chutney and pies and crisps, and given to friends and neighbors, the badly bruised ones to be taken to our neighbor Kathy Mooney who will feed them to her magic horse Paloma. Magic? Yay verily. Paloma is a glorious white steed with sky blue eyes, the source of truckloads of manure per annum that not only enriches our vegetable beds, but fills the basins around our fruit trees where winter rains soak the vivacious nutrients out of the poop and feed the soil and fatten the worms and invigorate the roots and cause next year’s apples and plums to be huge and sweet, and so on.

For more information about Navarro River String Camp, please visit NavarroRiverMusic. com

Junior High

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

Wolf Me drawing by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2012)

“Hemingway never grew out of adolescence. His scope and depth stayed shallow because he had no idea what women are for.” Rex Stout

Today I fit several important pieces into the jigsaw puzzle of life, having found the first of those pieces a few days ago while I was at Mendocino K-8 School on Little Lake Road, shooting hoops despite the biting chill in the air and…

Wait. Doesn’t it strike you as remarkable, even astonishing, that in Mendocino of all places, a town known the world over as a seething vortex of artists and poets and potheads, that our K-8 school doesn’t have at least a mildly groovy name? Fantasia Archetype School. Raven Big Tree Learning Center. Earthling Haven Academy. Middle Earth Education Fulcrum. Doppelganger Nine. Fields of Elysium Lyceum. Mind Body Spirit Cognition Node. But I digress.

So…I was shooting hoops despite the biting chill when down the steps from the school to the playground came two people, a shapely young woman with hair of spun gold and a boy some four inches shorter than the young woman, a skinny, dorky boy with drab brown hair wearing a blue Mendocino K-8 School sweatshirt. And though I was a hundred yards away, I knew this boy and woman were courting, that they were the same age, numerically speaking, and that they were headed for the swings where many Mendocino K-8 junior high couples go to swing and flirt and talk about whatever junior high kids talk about these days.

Seeing these two physically mismatched lovebirds, I journeyed back through my memory archives to when I was a drab dorky boy in Eighth Grade and madly in love with three shapely young women who were, in every conceivable way (and I do mean conceivable), ready to hook up with men but found themselves surrounded by boys. And remembering those uneasy days of biological imbalance, when Lucy and Hannah and Shari were so obviously women while I and my male classmates were still so obviously boys, and having just finished reading The Old Way by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas for the third time, I suddenly understood why so many girls today turn into women well in advance of their male age peers, which understanding was the aforementioned first of several pieces I just today fit into the jigsaw puzzle of life.

“We hope to find more pieces of the puzzle which will shed light on the connection between this upright, walking ape, our early ancestor, and modern man.” Richard Leakey

I love the many-times-proven fact that every human being on earth is a direct genetic descendant of the Ju/wasi (Bushmen) of southern Africa, and I am so grateful that Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, a keen observer and gifted writer, dwelt among some of the last Ju/wasi to live in the Old Way so we may know how our ancestors lived prior to the ruination of the African savannah and the decimation of the original Ju/wasi way of life.

To quote from The Old Way (with Ms. Thomas’s permission), “If you happen to see a contemporary film or photo showing Bushmen dressed in skins, perhaps beside a small grass shelter or following a line of antelope footprints or handling a bow and arrow, you are seeing a reenactment. Today, nobody lives in the Old Way. All Bushmen, unless they put on skins for a photographer, wear the clothing of the dominant cultures—invariably Western dress for men, and Western or African dress for women—and none live by hunting and gathering, although with these activities they sometimes supplement their meager diet, which today is often cornmeal provided by the Namibian government as a welfare ration. They have jobs if they can get them, although many cannot; they listen to popular music on the radio, dance the popular dances, are influenced to some degree by Christianity, and are aware of the larger world and national politics.”

The Old Way is a record of daily life among one of the very last groups of Ju/wasi living as their predecessors (our predecessors) lived for at least thirty-five thousand years. And guess what? The junior high biological gender divide of our modern times did not exist among our people for those thirty-five thousand years.

