I wanted to know whether I could use the few pitiful dried corn stalks left over from my garden as a fire-starter. Poking around on the Internet, I stumbled across this blog post about burning corn cobs, which has a ton of fascinating historical information. My favorite part is the picture of a North Dakota housewife feeding corn cobs into her kitchen stove, with the baby in a high chair in the background, in 1940.
So, a member of the Out of Babel research team sent me this cool link. (The research team being blog readers/friends who send me links.)
Apparently, the native peoples of British Columbia made gardens in the temperate rain forests up there. These were patches of forest where they planted edibles such as “hazelnuts, crabapples, cranberries, and hawthorn.” These patches persist to this day. They did not look like agriculture to the Europeans. We are just now realizing what they were, a mere 200 years behind the times as usual.
This article brings to mind the Wild Yam Question, which was raised by an old ethnology professor of mine. Part of the Wild Yam thesis is that people groups who look to city-dwellers’ eyes like hunter-gatherers, may actually be engaging in horticulture, where they plant a staple food (such as sago palm) in clusters in the forest and then rotate where they harvest it, which looks like pure foraging but isn’t. According to the linked article, the forest gardens in BC are the first instance of this kind of horticulture that has been discovered in a temperate climate.
And not to go on a patented Out of Babel rant, but I’ll just note that this kind of discovery undermines the old model of anthropology where people start out as hunter-gatherers and progress to gardens, then large-scale agriculture, and so on, becoming more urban as they go. This suggests that there are a variety of ways to do agriculture and that people can mix elements of different lifestyles to suit their needs. This, in turn, suggests that we can’t just look at whether a given people group has agriculture, and assume that we can infer from this when they lived or what stage of development they were in. There may well have been people groups who went from being farmers or herdsmen to being hunters when forced to do so, either because they were migrating or in response to some disaster. In fact, this is exactly what happens to Enmer’s tribe in my trilogy.
How do I love thee, cattails? Let me count the ways.
I didn’t actually love thee, not at first.
I was just writing this story, see, and in it there’s a young Native woman living all by herself near a stream. And she has a guest come to visit, and I know she’s eating game, but I wondered what she could serve him for a vegetable. Had a vague memory that maybe you could eat cattails. Put down “cattail roots” with an asterixis that let me know I needed to look it up later.
And when I did … boy howdy! My young lady had just hit the jackpot!
According to this article, cattails can provide nearly everything that a human being might need.
First of all, yes, you can eat them.
In spring and summer the young shoots can be picked, stripped of the outer leaves and eaten cooked or as a raw vegetable. The green immature flower stalks can be boiled and eaten like corn on the cob. Later in the summer months, pollen from the brown mature flowering stalks provide a nutritious flour supplement for cakes and flat breads. During fall and winter when there is no longer any foliage the roots may be boiled down for a starchy broth rich in carbohydrates. Cattail is very low in Saturated Fat. It is a good source of Iron and Phosphorus, and a great source of Fiber, Vitamin K, B6, Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium and Manganese.“Cattail,” by Henry Holly in the The Northwest Forager, ibid
Secondly, first aid. “Ash from the burned leaves [is an] antiseptic,” and the roots and sap have also been used in first aid. Now, my character did not need any first aid, at least not at that point in the story.
Thirdly, shelter. The leaves can be woven to make such things as hats, rain cloaks, baskets, mats, and for rain runoff on a roof. (This is similar to how coconut-palm fronds are used in Southeast Asia.) And – get this! – the “seed fluff” can be used for pillows, bedding, insulation inside moccasins, wound dressing, and even … diapers. Wow! My girl’s little shelter just turned into a palace with a water-shedding roof and a comfortable bed made of a cattail mat over cattail fluff. Bonanza!
Of course, having learned all this stuff, I had to try it. As you know, I’m a Luddite, although most of the time just a pretend one.
We have plenty of cattails here in Idaho. Here is some proof, with cattails growing along an irrigation canal and the mountains in the background:
According to this article, the cattail roots can absorb pollutants in the water. Also, digging up the roots, drying and roasting them, and pounding them into flour sounded like a lot of work for someone who’s only a Luddite part-time. Actually, even digging up the shoots sounds like it would involve getting my feet wet. All in all, the simplest project for a beginning cattail forager sounds like it would be using the seed fluff. Even I can find the seed heads. Here they are:
I cut a few off with my garden clippers, and soon had a small basket full.
