Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Famine

A Purloined Letter from the Green Raven




Last spring I got very interested in foraging. My family took a hike through a local forest with a knowledgeable acquaintance who pointed out edible foods along our route. Our interest and confidence were both stoked by books such as The Forager's Harvest as well as the classic Stalking The Wild Asparagus.

What could be easier or more local than food that naturally grew in a place, with no labor from us?

During the early spring, my family collected quarts of dandelions and canned pints of delicious jelly. We picked purslane and sorrel which graced our stir-fries. And we eagerly awaited fall when we could collect acorns--and try everything from sugar-coated acorns to acorn-flour bread.

Last year, my young son and I collected zillions of acorns for art projects and pretending. We filled my backpack one afternoon as we waited for the bus, we picked them up on every walk, we heard their falls on our roof. Before I threw in a load of laundry, I had to pick acorns out of pockets.

But when was that, exactly? This year I waited, and waited. Still no acorns. Did we miss the season somehow?

* * *

It turns out that there are no acorns this year in this part of the country. NONE, from any of the various kinds of oak trees. While some parts of the world had their usual crop, the mid-Atlantic states were completely barren. No acorns, and no hickory nuts either.

It is unclear why this year has not produced the usual crop.

This is the Great Depression for squirrels. Deer and bears are not happy about it, either. All are desperate and hungry. Squirrels around here attacked Halloween pumpkins left out overnight. Garbage cans are knocked over as industrious rodents search for another meal. Many may die this winter for lack of nourishment. They are perhaps more likely to enter our gardens and towns in search of food.

My first thought was that the declining numbers of bees might account for the fact that pollination did not occur last year--but this is not an adequate reason. Oaks are pollinated predominantly by wind.

Is the absence of acorns because of growing cycles? the longstanding drought? the heavy spring rains? Perhaps. Insects like gypsy moths? Disease? Maybe. Perhaps it is intensified by heavy hardwood logging. As field botanist Rob Simmons says, "Let's hope it's not something ghastly going on with the natural world."

My favorite explanation is that the Acorns were too busy this fall trying to register fraudulent voters...

11 comments:

Joyce said...

It's actually common for oaks to have very prolific years and very lean years. A cold wet spring is the most likely cause. I don't know about other nut bearing trees, but we see that cycle with oaks all the time here in the midwest.

Green Bean said...

I was going to say the same thing as Joyce. I've read that oak trees go thru heavy and light years and remember that from my childhood. Of course, maybe you could leave something out for the squirrels to help them thru winter? ;-)

scifichick said...

I wonder if the climate change is contributing to this even if it's a regular lean year.

Green Me said...

Ha. Must be a month since the election, as I was depressed by your post until the last line. And, then I laughed a good hearty guffaw.

I had no idea trees took breaks either (until this year). This is our 3rd summer in our house, but the first w/o apples. How did both trees (different species in different parts of the yard) know to take the same year off?

The Purloined Letter said...

While some people are not concerned, an awful lot of experts don't think the traditional explanations really work. Everyone is hoping that things get back to normal next year. Check out this article from the Washington Post for more.

fullfreezer said...

Scary stuff. We had almost no apples last year but this year made up for it. We've got plenty of acorns here. I could send you some- oh wait, they're under 4 inches of snow....

Green Bean said...

That is a distrubing article. Hopeully it is a blip and not a sign of climatic change.

JessTrev said...

Sheesh, I've been mulling over the acorns too. Frogs, bees, acorns. Lots behaving erratically. Changing and/or disappearing. Sorry your foraging had to go on hold! My dad used to take me into the woods to harvest Jerusalem artichokes and scout out coral mushrooms when I was little. Some of my favorite memories. So great you're passing that on to your kids. Have you considered gingkos? Lots of those around....

Eric said...

This year was a so-called mast year for acorns in South Carolina; more than I have ever seen before. There's a layer of powdered acorn on the roads in my neighborhood.

kale for sale said...

How wonderful that you are teaching your kids to forage. I have found seed pods drying in my purse, filled my pockets with buckeye on a Sunday walk and shook my head that I didn't bring hold bay leaves from the forest to add to a pot of beans. The natural landscape is always a suprise in what it presents and in the case of the acorns, what it doesn't. I'm going to have to check now to see if we have acorns in the usual spots.

Rebecca said...

Interesting yet sad. That being said, perhaps it is nature's way of keeping the surplus population down. I seem to have an overabundance of chipmunks here in the Rockies this year and they are consuming as much birdseed from the feeders as the birds are. I do love acorns though and miss having them here. I still have fond childhood memories of collecting them in Virginia and drawing little faces on them. Your son will, no doubt, have his own fond memories one day!

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