“N!ai reached the menarche (began to menstruate) when she was about seventeen years old. At this time an important ceremony was held for her with eland music and dancing—a much more important ceremony than her wedding. But she and /Gunda (her husband) had no child for three years, when she was almost twenty. This was a very normal age for a Ju/wa woman’s first pregnancy.

“In the Old Way, the human population, like most other populations who live in the Old Way, had it own regulation. The strenuous work and absence of body fat prevented hunter-gatherer women from menstruating at an early age…”

In harmony with this biological truth, a Ju/wa man was not allowed to wed until he had killed an antelope, no easy feat even for a strong and experienced hunter. Thus most Ju/wa men spent the years before marriage growing into their full size and strength while acquiring skills that would enable them to provide antelope meat for their families and relatives.

 “Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.” Lewis Carroll

When I was a little boy, my friends and I would pretend to be cowboys fighting Indians, the Indians being in the distance for us to shoot at with our pretend guns. When I was an older boy, my friends and I pretended to be American soldiers fighting Japanese and German soldiers, and these enemies, too, were in the distance for us to shoot at with our pretend guns. But when I played alone, I was always an Indian with a spear (fashioned from a grape stake or broom handle) and the bow and arrows I’d had since I was eight.

My childhood home stood on the edge of an abandoned estate, twenty acres of oaks and olive trees and overgrown vineyards and grasslands and ravines and chaparral teaming with wildlife—paradise. As far as I know, I was the only boy or girl in my neighborhood to habitually pretend to be an Indian; and there were certainly no other pretend Indians in our neck of the woods who took their pretending to the lengths I did. During those long summers when I was eight nine ten eleven and twelve, I lived for days on end in the wilds back of our house, barefoot and naked save for shorts, spending many a night camped out under the stars, with nuts and raisins and beef jerky for food, and a fire of twigs to keep me company as I gave voice to my invisible companions, wise old storytellers who knew everything there was to know about the animals and plants and spirits of that place.

I played tons of baseball with my friends and rode my bike all over the place, adventuring in the world of roads and stores, and I spent hours hunkered down in my bedroom with books, but no matter what else I might be doing, I longed to be in the woods, to follow a bird or butterfly to see where they might lead me; and to sit hidden and still for so long that the quail would forget I was there and resume their foraging around me, and a deer might appear close by, unaware of me, and I would be filled with wild joy knowing I might kill these animals if I needed to eat them to survive.

“I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing

than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance” e.e. cummings

I attended school and went insane with boredom, the teachings dead and useless, the only good parts of school being singing and drawing and recess and ball games and socializing with my friends and being secretly in love with girls. And until Sixth Grade all my classmates were boys and girls, and it was only midway through Sixth Grade and from then on that girls became women and boys remained boys, a division that reached a painful zenith in Seventh and Eighth Grade, otherwise known as junior high.

“and down they forgot as up they grew” e.e. cummings

The summer after Eighth Grade I was hired by a neighbor to move many tons of soil from his backyard to his front yard. I shoveled heavy brown dirt from a gently sloping hillside into a large wheelbarrow and wheeled that barrow a hundred yards up and over an incline to the dumping point. This labor—five hours a day—lasted two months and changed my fast-growing body from skinny boy to muscular young man. Then, with only a month remaining before I started high school, I spent two weeks camped in the woods with my spear and fires and beef jerky, knowing these were the last days of my childhood and never wanting them to end.

“and now you are and i am now and we’re

a mystery which will never happen again” e.e. cummings

The week before I started high school, I went to a party; and all the girls my age had become women. They saw I was no longer a boy; and Shari who had been a woman since Seventh Grade kissed me tenderly as we danced and led me outside into the moonlight and we kissed unto mindlessness, but beyond that I didn’t have a clue what to do and Shari was clearly frustrated and disappointed.

A few days later, the Saturday before high school began, I came home from my camp in the woods to find Hannah had come to visit, Hannah whom I had secretly loved since Fifth Grade, Hannah with womanly curves and beautiful breasts, Hannah with a deep musical laugh who always got my jokes when no one else did, Hannah who was my primary dream girl and fantasy lover.

