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Year in Yosemite: Native Genius - Explore

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Year in Yosemite: Native Genius

After roasting our acorns, we extracted the seeds and ground them into a fine flour. This Valley Oak acorn is among the few that aren't bitter.

I spent the day yesterday leaching acorns and learning to make acorn mush. It's not what I usually serve to family and friends in our Yosemite home but I can't remember the last time cooking was so much fun. This is the time of year when traditionally, Miwok and other native tribes of the region would have been collecting enough acorns -- 1,000 to 2,000 pounds per family -- to keep them in food for a year. The Miwok would have spent two weeks filling massive baskets with acorns but we took the easy way out. We had a group of school kids collect one bag each from around their neighborhoods in Oakhurst, Mariposa, and Fresno and bring them to us to be leached.

Tonight these same kids will come to Yosemite National Park and make their way to a private camp, Camp Wawona, for their first foray into a world that's virtually disappeared from sight. For one night and a day they will get to experience a tiny piece of what Yosemite was like for the native peoples who thought of it as their three-season home for over 3,000 years. In the short time that the students are here, they will experience what it took to find shelter, food, clothing and warmth using only what nature provides.

Yesterday, my husband and I were at the camp to help the staff get ready for the group that's about to descend on them. Even after a lifetime spent hiking, camping, and backpacking (with the help of JanSport, North Face and REI), I was surprised to learn that nature provides absolutely everything needed to get the job done -- manmade materials need not apply.

But not all of our acorns were Valley Oak so we had to soak the flour in hot water (3-4 times) to leach out the bitter tannins. When the bitterness was gone, the mush was spread onto cookie sheets and baked into tasty crackers.

Now I get that modern conveniences are just what the words say, modern and convenient. Truth be told, we were only able to create enough acorn crackers to feed 40 people because we used modern inventions. Instead of leaving the acorns out in the sun to dry, we put them in large, industrial-size ovens overnight at 200 degrees. While the Miwok would have used stones to crack them open, we used hammers. After the kernels were removed, the Miwok would have put them on grinding stones and hit them with rocks until they created acorn flour. (That's what the kids will do). Having use of a kitchen, we put them in a nut grinder, then moved them to a blender to get the fine acorn powder needed for cooking. We didn't sit by a river for hours at a time leaching out the bitter tannins. Our method was to simply boil water on the stove and pour it over the flour time after time until the bitter taste disappeared. Then we spread the wet mush onto cookie sheets, placed them in the oven, and minutes later had nutty-tasting acorn crackers rich in protein and fat, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and niacin. It was terrific fun but it wasn’t what produced my aha moment.

That came from the cumulative experience of the day. Because, while the acorn mush was baking, we also made a protein-rich tea from the tips of incense cedars leaves. Then we picked out the very best shells left from the acorns and put them aside to make poultices to kill the itch caused by poison oak and mosquito bites. After that we moved outside to learn how to make fire using a wooden bow and drill. With five people working together, it took about two minutes to create a hot coal that we placed in a nest of incense cedar shavings and bark. When we blew on it, it erupted into flame. It seemed so amazing to me that I asked to do it again and again.

With five people and a couple of minutes, we made a primitive friction fire with a bow and drill.

In one day, I learned that two trees -- oak and incense cedar -- can provide the majority of life's necessities. I can't wait to see the look on the kids' faces as they realize that just from the ground around their camp, they have everything they need to make hunting tools, build a shelter, make rope, start a fire, create food, even fashion a toothbrush.*

I came home from yesterday's training session entranced. I felt that for once, I was wowed, not by nature's power and beauty, but by its gentle, giving ways. The overnight at the Indian Camp is the kickoff for a year-long program that will start in the world of the indigenous people and end with an overnight at Wawona's Pioneer Village where this group of 5th through 8th graders will live as if the year were 1880 and Yosemite was just being "discovered" by all but the native peoples.

The umuucha was the typical shelter of Yosemite's Miwok Indians.

Several weekends ago a group of ten parents went through the park service training at the Pioneer Village so we would be ready to chaperon the kids when they come for their overnight this spring. I don't know the last time I learned so much or had so much fun ... until I trained for the Indian Camp. That Yosemite is special is something millions of people around the world know and acknowledge. That it came stocked with everything people and animals need to flourish without any outside help or inventions is something only the native people seemed to understand. I feel lucky to have experienced a modern interpretation of their way of life for even a nano-second. To live with respect, appreciation and gratitude for the natural world is the native peoples’ great teaching. With all the time I’ve spent in nature, I didn’t fully understand how beneficial and generous a gift that teaching was. Now I do.

*Nothing we use for the camp will be grown in Yosemite National Park. It’s all from private land.

-- Jamie Simons/Photos by Jon Jay

In May 2009, while hiking in Yosemite National Park, long-time Los Angeles resident Jamie Simons turned to her husband and said, "I want to live here." Jamie and her family have since lived in the park. Check out all of her blog articles by clicking here.

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