A Linguistic Permaculture of the Oak

Ariundle Wood

Ariundle Oakwood, Scotland.  One of the last surviving old-growth oak forests in the Scottish Highlands.

“…Thus the very name of Druidism is a proof of the Celtic addiction to tree-worship, and De Brosses, as a further evidence that this was so, would derive the word ‘kirk,’ now softened into ‘church’, from quercus, and oak; that species having been particularly sacred.” – T.F. Thiselton-Dyer, The Folk-Lore of Plants

The oak holds a special place in the ecological, material, culinary, and mythological worlds of nearly every people with ancestral roots in its habitat.  Oaks are archetypal trees of the temperate savanna, from the Pyrenees to the Sierra Nevada, intimately tied across range and species to the attentions of human beings.  Though most English-speaking people of the greater European diaspora have scant direct relationship with oak trees, our ancestors’ involvement and interest in these plants is apparent in the etymology and connotative content of various oak-related words and sayings.  What does the word ‘oak’ connote to you, what emotions or characteristics does it evoke?  What’s your sense of an oak tree compared to an ash, say, or a willow?

The acorn likewise holds a special linguistic potency and historical poignancy.  The odd disconnect between the name of the nut and the name of the tree (beech-nuts come from beeches, apples from apple trees; why not acorns from acorn-trees or oak-nuts from oaks?) holds some clues to ancestral cultivation strategies for the plant, and their complication due to geopolitical shenanigans. Our modern word ‘acorn’ derives directly from the Old English æcern, or forest nut, from æcer or open land.  Æcer is where we get both the term and dimensions of the contemporary ‘acre’, originally referring to an unbounded area of mixed woodland and field, later the amount of land a pair of yoked oxen could plow in a day, and standardized during the reign of Henry VIII as an area 40 poles (1 furlong) by four (more or less the width of the oxen).  The growing technicality in the description of what constitutes an acre is indicative of the increase in centralized governmental control and bureaucracy throughout England since the arrival of Norman invaders in the early 1000’s.  Forest nuts were once cultivated and gathered where they grew best, each family or village responsible for the cultivation of their acreage in an idiosyncratic fashion.  Later, tithes and taxes required the new peasant class to cultivate a circumscribed list of acceptable crops, chosen based on their ease of storage and theoretical universal distribution.  Unlike forests, open fields sown with wheat and barley were cultivated and circumscribed not by the shape of the landscape, but by the shape of the furrow and the newly demarcated borders of the family plot.  The mixed forest crops of 11th century England were gradually neglected or actively destroyed in favor of annual grains, easier for the land-lord’s notaries to keep records of.  Not to put too fine a point on it, this marked a tremendous degradation of dietary nutrition and long-term ecological health and stability, all for the purposes of uniform record-keeping.  Examining the monocropping of vast swathes of former savanna across the temperate belt of Eurasia and North America, this pattern has continued to this day.  Like many etymologies, the linguistic divergence of æcern from æcer tells a hidden story about ecological and cultural history.

The split in names between the nut and the tree is indicative of other cultural changes within the British Isles during the early Middle Ages.  The word ‘oak’ seems to come from one of the northern branches of the Germanic family of languages, Norse (eik), or Frisian (ek).  The briefly warming climate of northern Europe during the 10th century encouraged populations in Scandinavia to boom.  Landless young men took to the sea in droves, eager to explore, pilfer, raid, and colonize any foreign territories within reach of their longships.  All across the North Atlantic, as far as Byzantium and Kiev in the east and the lands of the Montagnai-Naskapi in the west, the Vikings roamed, sometimes settling, sometimes raiding with the seasons.  Throughout northern England they settled, eventually integrating into Saxon communities and adding their words to the stew that became Old English.  In the early days of colonization, the Norsemen took on oppressive leadership roles, demanding the most culturally desirable foodstuffs and materials.  So we have words like ‘cow’ and ‘goat’ from the Norse kyr and geit, respectively, replacing words from the Saxon branch of the Germanic tree.  So perhaps during this time æcerns were still gathered and eaten by the Saxon peasantry from the eiks located within the holdings of the Norsemen. Incidentally, the later invasion of the Viking-descended French-speaking Normans marked another replacement of culinary terms, the Old English picg, cu, and der coming to mean the animals themselves, as husbanded by the servant class, while the French-derived porc, buef, and venesoun referring to the meat laid on platters before the new aristocracy.

