Pruning at the Last Minute

The cherry plum trees have already opened blossoms around here.

I thought, “Oh shit, I better prune my Santa Rosa plum.”

I didn’t prune the tree in early winter because there was a chance of rain, then there was a period of a few weeks with a ton of rain, then after the rain ended I put it off for days… yeah.

Ideally, I would’ve pruned the tree as soon as the rain stopped.

I only got around to pruning it one week later, when the buds are already forming. The wood is green too at the cuts. Yikes.

Well, at least I did it before any flowers opened.

Continue reading

We Live in the Aquarium We Make

We live like fish in an aquarium. Food comes mysteriously down, oxygen bubbles up.

Laurence Gonzales, Deep Survival

Few humans can live without changing their environments.

I once visited some caves in a tropical area which had evidence of pre-historic human residents. Maybe those people didn’t need to build shelter. Since it was on the coast with plenty of tropical trees nearby, they could get fish, fruit, and tubers easily—but surely they needed some tools. In the coldest weather, they must’ve needed clothes too.

There aren’t enough locations like that for the overwhelming majority of humans alive today to survive.

Continue reading

Buy a Product with Money, or Buy a Skill with Time?

My small net-tent under a tarp

People who are new to camping often ask, “What tent should I buy?”

My answer is, “a cheap secondhand tent, ideally from someone who has used it and can show you how to pitch it.”

Might the tent suck? Yes. That’s why you shouldn’t pay much. Never buy a secondhand tent for more than 50% of its original retail price (a few rare ‘collectable’ tents which are no longer manufactured are worth more, but if you’re that kind of connoisseur, you don’t need my advice).

You can find secondhand tents for sale at various websites, but, if possible, I recommend buying from someone you know or a local camping group. Camping enthusiasts tend to build up a collection of tents over time, and chances are some of them have tents they no longer want to keep.

If you can borrow a tent, that might be better. It’s a tradeoff between money vs. the obligation to return the tent in good condition.

As a beginner, there’s something more important than what tent you use: starting with easy conditions.

Continue reading

Strange Spring

This winter had particularly low temperatures by San Francisco standards. Not the coldest in my lifetime, but the coldest I recall in recent years. Then, in February we had a little heat wave. It was NOT the warmest heatwave I’ve experienced in a San Francisco winter—we get winter heatwaves once in a while, some years it’s warmer in winter than in summer because of our peculiar weather system. What was unusual was that the colder-than-normal temperatures and the heatwave happened within the same winter.

Then there was the precipitation. We had a really wet December and then… dry January and February. Though March is proving to be wetter (it rained today).

It’s like we got winters from two different years spliced together.

This being California, we’re worried about whether the reservoirs have enough water to irrigate all the farms, and whether we’ll have a bad wildfire season later this year.

Right now, it’s messing with the flowers.

Continue reading

The Joy of Picking Fruit

It started with Himalayan blackberries.

On the left is a ripe Himalayan blackberry; the one on the right is unripe.

For as long as I can remember, I have known how to pick fruit, specifically Himalayan blackberries. It’s something I started doing as soon as I was physically capable. My father recalls that a gardener came to my kindergarten class to explain how flowers led to fruit, and that he was impressed that I already knew about all that because I had already seen it all happen with Himalayan blackberry plants.

I was primed at a very young age to figure out how to get ripe fruit, even if it meant navigating thorns, to get the sweet reward.

The Himalayan blackberries are in season now in San Francisco. Some years I ignore them (it is annoying to deal with the thorns and blackberries are not, IMO, the tastiest of fruit), but this year I am collecting blackberries. Continue reading

The Pleasures of Making My Own Bouquets

Here is a bouquet featuring several types of yellow flowers, some non-yellow geraniums, and some non-flowering white sage in the back-center.

I once took a two-hour workshop on how to make a flower bouquet. Thus, I know a few principles of choosing and arranging flowers, which is more than 99% of people know, but I am hardly an expert. Continue reading

Camellia Dye

I got a bunch of pieces of linen cloth which look like this:

a square piece of linen cloth

Well, not quite. Because of the lighting, the cloth in the above picture looks slightly orange-pink, but in fact (at the time I took the picture) it was bright white.

I had recently be readings about natural dyes. Most dyes used in the United States these days are synthetic, and many are toxic or have a negative impact on the environment. Meanwhile, if one has a source of clean water and a way to boil water, using natural dyes is surprisingly easy.

I decided to try a camellia dye because it seemed very straightforward. There are many camellias blooming in my neighborhood at this time of year. It would have been cool to take camellias from my next-door neighbors, but unfortunately their bush is barely blooming at this time.

Instead, I went further from my home to a camellia bush which was in full bloom, and I took some flowers. Did I ask permission? No. But I specifically picked the flowers which were beginning to wilt and left the immature flowers and flowers at their prime alone. I daresay the camellia bush looked nicer after I removed the post-prime flowers. No, I wasn’t stealing camellia flowers, I was spontaneously volunteering to groom their camellia bush to make it look nicer (until the next set of flowers starts to wilt).

