Finding community: Nevada County wild food enthusiasts re-ignite traditions of the acorn
Special to The Union
Leah Walsh was already on an acorn path when she posted a query on the Local Food Coalition email list serve seeking feedback from the community about the oak trees.
“I want to get an acorn report from anyone keeping an eye on the oaks,” she wrote in December, shortly after the fall harvest season.
Since then, 23 people have responded, connecting with Walsh in the age old oral tradition of sharing information about an important wild food staple.
What she found in her informal survey, was that lower elevations — places like Penn Valley and Rough and Ready — had usual or heavier than normal drops of acorns last year.
In higher elevations — places like Chicago Park, Cedar Ridge, Nevada City and the San Juan Ridge — people saw few to no acorns last year, spurring some to wonder if the drought played a part.
Meant to be more of a social networking tool than a scientific inquiry, Walsh hopes her informal acorn report will inspire others to take a closer look at the woods and attune their senses to the seasons.
“It encourages us to pay attention to what’s going on. What Leah did was give impetus to that. That’s what people have done for tens of thousands of years,” said Tony Cervantes, who met Walsh at Indigenous Peoples Day last year. Cervantes grew up in Sacramento and, as a boy, learned about wild foods from his Chichimeca family from North Central Mexico where rabbits and grasshoppers were as much a part of the food culture as beans and corn.
He says indigenous people have always talked about their food source.
The acorn report could become a useful tool to reveal the health of different bioregions and microclimates.
For Walsh, it was an opportunity to awaken and connect with a network of underground wild foodies.
“Acorns for me are about community. I selfishly wanted to find my community,” said Walsh.
Her interest in indigenous food cultures began while studying ethnobotany and living in a small rural subsistence community of Bethel, Alaska with the Yup’ik people.
Here was a culture that saw the land as the provider, where food was communal. There was harvesting, potlucks, sharing, giving and prayer.
“I suddenly had this sanity gifted back to me,” Walsh said.
It was a far different world than her childhood days growing up on the Pacific Coast of California in Half Moon Bay.
“I literally grew up riding in the front seat of a grocery cart in Safeway. It took me a long time to get the connection between land and food,” Walsh said.
When Walsh moved to Nevada County, she was gifted some acorns and a homemade nutcracker.
Since then, she has slowly learned about the wild food shed in her own backyard of her Sierra Nevada foothills home. She signed up for a wild food CSA from Matt and Rachel Berry and spent time processing local foods with author Alicia Funk of Living Wild. Last fall, she taught a sold-out acorn cooking class at BriarPatch Co-op.
Along her journey, she has connected with a broader circle of “acorn people” who speak in metaphors of how the oak tree’s roots are larger than the canopy and interwoven like the community.
They talk about leaching out the bitterness and finding the sweetness.
They talk about the best places to gather. They crack acorns together. They share recipes.
This food culture moves beyond acorns or “oak nuts,” as Alicia Funk calls them, to other wild foods like Manzanita and madrone.
“It is so much work processing these nuts,” said Sydney Weaver, who is happy to have found a group of like-minded folk.
“I definitely needed many hands to gather. I don’t think everyone sat all by their lonesome and tried to live off acorns,” said Weaver, who grew up ironically in the town of Oakland.
She came to Nevada County to spend summers at camp. A primitive skills class a few years ago inspired her interest in wild food.
She will take over the acorn report after Walsh moves to Portland next month.
Weaver met Walsh and Cervantes at Indigenous People’s Day where she ran into old friend Sara Raskie. Weaver worked with Raskie at Soil Sisters Farm CSA program.
Raskie spent her youth in Northern Wisconsin among the Ojibway people, a wild rice culture. Today she works with youth and elders alongside Cervantes at Sierra Native Alliance.
They both believe wild foods — drought, deer and gopher tolerant and free for the masses — are the abundant answer to escalating food prices and food scarcity.
An oak is a tree or shrub in the genus Quercus of the beech family, Fagaceae. There are approximately 600 species of oaks worldwide.
Native to the Northern Hemisphere, deciduous and evergreen species of oak extend from cool temperate to tropical latitudes in the Americas, Asia, Europe, and North Africa.
During its lifetime, an oak tree will make at least 3 million acorns, according to the book, “Oak: The Frame of Civilization” by William Bryant Logan.
“It’s great to put in anything. We ate ours in our oatmeal this morning,” Raskie said.
To participate in the acorn report, contact Sydney Weaver at: email@example.com.
To learn more about wild foods, visit: http://www.livingwild.org/
Contact freelance writer Laura Petersen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-913-3067.
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