At the recent annual Wilderness Extravaganza! –our September Weekend of Wilderness Skills Workshops–a long-time supporter of Earthwork Programs’ vision, T.J. Loughlin videotaped the Workshops. And then created this amazing, fantastic, beautiful video! Thank you so much T.J.! It really shows the excitement of learning that happens at our Workshops!
Going into the outdoors in the mid-autumn we notice the leaves carpeting the ground in a beautiful all natural mosaic. Earlier in the season, we noticed the leaves changing colors–scarlet, orange, yellow and flame colors like a fire. As we continue to walk in the forest, we are surrounded by these majestic beings that connect the earth to the sky. These trees, in their transformation, are signs that let us know something is happening…a transition is taking place. When there is a slight breeze, we see a few leaves blowing here and there, and when the breeze is really strong, it is like it is snowing leaves. There is a primal urge to run underneath them and catch them as it makes us feel alive and connected and WILD. We also hear the sound of rocks pelting the ground and off other trees. They are not rocks at all but they sure sound heavy when you notice that THUMP. This is a great sound…it is raining food. Free food from the sky…ACORNS abound the oak trees surrounding us.
During late summer, we noticed the acorns dropping, and if we take a closer look, we are aware that almost all of them have caps attached no matter what types of oaks they are. Ancient teachings passed on from our ancestral trackers and foragers, we know this means these acorns were released early by the tree because they are parasitized or have been damaged in some way. In some cases, this means the acorn weevil got to them first before they could be used as food for us. As our awareness deepens, we realize that there is a second time the acorns fall…in October.
This is the perfect time for harvest! Look there are a lot with NO CAPS! These are the ones we want! Before we gather these acorns, let’s pause for a moment of gratitude and thanks. Here is a view from the past of these majestic beings.
The largest white oak was measured at 24½’ around in Paris; this tree is 118’ tall and has a spread of branches 127’. Its rival–the great oak at Wind Mills–is measured with the spread of 148’…a dimension unequaled by any other oak.
It is said that “six generations of the same family have played here, where two thousand children could probably be gathered in this patriarch’s shade. The supply of Indian arrowheads discovered in the soil in which it grows seem never quite exhausted. In the probable life span of this tree have been born, have mightily wrought, and died, William Penn, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Woodrow Wilson, Peter the Great, Napoleon, and Beethoven. Thrones have crumbled and new empires arisen; great ideas have been born and great pictures painted, and the world revolutionized by science and invention, and still no man can say how many centuries this Oak will endure or what nations and creeds it may outlive.” (Donald Culross Peattie, A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, 1977.)
Gather the acorns, preferably from red oaks, which are more plentiful here in Western Massachusetts than our white oaks. Once we gather these acorns, we fill a bowl of water and do the “float test.” Put a handful of acorns in the bowl and watch the results. What did you notice? Did any sink? Hopefully most of them did; that means they most likely do not have any acorn weevil larvae in them (that’s good–potential food).
Do you have some floaters? Open them up and inspect them and what do you find? They are occupied; someone is using them for a home and a spaceship to get from the tree to the ground.
Now that we have the RIGHT acorns (they sank), we need to crack open the shells; rocks or nut crackers work. (My favorite way is lay them out in pairs on a towel and tap them with the end of a log. This way you can crack 50 in a couple of minutes.) Crunch, crunch, crunch…LOTS OF FUN…especially when the acorn hits another one and so on. It is like nature’s pinball game.
Time to leach out the tannins! Why?
Acorns have natural tannins in them, which are anti-nutrients. In all nuts, grains and seeds, and beans and legumes, there are phytochemicals. This is one of the reasons why we soak beans before using them. In acorns, the unprocessed tannins bind (attach) with zinc, iron, magnesium and calcium, and pull them out of your body. These are healthy minerals we need. That is why we must soak them.
What do we do with the tannins? This is great medicine for many things. It is an astringent, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory. Perfect for healing POISON IVY, in particular, once you have the rash. (So keep the water that you soak your acorns in; don’t just throw it out).
Ground up your acorns into pebble size or smaller. The smaller, the better and the quicker tannins will be leached out.
Cold leaching (no fire necessary; just time):
1. Put acorn meal in cold water and let it sit for a day.
2. Pour out the water at the end of the day and refill with fresh water.
3. Repeat for 10 to 12 days; there will be no more tannins in your acorn meal…it is now leached.
4. Pour off water; put in pan, spread out ¼” thick and put in full sun a couple days (bring in at night before the dew) and repeat till dry. Or use a dehydrator.
**Refrigerate for storage**
Cut with other flour to allow your acorn flour to last longer.
Acorn Bread Recipe
1 cup acorn flour
1 cup wheat flour or all-purpose flour
1 egg (1 1/2 is better)
2 tablespoons oil
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup milk
There’s something magical about gathering your own food as a family, and what an education for children and for families to have this experience together. Learning how to see through the eyes of a forager really helps to create a bond with the natural world so we can develop deeper relationships through routines and rituals, especially when you immerse yourself in our forests and fields.
I remember talking with a Seneca man of the Haudenosaunee nation (People of the Longhouse). He told me a story of the origin of the strawberry and how this plant heals human relations. There is a special ceremony, and in honor of the strawberry festival, no one would eat a single berry before the ceremony. It is a full day of songs, stories, dances and giving thanks that the strawberries have returned once again. This also begins the time of the berry ripening. This was not only time to be thankful for the strawberry but all of creation. Strawberries are called big medicine and the leader of the berries because they are the first to ripen and begin the berry harvesting time; they are also shaped like hearts. The Seneca man told me they drink the juice as a way of rejuvenation. There is a whole culture around harvesting berries. We can learn a lot from other cultures that give thanks and celebrate community and values from fostering a deeper relationship with plants.
Being fall, we begin looking for one of North America’s best-kept secrets of wild food: the autumn olive, silver berry, autumn berry. This immigrant from another land is a real gift for the forager. This shrub has many names; it grows in fields, and the leaves and the berries have a silver hue and look speckled. They are ripe anywhere from late August all the way to mid November according to wild food author Sam Thayer.
Finding autumn olive is great fun, and you will notice there are so many berries that the branches droop from the weight. When picking, watch out for the small thorns it has to deter animals who want to eat the fruits. You will be amazed at the amount you can gather in such a short time. Several gallons from one bush are very common and you still leave plenty for all the wildlife.
Now that we have all our berries, we want to make sure that we process them right away or freeze them for a sunny day. You can get creative in how you mash them. Make sure to keep the seeds; they contain omega 3’s and the flesh is an antioxidant, high in vitamin C and contains lycopene, a chemical compound that promotes prostate health.
The trick with creating fruit leather is making sure it dries thoroughly, or it could mold. Have the top half dry and cut in small rectangles so it is easier to flip. Let other side dry completely. When done properly, it can store for years.
Before eating anything from the wild, make sure to properly identify it and study with a forager since there is not enough information here.
So get out in nature and experience the abundance of autumn olive, and enjoy your fruit leather for years to come.
Autumn Olive Fruit Leather Recipe
This can be quite tart, especially at the beginning of the season. After the first frost, the berries are even more delicious!
Collect the berries.
Mash the berries. Make sure pulp and juice are mixed thoroughly.
Spread on tray; berries should be ¼” thick or less; the thinner it is, the less time it takes to dry.
Put in direct sun for many hours—5 or more. When top half is dry, flip (the bottom should be able to slip). Let the bottom half dry (again, many hours). Make sure it dries thoroughly.