All of this is very interesting (well, I find it interesting anyway) but by far the most fascinating part of all of this is the retention of the word æcern and its association with open land.  Those of you who live near oak woods may have had the experience of walking about in the forest during autumn and finding not a single acorn on the ground.  Other years you can hardly tread without crunching the shells of innumerable nuts.  Why is this?  Like many creatures of wold and hedge, oaks live to a cyclical sense of time.  In many ways the oak tree is a major timekeeper for the life of a woodland, regulating the cycles of population and behavior for many animals, plants, and fungi.  Like the famous lynx and showshoe hare, oaks breed in (to us) irregular patterns of mast, or high reproductive rate, and fallow years.  Some autumns see oaks of multiple species across many acres of land dropping a great abundance of nuts, while in other years scarcely an acorn can be found in tree or cache.  Several years ago a great dearth of acorns was experienced throughout the eastern coast of North America, leading to a decline in grey squirrel populations the following year, which led to a decline in red-tailed hawk fledglings, and so on.  Though acorns keep well, the vast divergence between mast and fallow years, and the great area affected by both can be somewhat worrying to a people reliant upon them as a staple foodstuff.  No oak, however, exists in isolation.  Unlike field crops, the whole of the ecosystem was traditionally taken into account in the cultivation of good acorns.

Acorns present another difficulty to their would-be consumers, in that they contain high concentrations of tannin, an astringent polyphenol generally disagreeable to human digestive tracts.  Tannins can be leached out of even the most unpalatable of acorns, but this is a time-consuming process, and reduces the nutritional value of the foodstuff even as it renders it more edible.  Oaks can be carefully selected and bred to reduce the tannin content of their acorns, but this is a task spanning human generations, given the long life and slow maturation of most oak species.  It is important for acorn-eating people to both maintain the health of uncommonly tasty trees for as long as possible, and produce abundant crops that can be harvested and stored to account for the vagaries of fallow years. The techniques and technologies utilized by these peoples are apparent less on the scale of artifacts, and more on the scale of landscapes.  There is good reason indeed to identify acorn oaks as the trees of open land.

The archetypal management regime (or yahatidom, see About page) for acorn oak forests results in widely spaced trees with sparse and patchy understory and shrub-level plants, and a groundcover of mostly perennial grasses and mixed perennial and annual forbs.  Groves of oaks are interspersed with moist meadows full of good forage for game and edible tubers, bulbs, and corms beloved of human harvesters.  This open mosaic landscape is maintained through attentive pruning and regular low-intensity fires set during the dormant season.  Variations on this theme appear in records paleolithic through recent from the Dnieper to the Willamette, wherever edible acorns are to be gathered.  Indeed it appears that the initial domestication of the grass that would later become wheat occurred as part of the pattern of oak savanna maintenance in the Zagros Mountains some 20,000 years ago.  My own introduction to caring for acorn forests came from the Mountain Maidu traditions of the low Sierra Nevada, in reference to the blue oak, red oak, Oregon oak, and live-oak or ‘stone oak’ (om-hamsim ‘cha) groves between the Feather and American rivers.  I will return to the subject of fire and agroforestry in greater detail in a future posting, but for now I’ll highlight some of the effects on oaks of this excellent style of forestry.