That ought to be enough for at least one diaper, right?
Then it was time to pull apart the seed heads. This is easy, though messy.
Luckily, the seed fluff didn’t cause any itchy symptoms. (I guess it wouldn’t be so useful if it did.) In the end, those dozen or so seed heads gave me a pile of fluff that looked like this:
The sewing part only took me about 20 minutes. It would have taken less if I had ironed the cheesecloth first. I still had enough fluff left that I decided to make a small pillow. Out came the scrap cotton, and when the pillow was done, I stuffed it.
The seed fluff really tends to fly up in the air and then stick to stuff (that’s what it’s designed to do, after all). The pillow, once stuffed and pinned shut, ended up looking like this:
I used a lot of tape to get all the cattail lint off it.
And here is the finished product. Not super high, but a definite pillow. We’ll see how long the fluff lasts or whether it compacts a lot over time. Luckily, there is more where that came from!
This has been “researching books and pretending to be a forager” with Jen.
Here is some Silvery Lupine (Lupinus argenteus) I photographed while hiking atop Wetherill Mesa in Mesa Verde, Colorado. It is probably so named “because of the silvery sheen to the leaves in a certain light.”
I noticed that it bears bean pods:
Good thing I didn’t try to eat these, because according to FalconGuides’ Central Rocky Mountain Wildflowers, “Lupines have poisonous alkaloids concentrated in their seeds.” (page 32)
“Don’t water so much, boy. These plants are like people, they need to be a little scared.”
“They need to be scared?”
Black Mesa nodded. “If the seedlings aren’t scared, they won’t sink their roots deeply into Mother Earth. Then when the droughts come they’ll blow away without a fight. If you want to save them, don’t make their lives easy, force them to prepare for the worst.” He nudged Poor Singer with his elbow. “Hurting makes everybody stronger.”People of the Silence, p. 265
The succulent has gotten too big for its tiny pot.
But the 80-cent terra cotta pot is too plain. We want to make it look dressier.
It’s going to look like this. Directions: turn it upside down on newspaper. Squirt acrylic paint on it in alternating stripes of white and black. Now take a stiff brush and smear the white and black paint together. Careful, don’t blend too much or you’ll end up with an even grey. Let dry overnight.
Here is Ms. Succulent in the new pot after transplanting. Since we do not have an oven to fire the paint in (and we probably used the wrong kind of paint for that anyway), the paint will bubble a little bit around the bottom whenever you water the succulent. But that is OK because we are only watering twice a month. The paint job might not last forever, but it will last a couple of years.
This post is about how we got our Christmas trees. For the record, I would probably still have a Christmas tree in the house even if it they were pagan in origin. (I’ll explain why in a different post, drawing on G.K. Chesterton.) But Christmas trees aren’t pagan. At least, not entirely.
My Barbarian Ancestors
Yes, I had barbarian ancestors, in Ireland, England, Friesland, and probably among the other Germanic tribes as well. Some of them were headhunters, if you go back far enough. (For example, pre-Roman Celts were.) All of us had barbarian ancestors, right? And we love them.
St. Boniface was a missionary during the 700s to pagan Germanic tribes such as the Hessians. At that time, oak trees were an important part of pagan worship all across Europe. You can trace this among the Greeks, for example, and, on the other side of the continent, among the Druids. These trees were felt to be mystical, were sacred to the more important local gods, whichever those were, and were the site of animal and in some cases human sacrifice.
God versus the false gods
St. Boniface famously cut down a huge oak tree on Mt. Gudenberg, which the Hessians held as sacred to Thor.
Now, I would like to note that marching in and destroying a culture’s most sacred symbol is not commonly accepted as good missionary practice. It is not generally the way to win hearts and minds, you might say.
The more preferred method is the one Paul took in the Areopagus, where he noticed that the Athenians had an altar “to an unknown god,” and began to talk to them about this unknown god as someone he could make known, even quoting their own poets to them (Acts 17:16 – 34). In other words, he understood the culture, knew how to speak to people in their own terms, and in these terms was able to explain the Gospel. In fact, a city clerk was able to testify, “These men have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess” (Acts 19:37). Later (for example, in Ephesus) we see pagan Greeks voluntarily burning their own spellbooks and magic charms when they convert to Christ (Acts 19:17 – 20). This is, in general, a much better way. (Although note that later in the chapter, it causes pushback from those who were losing money in the charm-and-idol trade.)
