Gifts from the Forest

Gratitude to those who planted and cared for this tree many years ago.

These delicious mini persimmons are one of our favorite snacks this time of year at Big Oak Canyon. If you like wild greens, those are popping up as well. But this persimmon steals the show.


Photo: Ron Plomell

The tree grows in the forest between pines, majestic oak trees and a wood rats nest. Poison oak, English ivy and Matilija poppy are close by. Birds of prey nest on a neighboring tree: excrement and leftover scraps of bone and fur drop to the forest floor daily. I imagine the boost of nutrients it’s roots receive from that wood rats nest. In this forest, nutrients cycle continually and will for as long as there is Big Oak Canyon.

When the persimmon fruit is orange, it is bitter and hard to eat. As it ripens and turns brown and then purple, the flavor sweetens and the fruit begins to shrivel. I’ve been managing Big Oak Canyon for 7 years and I have not seen anyone water it, even once.

Intercropping cultivated foods in the woods is looked down by conservationists who want to conserve as much native habitat as possible, and popular by those wanting to live off the land and keep forests from being cleared for mono-crop agriculture.

Making our backyards work more like a forest gives us all who live in town a way to benefit from the concepts of food forests. You don’t need to put a rats nest in your back yard and crane in an 80-year-old oak tree… but you can use these 5 simple strategies to create a more holistic way for nutrients to cycle in your yard.

1. Plant species of various heights and various fruiting seasons.

2. Create earthen sponges to receive more water by covering the ground with leaves and mulch. If you do nothing else, this simple act will give the currently established trees more water by holding more moisture in the ground and extending access to moist soil until later in the dry season.

3. Feed the soil by composting your excess food scraps and manures. Without nourishment, soils and plants wither away. Compost replenishes the soil. It can be as complex or simple as you make it.

4. Use the energies moving through your space more intentionally. Wind, sun and human presence have an impact. Situate activity zones, plants and walkways in a way that allows for the most benefit from the various energy sources.

4. Plant species that provide native wildlife with food and shelter.

5. Share gratitude and give back to the earth whatever you can.

Stay tuned to the first newsletter in 2019 when we announce upcoming programs on tending the forest with Shane Brown at Big Oak Canyon.

Ecological Literacy Training

Jodi Levine-Wright spent years exploring the state of California as a teacher with Naturalists at Large before returning to her hometown of Orange County to begin new adventures as the founder of Earthroots Field School. Jodi was steeped in a community of young environmental educators brimming with energy to share what they knew.

This past spring, Earthroots instructors spent 3 days with Naturalists at Large educators right here in OC. Thirty five Naturalists from all over the state experienced the beauty of Big Oak while being immersed in ecological literacy training hosted by Earthroots.

“It feels like a completion of the circle to be able to host current Naturalists at Large educators at Big Oak Canyon and share what we are passionate about at Earthroots”, says Jodi of the training.

The training included hands on instruction on Bird Language, Habitat Restoration, Native Plants as Food & Medicine, Composting, Organic Farming and Natural Building and was funded in part by a grant from the Nature Connection Mentoring Foundation.

The next Ecological Literacy Trainings will be Spring 2018. Teachers, parents and administrators, please inquire for future dates info@earthrootsfieldschool.org

Photo: Naturalist At Large educator tending Wild Hyacinth at Big Oak Canyon during the Habitat Restoration program.

Cooking with Acorns

Coast Live Oak AcornsMy favorite trails are littered with acorns from the recent big winds. This incredibly nutritious food has been feeding native people of our region for thousands of years, and is used today by a wide spectrum of cultures.  After reading this blog, I hope that you will feel inspired to cook up a recipe with this local wild edible, take a walk in your local parks and spend time taking in the beauty of nature… and perhaps join me to gather acorns at Big Oak Canyon.

Leaching out the Tannic Acid
An adult friend told me that she remembers hearing as a child that acorns were edible, so she cracked one open, popped it in her mouth and to this day remembers the awfully bitter taste before spitting it out. Our local Coast Live Oak acorns contain high levels of tannic acid that need to be washed out before consuming or they can make you feel sick.

One of my mentors, Jon Young tells a story of how he learned from his elders to leach the tannic acid out of acorns. First, crack the hard shells with a stone, save the inner acorn meat, and toss the hard shells. Put the acorn meat into a basket woven tight enough that the acorns would not fall through the holes, and loose enough that the water could flow through easily. He then set the basket in the creek where the current flowed strong enough that it would wash the acorns, and gentle enough that once secured with stones, the basket would not be swept away. The basket of acorns was left in the creek overnight. The acorn pieces were checked in the morning, and if still tasted bitter, were set in the creek to be washed again. They were finished leaching when the nuts did not taste bitter.

Ground acornsIn our classes, we use the same concept, but with a modern twist. Students remove the hard shells by first cracking them with a stone and separating out the inner acorn meat. They take out any acorn weevils (which are edible!), dark or moldy inner acorn meat and toss that aside, leaving only the lighter fresh smelling acorn meat for consumption. The acorns are then ground with a mortar and pestle until only small pieces remain. Keep in mind, the smaller the pieces, the faster the leaching process. Grinding acorns this way takes a lot of effort, and is great for group activities.

