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Blackberries & Firewood

a9-Promise of Spring

Promise of Spring photograph by Ellen Jantzen

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

“Looks can be deceiving—it’s eating that’s believing.” James Thurber

A few days ago, Marion Crombie, our musical neighbor and fellow fruit forager, reported that two of the most promising and easily accessible stands of blackberries hereabouts have begun to fulfill their promise, so the next morning Marcia and I set forth with our knapsack full of glass jars (with lids) to harvest the luscious berries pursuant to making blackberry jam.

This is that marvelous time of year around here when the garden is producing copious edibles, the local apple crop is coming ripe, the plums have peaked but are still hanging about, and the berries—huckle, black, rasp and boysen—are profuse upon their vines. We managed to pick three quarts of black beauties in an hour or so, and with five apples cut up in the mix and using only one-third of the sugar called for in the jam recipe, we cooked up three quarts of the best blackberry jam money can’t buy.

“As an instrument of planetary home repair, it is hard to imagine anything as safe as a tree.” Jonathan Weiner

Yesterday, with the Mendocino air by turns muggy and cold and muggy and cold, the huge green dump truck from Frank’s Firewood arrived from Boonville to deliver two cords of seasoned tan oak destined for our wonderfully efficient Norwegian woodstove. The driver of that well-known truck is Neil Vaine, a master backer upper and superior dumping strategist, accompanied on his rounds by his trusty pooch, a handsome dog with a sweet disposition and a love of riding hither and yon with Neil.

The two cords had to be dumped a good fifty yards from our woodshed, and I look upon that great mass of yet-to-be-released solar power as hours of invigorating hauling and stacking that will ultimately result in thousands of hours of comforting heat when winter is upon us and the rains and cold keep us inside more than out. I am well aware of how lucky we are to live where we’re allowed to heat our homes with firewood, and luckier still to live in a place where firewood is available at all.

I love building fires and feeding them and watching the flames, and I have loved all that since I was little boy. When I was six-years-old, my father taught me how to build a campfire without the use of paper or lighter fluid. He showed me how to build a spacious little structure of tiny twigs around which and on top of I would lay slightly larger pieces of wood, and so on, while being careful to leave an opening for the match to reach those underlying twigs. For some years thereafter it was a point of pride that I make my fires in the fireplace at home or on backpack trips without resorting to paper to ignite the kindling. Nowadays I have no pride when it comes to using old newspapers to start the fire, though now and again I will build a fire without paper just to prove I can.

“Why, if a fish came to me, and told me he was going on a journey, I should say, “With what porpoise?” Lewis Carroll

Speaking of abundance, this used to be the time of year when we would frequently partake of delicious and nutritious locally caught salmon, but now we have drastically reduced our intake of fish in response to the ongoing meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan that have permanently poisoned the Pacific Ocean, with millions of gallons of radioactive water being released into the ocean every day from those dangerously crippled reactors because the Japanese lack the technology and sufficient money to stop the radioactive bleeding. Where are you when we need you, President Obama, Senators Feinstein and Boxer, billionaires Gates and Buffet, along with the rest of the entire supposedly civilized world?

Yesterday I read an excellent and terrifying article online from which I learned that a huge mass of radioactive contaminants dumped into the ocean from the Fukushima plants is fast approaching the west coast of North America, this on top of the enormous amounts of radioactive molecules that have already reached our shores and spread through the air around the world. And then I did something I rarely do; I read the comments from readers at the end of that online article, most of which contained the line, “I’m glad I don’t live on the west coast,” and many of which contained the shocking (to me) sentiment that the radioactive onslaught would “serve those rich people in Carmel and Malibu right.”

“Food is an important part of a balanced diet.” Fran Lebowitz

Today I stop in at the GoodLife Café and Bakery and purchase a loaf of excellent gluten-free bread, and the thought of a piece of toast made from that yummy bread lathered with our homemade blackberry jam propels me up the steep hill to home, my daily walk to and from the village of Mendocino the centerpiece of my current fitness regime that now also includes hauling and stacking firewood.

As I climb the hill, I rejoice about the abundance of fresh blackberries and our ample supply of firewood while simultaneously feeling sad about the ongoing catastrophe at Fukushima and the radioactive tides approaching our shores. I wave to a smiling friend driving by and try not to think about the corporations of mass destruction holding sway over the United States and much of the world. I stop to marvel at a hummingbird visiting the fanciful blooms of a fuchsia and think about brave Bradley Manning, one of the great heroes of our time, being sentenced to thirty-five years in prison for trying to do something about the out-of-control military-industrial complex that has made of the entire world a battle field.

“There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.” Gore Vidal

I think we humans made a terrible mistake when we stopped living in or near villages, and by near I mean within a couple miles. I have the feeling that if humans are to survive and thrive on earth beyond the next little while, pretty much all of us will have to become villagers again, and even those who live in large cities will live in village-like neighborhoods within those cities. I think we will also have to become an egalitarian society again if we are to survive and thrive.

When were humans egalitarian? Haven’t there always been people who had much more than other people? Actually, no. Having much more than others made no practical sense for most of human evolution. Have you seen the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy? A purely egalitarian band (mobile village) of Bushmen, who have never left the Kalahari and never encountered non-Bushmen, come upon a glass Coca Cola bottle dropped from an airplane, and the Bushmen assume that this amazing thing came from the gods.

This glass bottle, duplicates of which the Bushmen cannot fashion out of animal skin or ostrich eggs or bones or wood, becomes the source of conflict among a people who cannot tolerate conflict because conflict seriously endangers their survival. And so it is decided that the man who found the evil thing must travel to the end of the earth and throw the thing into the abyss so it shall nevermore disturb the peace of these peaceful people.

I think the reason that little movie was so hugely successful all over the world is because we saw ourselves in those hunters and gatherers, and we saw most of the world’s problems in that Coca Cola bottle. Yes, people all over the world loved the idea of solving our biggest problems by getting rid of the sources of those problems, those sources being inequality coupled with the manufacture of things harmful to the earth and all her children: nuclear power plants and genetically modified organisms and pesticides and gasoline-powered automobiles and guns and bombs and poisonous chemicals and power plants that burn fossil fuels, to name a few.

And as I veer off the main road to check on a promising berry bush, I am fairly certain the gods are not the crazy ones.

“We must risk delight.” Jack Gilbert

I arrive home to a letter from a friend containing a poem by Jack Gilbert entitled A Brief For The Defense, which is about the mystical and unfathomable and beautiful and horrible and ecstatic and painful experience of living amidst the sorrows and joys of life. Gilbert wrote: “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil. If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down, we should give thanks that the end had magnitude. We must admit there will be music despite everything.”

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Your Inner Bushman

(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.