Individual oak trees must be cared for in some detail, following the general prescriptions for pruning (i.e. regular removal of dead, damaged, and diseased wood, heading and thinning for shape and productivity, etc.) with additional attention given to removal of suckers and lower branches that could create a fire ladder from the ground to the canopy.  Ease of climbing is also often a consideration in pruning.  Thinning of saplings is another important task, as a choked thicket is less productive of acorns, more susceptible to fungal and bacterial infection in the still air between close-set trunks, and far more vulnerable to fire.  M. Kat Anderson notes, in her essential book Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources, “To be excellent acorn producers, valley oaks must not be crowded.  Fire promotes a stand structure of trees with broad, rounded canopies that bear many more acorns.  And older trees are more productive: a fifty-year-old valley oak may produce only five pounds of acorns, compared to five hundred pounds for a mature tree.”  In reference to Sierran fire regimes, Rosalie Bethel (North Fork Mono, recorded in Tending the Wild) remembers:  “Burning was in the fall of the year when the plants were all dried up when it was going to rain.  They’d burn areas when they would see it’s in need.  If the brush was too high and too brushy it gets out of control.  If the shrubs got two to four feet in height it would be time to burn.  They’d burn every two years.  Both men and women would set the fires.  The flames wouldn’t get very high.  It wouldn’t burn the trees, only the shrubs.”

Acorn weevils lay their eggs in the previous year’s fallen nuts, often scattered in large numbers (despite regular harvest by humans, acorn woodpeckers, squirrels, and other nuctivores) around the bases of the trees.  These insects, if left unchecked, can spoil an entire harvest; the tiny holes they bore in the nuts can lead to rapid infection by bacteria and fungi.  To regulate weevil populations, the area around the trunks of the trees is attended to with particularly intense but rigorously controlled burning.  Elsewhere in the grove, fires are set at the bases of slopes and allowed to rise uphill, followed and extinguished where they threaten to rise above the understory level or veer off into areas not scheduled to be burned at the time.  Fires are set at the beginning of the dormant season, after the fall of the summer’s leaves and before the first of the winter rains.  This ensures that the summer’s accumulated detritus is broken down rapidly into nutrient-dense ash and charcoal before the rainy-season growth of many groundcovers takes place.  Setting fires at this time serves to scorch many of the weevils out of the duff before they have time to dig underground and hibernate en masse.  The senescent growth of basketry and fruit-bearing shrubs is similarly burned off or pruned at this time, rejuvenating the plants and facilitating the emergence of long, straight, productive stems over the winter and spring growing seasons.  Tough stems of forest grasses and forbes are also consigned to the flame, returning their constituents to the topsoil where the subterranean corms, tubers, and root systems can make good use of them.

The landscape that results from such care is a slowly shifting mosaic of open fields of sun-loving tubers, corms, and grasses for basketry and grain, canopied groves of generations-old trees over moist carpets of bunch-grass, wildflowers, mosses, and ferns, and widely-spaced patches of fruiting shrubs and straight-growing understory trees routinely harvested for arrow-shafts, digging sticks, baskets, and other tools.  This landscape was not beloved of humans alone; creatures of all species, game animals and otherwise, flourished in human-sculpted landscapes throughout the Sierra in greater numbers and more consistent densities than in wilderness lands between villages.  The aesthetic impression, noted by many early European arrivals, was of open parkland or garden in which the predominant colors were rich and verdant greens, and game was unusually abundant.  One Tsi-Akim Maidu account, passed down by oral tradition to the present generation, tells of horsemen coming over the mountains, riding three abreast through the forest, the bellies of their horses stained purple by the juice of berries.  Cared for with attentiveness, compassion, and wisdom, oak forests were once, and can again be true paradises on earth.

Though the oral traditions of old Europe have long fragmented under the strain of persistent invasion and genocide, some echoes of the old landscape and care regimes remain in the languages of the modern diaspora.  Accounts from the more recently targeted indigenous people of California give some hint as to the actions of my own ancestors on another continent, in different oak groves.  Most crucial, and most heartening to any discussion of traditional agroforestry, is the observation that humans have been truly essential components in the landscapes described above.  Again, the words of Kat Anderson: “It is highly likely that over centuries or perhaps millennia of indigenous management, certain plant communities came to require human tending and use for their continued fertility and renewal and for the maintenance of the abundance and diversity patterns needed to support human populations.  As a result, removal of the California Indians from their homelands to reservations and rancherias led to a gradual decline in the area, number, and diversity of managed landscapes.” Though human mismanagement has lately brought illness and vulnerability to the forests of the world, human care can return them to health.  Like beavers and elephants, humans deform, reform, and transform the landscapes we touch; we are a keystone species in the arch of the forest.