When I’m leaching acorns at home, I fill a blender half way with water, put the de-shelled acorns in the water and blend on high until the pieces are broken up. Some may call this cheating, but hey, it gets my family and I eating acorns! I then leach and strain as described below.

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To wash out the tannic acid, we use a kitchen strainer with a cloth laid on top of it to hold the acorn pieces. We then rinse them under flowing tap water while stirring the acorn meal with our hands to make sure all pieces get washed. Another method is to put the acorn meal inside a nut milk bag instead of using the strainer/cloth. The nut milk bag works best for younger kids so that they don’t spill out any hard earned acorn pieces while rinsing. Try both, see what works best for you!

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You will notice that the first wash leaves the water looking milky. This is good! Repeat washing until the water comes out clear and the nut pieces do not taste bitter. This step could take up to 30 minutes or more of constant rinsing, stirring and squeezing. Don’t give up!

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Once leached, the sky is the limit on how you use these delicious nuts. Jacque Nuñez, a local Acjachemen educator teaches about Wi-wish. Wi-wish is a traditional dish of ground acorns, similar to porridge. I look forward to one day cooking it the old way, in a tightly woven basket filled with water and boiled with fire-heated stones.

Here’s what our classes are cooking:
Earthroots Acorn Pancakes
1 cup acorn meal or acorn flour
1 cup of your favorite flour (corn, amaranth, wheat, garbanzo bean, rice etc)
1 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
2 eggs (vegan option: ½ tsp flax meal + 2 tbsp water)
¼ cup coconut oil or ghee
½ cup honey
2 cups water or any milk

1. Mix dry ingredients first.
2. Add wet ingredients and mix together thoroughly  (Note: the secret to keeping pancake batter from getting lumpy is to be sure to add all the wet ingredients first, mix thoroughly, then add dry ingredients)
3.  Adjust consistency by adding a little more water/milk or a little more flour if it’s too thick or thin.  Pancake batter should be thin enough to pour, but not runny.
4.  Cook on oiled grill.
5.  Top with Maple Syrup or prickly pear jam

Benefits of Acorns
1. They store well – you can keep them all year long. Adding acorns to your diet makes “eating local” more successful since you will have a good storage of nuts to supplement the seasonal ebb and flow of your garden harvest.
2. Acorns are full of vitamins and minerals.
3. They are a great source of protein and complex carbohydrates.
4. They are 100% local.

Harvesting Acorns
– As with all wild harvested plants, make sure you are harvesting out of harms way from pollution, run off and places where pesticides or other toxins are used.
– Select acorns with intact shells, no holes and no mold. Holes are distinct signs that an acorn weevil has taken residency. If you find acorns with holes, crack one open and see what’s inside.
– Remember to harvest in appropriately designated areas (OC Parks and CA State parks while great places to explore nature are off limits to gathering of any kind) and only take what you need. Leave the rest for the animals who depend on acorns as their food source.

Get to know acorn this season by joining us at Big Oak Canyon, Earthroots 39 acre property in Silverado Canyon where we teach ethical wild harvesting along with sustainable living and nature connection skills. Kids young and old will be harvesting acorns along with many other activities November 7, 2015. We hope you will join us.

Happy Harvesting!
Jodi Levine-Wright

Birds of Big Oak Canyon

On December 19, 2011, a group of Earthroots mentors noticed an owl kill site with evidence of two owls. There were feathers from an owl not often seen in our region, the Long Eared Owl. Nearby, a pellet from a Great Horned Owl was found. One of the Long Eared Owl’s talon was found inside a Great Horned Owl pellet.

This story excites birders.

Evan recently shared this story with Stephen Shunk (Author, Peterson’s Guide to Woodpeckers) and Gillian Martin (Southern California Bluebird Club) who were on a tour of Big Oak Canyon with focused interest on cavities as bird habitat. Cavities are holes in dead standing trees, also known as snags or wildlife trees. Big Oak has many wildlife trees with cavities in use by birds, reptiles, mammals and insects.

One gift that came out of our walk was learning the importance of cavities as habitat. The second gift was making progress on Big Oak Canyon’s Bird List. Third gift was their suggestion to have volunteer birders come once a month to contribute to our bird list by having regular Bird Counts. This documentation will be used to help Earthroots monitor  the birds and their important habitat at Big Oak Canyon. There were many other gifts!

This is what Stephen heard or saw during our walk October 14, 2012.

Vaux’s Swift
Acorn Woodpecker
Nuttall’s Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Black Phoebe
Hutton’s Vireo
Western Scrub-Jay
Common Raven
Wrentit
Bushtit
Oak Titmouse
Tree Swallow
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow-rumped Warbler
California Thrasher
California Towhee
Spotted Towhee
Dark-eyed Junco
Lesser Goldfinch

And from the photos, we can now add:
Long Eared Owl
Great Horned Owl

Previously recorded birds include:
Red Shoulder Hawk
Red Tail Hawk
Western Screech Owl

Interested birders are welcome to sign up for a monthly bird count starting Spring 2013!