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Year in Yosemite: Heaven Sent


The garden of our house in Los Angeles has about ten fruit trees. All of them produce wonderful, juicy, natural wonders such as plums, peaches, oranges, limes, tangerines, figs and grapefruit. Our yard also has two ash trees. And if it’s been a particularly cool year, they drip with a nasty rain of honeydew. Not honey dew as in melon, but honeydew as in sticky, messy, runny gook that’s all but impossible to scrub off of windshields, patio cushions, furniture and sidewalks. The first time it fell in sleet-like drops we called in an arborist to see if the tree was sick. It wasn’t. It was just infested with aphids. And like bees collecting pollen to make honey, these tiny little insects were happily making honeydew up in our trees.

I thought of those aphids when it turned unseasonably warm at our home in Yosemite National Park. Since we moved here over a year ago, we’ve come to expect winter days in the 30s, not the 60s. November and December held true to form. But so far, 2011 has seen a warming trend—and with it have come the mosquitoes. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Mosquitoes are as natural to Yosemite as granite towers and waterfalls. But in winter? With snow still on the ground and our driveway a solid block of slick ice? Give me a break!

“What good are they?” I asked my daughter’s teacher. Being an educator and prone to teaching moments, she replied, “They are part of the food chain. What would the frogs, fish, bats and birds do without them?” Grudgingly I googled them only to find out that she was right. These little buggers do serve a purpose and it’s more than just supplying food. Seems they pollinate almost as many crops as bees and just as importantly for the economy, they sustain a billion dollar eradication industry. Who knew?

I should have, because living in Yosemite has changed my way of thinking about almost every other kind of bug. Like most white people I would have turned up my nose at the traditional Yosemite Miwok and Paiute diet. They feasted on something called Mormon crickets (said to be especially sweet and tasty), the pupae of Mono Lake flies, grasshoppers, cicadas, ant and ant pupae, wasp pupae and beetle larvae—and they had good reason. You can gather plants and hunt animals all day and still not get the nutritional kick that comes from insects. They are high in protein, fat, vitamins and minerals, are relatively easy to collect in large numbers, and they store well. 

And the favorite treat of the local tribes? Honey dew—the kind that’s made by aphids. With native California bees producing so little honey it’s barely worth collecting (we now rely on European bees for our honey), aphid honeydew became the Miwok and Paiutes’ main source of sugary sweetness. According to Volney Jones, who made a living out of studying such things: “Cutting was done just after sunrise, and the (river) reeds were spread out to dry during the warmer part of the day to dry the honey dew and make it brittle. During the afternoon the reeds were held over a hide and beaten with a stick to dislodge the deposits of honeydew which fell on the hide and could be collected…the honey dew was rolled into balls, wrapped in leaves, and stored in baskets until needed."

A local missionary, Father Kino, declared that the aphid honey- dew was supplied by heaven and wrote that it is “as sweet as sugar to the taste….” The moral of the story? If 19th century Miwok Indians had visited my Los Angeles home during honey- dew season, they wouldn’t have bothered with the very expensive arborist. They would have cut down the branches and had a feast. Clearly, appreciation of nature’s wonders lies in the taste buds of the beholder. Knowing this doesn’t make me like mosquitoes one bit more, but it does make me realize that if I were a bird, mosquitoes in winter would taste like manna from heaven.

-- Jamie Simons

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." Today she and her family have made the move to live for one year in Wawona, where her daughter attends the one-room schoolhouse, Jamie writes, and her husband longs for noise, fast food, people, and the city.(Though he's learning to appreciate mountain life.)

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