I pulled apart the petals in a pot, filled the pot with water, added salt, and started boiling. Meanwhile, I soaked the linen cloth in a solution of 4 parts water and 1 part vinegar. This went on for an hour.

After I finished boiling the camellia petals, I added some fresh-squeezed lemon juice, strained out the camellia petals, rinsed the linen cloth from the vinegar solution, and put the linen cloth in the camellia ‘dye bath’. I put it to a slow boil (i.e. instead of putting the fire at full blast, I kept the fire low and it let it boil gradually, though since the dye bath was pretty warm it did not take long). I then let it simmer for about an hour, and then let it sit in the pot for a second hour. After all that was done, I took out the linen cloth, and rinsed it with cold water.

This is what the result looks like:

a pink-red square piece of linen cloth

It came out darker and redder than I was expecting (I was expecting a pink color), but that’s fine. This is so cool that I will probably end up dying more pieces of cloth just to see what colors I can get.

This technique is supposed to work for most natural fibers (linen, cotton, silk, wool, etc.) but will not work for synthetic fibers (polyester, nylon, etc.)


About a month after I tried out camellia dye, I then tried lavender-rose dye. The process is the same, I just used lavender and rose petals instead of camellia petals. Whereas with the camellia dye I used store-bought lemon, this time I only used plant ingredients which grew in my neighborhood – the lavenders (there is a ton of lavender in my neighborhood), the roses (I used the type of rose which is practically a weed around here, not the type grown for aesthetics), and even the lemon (not as many lemons as lavenders and roses in my neighborhood, but I knew where I could get a local lemon). Here is the result:

A piece of cloth dyed with lavender – rose – lemon.

I wonder why the dye recipes say to use lavender and rose TOGETHER and not separately. Do the chemical compounds in lavender and rose react to each other in a way which creates the dye? I guess if I wanted to find out, I could always try to dye cloth only with lavender-lemon or only with rose-lemon.

I Gathered, Cooked, and Ate Acorns (Part 2)


Part 1 is here.

So, what did I get out of this labor-intensive exercise of gathering and preparing acorns for consumption?

Well, first of all, it made me look at my surroundings in ways I had not before. Even though I grew up around oak trees … I never even really thought about the fact that they were oak trees, let alone try to observe them. However, once I got it into my head that maybe I should try gathering acorns, I started paying way more attention to the oak trees which have been there since before I was born (actually, they may have been there since before my grandparents were born). I finally made seemingly obvious connections such as, hey, this is a major food source for the local squirrels and scrub jays. In fact, as I was watching the acorns ripen, I felt a bit of competitive heat with the squirrels and scrub jays – I was concerned they would take all of the good acorns before I could (as it so happens, there are plenty of acorns for everybody).

I also looked out for oak trees wherever I went during the acorn season. I noticed that acorns in Santa Cruz and Niles Canyon were ripening faster than in San Francisco, which is why my first harvest was from Niles Canyon. I noticed there were two species of oak trees in Niles Canyon, but only one was producing acorns – I don’t know whether I was simply out of season for the other species of oak tree, or whether the climate in Niles Canyon simply is not right for acorn production in the other species (which makes one wonder how it could reproduce in the canyon).

Furthermore, many of the acorns from Niles Canyon had been infested with acorn grubs (larvae of a beetle which feeds on acorns), whereas I have yet to find any signs of acorn grubs in the San Francisco acorns. Granted, I won’t know for sure until I start shelling the San Francisco acorns, but it is interesting that the San Francisco acorns both ripen later and seem to be less (or not at all) afflicted with acorn grubs.

"Quercus agrifolia acorns Mount Diablo" by John Morgan from Walnut Creek, CA, USA - Acorns. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Quercus agrifolia acorns Mount Diablo” by John Morgan from Walnut Creek, CA, USA – Acorns. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

At first, I had hopeful notions that I could turn this into a real source of food. Some approaches to living in harmony with our ecology (for example, permaculture) strongly encourage getting food from trees since trees contribute more to the ecological system than, say, cereal grains, tree-agriculture does not require tilling the soil, etc. And as it so happens, some of the best examples of societies which managed to sustain itself for 10,000+ years without agriculture at relatively high population densities by getting much of their food from trees are … the indigenous societies of California, who had lived right here in what is now the San Francisco Bay Area.

California, as you may know, is going through a major drought, and for some reason commercial nut trees (such as almonds) require a lot of water. However, these oak trees are doing okay and producing acorns without irrigation – in fact, oaks are so common in California partially because they are drought-tolerant. A number of people who are looking for ways to get food in ways which do minimal harm to the environment have been paying attention to acorns … and I wanted to see how practical it would be for myself.

Well, given the way our economy is currently set up, DIY acorn gathering does not make a ton of sense. It simply takes too much labor to shell and leech the acorns. Granted, there are machines which could do the shelling for me … if I were will to invest a few hundred dollars, which I am not. Leeching is actually not so much of a labor issue – for example, one trick used by modern-day indigenous people is to store acorns in toilet tanks and let the leeching happen automatically every time the toilet is flushed – but it just takes a lot of time/water to do it, and if you want to preserve the oil/starches, it gets more complicated.