However, occasionally it is appropriate for a representative of the living God to challenge a local god directly. This is called a power encounter. Elijah, a prophet of ancient Israel, staged a power encounter when he challenged 450 priests of the pagan god Baal to get Baal to bring down fire on an animal sacrifice that had been prepared for him. When no fire came after they had chanted, prayed, and cut themselves all day, Elijah prayed to the God of Israel, who immediately sent fire that burned up not only the sacrifice that had been prepared for Him, but also the stones of the altar (I Kings chapter 18). So, there are times when a power encounter is called for.
A wise missionary who had traveled and talked to Christians all over the world once told me, during a class on the subject, that power encounters tend to be successful in the sense of winning people’s hearts only when they arise naturally. If an outsider comes in and tries to force a power encounter, “It usually just damages relationships.” But people are ready when, say, there had been disagreement in the village or nation about which god to follow, and someone in authority says, “O.K. We are going to settle this once and for all.”
That appears to be the kind of power encounter that Elijah had. Israel was ostensibly supposed to be serving their God, but the king, Ahab, had married a pagan princess and was serving her gods as well. In fact, Ahab had been waffling for years. There had been a drought (which Ahab knew that Elijah — read God — was causing). Everyone was sick of the starvation and the uncertainty. Before calling down the fire, Elijah prays, “Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” (I Kings 18:37)
Similar circumstances appear to have been behind Boniface’s decision to cut down the great oak tree. In one of the sources I cite below, Boniface is surrounded by a crowd of bearded, long-haired Hessian chiefs and warriors, who are watching him cut down the oak and waiting for Thor to strike him down. When he is able successfully to cut down the oak, they are shaken. “If our gods are powerless to protect their own holy places, then they are nothing” (Hannula p. 62). Clearly, Boniface had been among them for some time, and the Hessians were already beginning to have doubts and questions, before the oak was felled.
Also note that, just as with Elijah, Boniface was not a colonizer coming in with superior technological power to bulldoze the Hessians’ culture. They could have killed him, just as Ahab could have had Elijah killed. A colonizer coming in with gunboats to destroy a sacred site is not a good look, and it’s not really a power encounter either, because what is being brought to bear in such a case is man’s power and not God’s.
And, Voila! a Christmas Tree
In some versions of this story, Boniface “gives” the Hessians a fir tree to replace the oak he cut down. (In some versions, it miraculously sprouts from the spot.) Instead of celebrating Winter Solstice at the oak tree, they would now celebrate Christ-mass (during Winter Solstice, because everyone needs a holiday around that time) at the fir tree. So, yes, it’s a Christian symbol.
Now, every holiday tradition, laden with symbols and accretions, draws from all kinds of streams. So let me hasten to say that St. Boniface was not the only contributor to the Christmas tree. People have been using trees as objects of decoration, celebration, and well-placed or mis-placed worship, all through history. Some of our Christmas traditions, such as decorating our houses with evergreen and holly boughs, giving gifts, and even pointed red caps, come from the Roman festival of Saturnalia. This is what holidays are like. This is what symbols are like. This is what it is like to be human.
Still, I’d like to say thanks to St. Boniface for getting some of my ancestors started on the tradition of the Christmas tree.
BBC, “Devon Myths and Legends,” http://www.bbc.co.uk/devon/content/articles/2005/12/05/st_boniface_christmas_tree_feature
Foster, Genevieve, Augustus Caesar’s World: 44 BC to AD 14, Beautiful Feet Books, 1947, 1975, Saturnalia on p. 56 ff.
Hannula, Richard, Trial and Triumph: Stories from church history, Canon Press, 1999. Boniface in chapter 9, pp. 61 – 64.
Puiu, Tibi, “The origin and history of the Christmas tree: from paganism to modern ubiquity,” ZME Science, https://www.zmescience.com/science/history-science/origin-christmas-tree-pagan/
The zucchinis (yes, that lumpy thing is a zucchini) and the pie pumpkins are from my own garden. The apples are from a relative’s tree.