We played ping-pong, and as we played I realized I was naked save for shorts, and Hannah was naked save for shorts and a negligible blouse. I had caught up to her, biologically speaking, and she had come to me—never having been to my house before—because she knew I had caught up to her, and because she liked me.

Somehow we went from playing ping-pong on the terrace to walking through the overgrown vineyard to a massive oak, and there we embraced and kissed and kissed some more until she whispered sweetly, “Hey, you wanna do it?”

“I…I…”

“I know how,” she said, her eyes sparkling. “And I can show you.”

I was thirteen. Looking back, seeing myself with Hannah in those last moments of childhood, I may wish I had allowed her to show me, but now that I have found and fit enough pieces into the jigsaw puzzle of life, I understand that I was not yet fully a man, not yet a killer of antelopes or the modern equivalent, and therefore not allowed to take a wife.

Mystery Inventions

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

Mr. and Mrs. Magician and Daughter Mystery painting by Todd

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2012)

Deeply moved by a concert of music by Martinû and Mozart, a man gives fifty dollars to a street musician, a Venezuelan bass player whose musical inventions are reminiscent of Eric Satie and Bill Evans. The bass player uses the fifty dollars to buy herself the first nourishing meal she’s had in weeks, after which she catches a train to visit her mother for the first time in several months, and arrives to find her mother dying. With her last breath, the bass player’s mother reveals the identity of the bass player’s real father; and while questing to find her father, the bass player meets a pianist with whom she records ten improvisations, each a musical meditation on the question: what is life all about?

“As we acquire more knowledge, things do not become more comprehensible, but more mysterious.” Albert Schweitzer

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas makes an excellent case for the digging stick and the ostrich egg being the two most important inventions in human history—more important than fire or weaponry. I am reading The Old Way again, Thomas’s masterpiece about the Bushmen of the Kalahari; and I find her book the perfect antidote to the information overload and resultant anxiety of this digital age. Here is a tiny taste of The Old Way.

“A digging stick is humble, yes. The very name of this item in the English language shows how seriously we underrate it—we assign specific nouns, not vaguely descriptive phrases, to objects that we consider important. Our long stick with a blade at the end is call a spear, for instance, not a stabbing stick. But even if a pointed stick seems insignificant to us in our innocence, as an invention of consequence it ranks with the discovery of the deep roots themselves and has made more difference to our species than virtually all the other inventions we celebrate with more enthusiasm.”

“Then, too, there is the ostrich egg. This useful item is first a meal and then a water bottle. To use these eggs, we had to do only two things—steal a fresh egg without being kicked by the ostrich, and open a hole in the shell. Unless the egg is opened carefully, the contents will spill, so the best way to eat the egg without wasting the contents is to pick up a rock, tap open a small hole in the shell, and stir the contents with a stick. After sucking out the egg, we had an empty eggshell, with obvious implications. An ostrich egg holds from five to five and a half cups of water, more than a day’s supply. No further refinement was needed except a wad of grass for a stopper.”

“On the dry savannah, the need for water limited our foraging. One ostrich eggshell filled with water could expand the foraging range of its owner by fifty to one hundred square miles.”

“Only one kind of primate—our kind—found a way to reach the deep buried foods, carry small amounts of water, and modify tree nests into ground nests so that we could sleep anywhere.”

“There is no greater mystery to me than that of light traveling through darkness.” Alexander Volkov

Writing about inventions, I am reminded of that old joke (and its many variations) about a world conference to determine the most important invention of all time, each nation having an egoistic stake in nominating an invention thought to have originated in their country.

So the Russian representative rises. “We nominate sputnik. After all, first satellite started space race that put people on moon and spawned most important technological breakthroughs thereafter.” Loud applause.

The American representative stands. “Hey, there’s no denying sputnik was a good little kick in the pants, but has anything changed the world more profoundly than the computer? We don’t think so. We nominate the computer, that fundamentally American creation, as the most important invention of all time.” Thunderous applause.