Of course, it only seems like a lot of water because I got to observe all of the water used in the process. Considering that the oak trees don’t need any irrigation, producing edible acorns actually requires less water than producing edible almonds.

However, 400 years ago, people in the San Francisco Bay Area would not have needed money, nor would they have had ‘jobs’. They would have had plenty of time to do the gathering, grinding, leeching, and cooking, especially since they did not need to expend any labor to care for the oak trees themselves. And it was a social activity for them – I know shelling acorns would be more fun if I could chat with people I liked while I did it.

"Quercus agrifolia 2" by Franz Xaver - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Quercus agrifolia 2” by Franz XaverOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It feels satisfying to have participated physically in activities in some ways like the activities of those people from that older economy. It also feels satisfying to participate in the processing of my food from when it comes from the plant to when it appears in my mouth – and experience I have up to now only had with fruits and vegetables.

Maybe I’ll get better at processing acorns, or at least find less labor-intensive ways to do it, in which case it may become a semi-regular part of my diet. But even if it doesn’t happen, it was definitely an educational experience.

I Gathered, Cooked, and Ate Acorns (Part 1)

Shelled acorns, sitting in a jar of water.

Shelled acorns, sitting in a jar of water.

Ever since I was a young child, I knew that the indigenous people of northern California ate acorns from oak trees as their staple food. Acorns are high in fat, protein, and starch, and oak trees take care of themselves, so the indigenous people did not need agriculture to have a steady, reliable source of food.

As it so happens, I live near groves of native oak trees, yet it was only last year that it occurred to me that I could also gather acorns and eat them.

Once the notion got into my head, I started paying a lot more attention to oak trees than I ever had before.

Last October, I visited Niles Canyon. I noticed that, whereas the acorns in San Francisco were still immature, there were already plenty of ripe acorns in the canyon. Impatient as I was, I decided to gather lots of acorns in the canyon.

Under a big blue sky, we see hills covered with yellow dead grass with splotches of green trees on them, and a road winds around the hills in the bottom right

Niles Canyon – the landscape practically screams ‘California’

I had acorns, great!

Then I had to shell them and remove the tests. That was time-consuming, not in the least because acorn shells are soft … rather than cracking them off, it was more a matter of peeling them off. At least it’s a relaxing, not-mentally-challenging activity, so eventually I got a bunch of shelled acorns.

Now here is the real rub with eating acorns … they are high in tannic acid. Humans can tolerate tannic acid in very low quantities (indeed, a number of foods do have low levels of tannic acid), but acorns have way more tannic acid than humans can tolerate. On top of that, tannic acid tastes very bitter. The tannic acid needs to be leeched out.

“The Best Way to Make Acorn Flour” and “Acorns, the Inside Story” were my main guides for DIY acorn preparation. As recommended, I blended the acorns with water, made a slurry, and tried to change the water until the tannins were (almost) all out. However, I did not find their methods for changing the water entirely practical, so I ended up doing my own improvisations, such as using a baster to extract the tannic water.

Here is the acorn-water slurry.  The tannic water (brown) is at the top, with a light layer of starch, with a (slightly darker) layer of acorn meal below the starchy layer.

Here is the acorn-water slurry. The tannic water (brown) is at the top, with a light layer of starch, with a (slightly darker) layer of acorn meal below the starchy layer.

My first attempt … I thought I had leeched out the tannins, since I couldn’t taste it in the water, but I did not taste the acorn meal itself … uh uh. The results were inedible.

I tried again. I kept on changing the water again and again and again … and it just seemed to go on forever. Eventually, I was not sure whether there were tannins left in the meal or not, but what the heck, I was tired of changing the water so much.

The acorn meal, straight out of the jar.

The acorn meal, straight out of the jar.

After pouring out the acorn meal, I used a flour sack towel to squeeze out all of the water I could.

This is what it looked like after I squeezed out the water

This is what it looked like after I squeezed out the water

I then put it in a pot, added fresh water, and cooked it as a porridge. The results … there was still a faint tannic taste, but all I had to do was add a dash of cinnamon, and then I could not taste the tannins at all. It probably was no more tannins than are in foods such as walnuts (indeed, the tannic taste made me think of walnuts), so I figured it was not a health risk.

In my next attempt, I tried a different leeching method – I used whole acorns rather than blended acorn/water slurry, and rather than just using fresh water, I used a mix of water and baking soda. After a couple weeks I was getting impatient, so I tried the hot water method – boiling the tannins out of the acorns, and changing the tannic water with non-tannic hot water about every 15 minutes. A few hours later, I had boiled acorns with the tannins mostly removed (they could still be tasted, but not so much more than walnuts, so I figured it was safe). I then roasted the acorns, which made them a little firmer, but they were still fairly soft.

In addition to the acorns from Niles Canyon, I have also gathered acorns from San Francisco, so eventually I intend to shelling, leeching, cooking, and eating them as well. Hopefully I’ll get better at this process.

So, aside from edible acorns, what did I get out of all of this effort? That is a question I will answer in Part 2.