In older days the oak woods were made good because, not in spite, of human involvement.  Today we live in a world where the oaks grow thick and choked by brush, where fire is seen as an enemy by those who know it poorly, where the scientific knowledge of indigenous people is dismissed as ignorance and superstition, and where so many of us are disconnected from the cycles of our home landscape.  Nevertheless, the old principles remain effective.  The obstacles to responsible caretaking of the forests are primarily psychological, whether due to ignorance (a condition of education, not an insurmountable barrier) the fear of irrational laws, or the epidemic and crippling sense of helplessness which speaks within us: “one person can’t really make a difference, not directly; go buy some toilet paper with a green-colored wrapper and feel better about yourself”.  It does not have to be this way.

In the spirit of the hands-on nature of this blog, I challenge you ancestrally wild human beings to go out and take care of an oak.  Any time of year you can prune dead branches, and in the fall go harvest some acorns.  Clear out some of the dead stalks of brush around the trunk of the tree.  For the more adventurous among you, begin looking at the steps you’d need to take in order to burn off the undergrowth in your local woodland without risking a canopy fire or the attentions of bureaucrats with guns.  It is not enough to plant an acorn, we must also care for the acre.

Note:  I just saw this excellent post on my friend and fellow permaculturalist Connor’s blog.  Do check it out if you’d like to learn more about the roles of humans in the landscape.

Also:  This post was featured in the 57th edition of Festival of the Trees, curated this time around by talented Rebecca of Rebecca in the Woods fame.  Check out the other words and pictures from this round and all 56 of the others at the Festival home site.

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13 Responses to “A Linguistic Permaculture of the Oak”

  1. Wow that was a really beautiful post

    I be sure to feature your blog on http://www.punkrocpermaculture.com

  2. […] a related vein, read this beautiful post on the history of people and oak trees by my long-time friend and kindred spirit Ben Kessler over at Laughing Crow Permaculture. […]

  3. […] visited an massive, twisted oak in France, while Ben submitted a post about a rare stand of old-growth oaks in Scotland.)  ”B-A-G” writes about an apple tree so beloved it was practically a […]

    • – I love your day-to-day blog, and the other essays you’ve collected for this round of the Festival are all great, but did you actually read my post? Though the image at the top of the page is of an oak wood in Scotland, the essay itself is about the history and pattern of oak forest management, as recounted through some interesting quirks of the English language.

  4. Ben, a beautiful and informative essay on our human/oak collaboration over the centuries. The oak has been such an integral companion to human civilization, I am heartened to think we still a chance to return the favor to our damaged and neglected oak forests. Here in my little postage stamp of a yard in the mid-west USA I tend one large post oak. This one has not produced acorns in about three or four years. The tree seems strong and healthy in every way so I’m hoping this is part of its cycle and I’ll see acorns again in a year or so.

    • Thanks, and right on for tending well to the land under your influence. Have other oaks in your area been similarly silent on the acorn front recently? Could be something related to the pollen, or any number of dreadful technogenic pollutions. Here’s hoping its just down to a fluky stage in the mast cycle. So long as those of us who care do a little more every year than we did the year before, inspire feats of love in the younger generation, and value the living world in every-day speech, I reckon these woods can thrive once more. The cutty-wren, I have heard, is a bird who safeguards the dormant trunks in wintertime, and heralds the changes of the spring…

      • My hope, too. I’d read someplace that some white oaks like the post oak can go a number of years between masts. Is this true in your understanding?

        The wren I have learned has a close relationship with the Oak and Druidic myth. I’d not heard the term Cutty-Wren before.

  5. A truly wonderful post, thank you…. glad to have found you!

  6. I found this through Connor Steadman’s Blog. Thank you so much for writing this. I have been working more and more closely with the acorn this year. I harvested over 5 gallons of them in the fall and have been re-learning and remembering how to incorporate them into a nutrient dense diet — with great success. Such amazing food! I wrote a short blog on the acorn this fall, which ties right into your post.

    Cheers

  7. […] almost a decade ago, and before making my first transplants from to add some diversity to the wee kirk behind our house (a grove of Quercus), I asked Nina if in fact spring was a good time to dig up these ephemeral […]

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