Then the representative of the group or nation the joke teller wants to make fun of stumbles to the podium. “Of course, sputnik was a game changer, and life without computers is almost unimaginable, but there is one invention we think is far more amazing than both of those illustrious inventions, and that is the thermos. Keeps hot things hot, and cold things cold. How does it know?”

“The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery.” Anais Nin

In 1900, the average life span of an American was forty-seven years, and the average life span for people in many other societies in the world was considerably less. The invention and deployment of penicillin in the 1940’s is credited with increasing that average life span to eighty years for citizens of America and other so-called advanced nations. Prior to the widespread use of antibiotics, millions of people, especially infants, children, and the elderly, died annually of diseases now easily cured. The most troubling result of this vast increase in human longevity is the increase in human population far beyond the regenerative capacity of the planet.

Consider this: paleoanthropologists have found almost no remains of pre-historic humans older than thirty. Lose a step ten thousand years ago and you were tiger food, or possibly vittles for your brethren. Now try to imagine the world today if most people still died shortly after their wisdom teeth emerged to replace those molars lost during the first twenty years of chewing on the tough and the raw.

“Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.” Carl Jung

I recently came out with a new CD of piano and bass duets entitled Mystery Inventions on which I play piano and Kijé Izquierda plays bass. Each of our ten tunes explores variations on a basic melodic expression underscored by an intriguing bass pattern. Because my piano playing is spacious (some would say spare), the tunes on my previous piano albums 43 short Piano Improvisations and Ceremonies are melody-driven, whereas the bass drives the Mystery Inventions, even when the tempo is slow. I was tempted to bring in a drummer, but the interplay of bass and piano sounded so groovy, I opted for duet.

The most mysterious thing to me about my piano playing is that my left hand operates with no conscious direction from me, whereas my right hand learns through my conscious intentions. Because I do not read music or play music composed by other people, my compositions and improvisations are the result of hours of daily keyboard explorations during which I discover note patterns and interrelationships that captivate me sufficiently so I will repeat those patterns until my fingers remember them. The more thoroughly my fingers memorize these patterns, the freer I am to improvise on those patterns. I have been practicing this way for forty-five years, my right hand learning through my conscious inquiries, my left hand figuring things out on its own.

 “The final mystery is oneself.” Oscar Wilde

I don’t read music because when I was seven-years-old I took piano lessons from a very unhappy man who did not like me. After a few traumatic lessons wherein he berated me for not sufficiently practicing the assigned pieces, there came a horrific moment when he struck my right hand with a heavy metal pen because I was not, in his estimation, holding my hands correctly. I screamed bloody murder and ran out of the room. I can feel the ache in my knuckles to this day.

Thereafter I not only refused to play the piano, I could not look at our piano without feeling sick. Singing became my main mode of musical expression, and at sixteen I was a singer in a very loud rock band. The leader of the band was my close friend, and a talented guitarist. He used to come to my house and noodle around on his guitar while I accompanied him on bongos. One evening he pointed at our old upright piano and said, “Can you play that?”

“No,” I said, reluctant to even look at the piano.

“Oh, go on,” he said, reaching over and plunking a few notes. “Just play anything and I’ll play along.”

“No,” I said, furiously. “I don’t play the fucking piano, okay?”

“Please?” he insisted. “Just a few notes so I can play some harmonies.”

And because I wanted to please my friend, I went to the piano and played a simple pattern of notes; and six weeks later we opened for a rock band at a teen nightclub in the basement of a church in Woodside, California. I played simple patterns of notes and chords while my friend improvised on his electric twelve-string guitar. Two beautiful hippie chicks wearing dresses made of diaphanous scarves danced to our pubescent ragas, and afterwards a big black guy with a shaved head came up to me and said, “Busted hip, kid. You know Monk? Miles? Hubbard? Hancock? Evans? Cannonball? Check’em out.” So I did; and I was a goner.

And now, listening to Mystery Inventions, I bless that very sad man who smacked my knuckles fifty-five years ago, because if not for his striking me so cruelly, I might never have left the well-trod path and gotten lost in the wild jungle of possibilities.

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.