This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
My last name came from Scotland. I’m not sure how the McEwens ended up in the United States. The last in the line I can trace is to an overcrowded Philadelphia tenement. They seem to have been very poor. There are rumors of a murder, a flight to South America, and then somehow they ended up in Arkansas.
Much further back, the MacEwans were a Scottish clan that held a fair bit of land by Loch Fyne, a place I have often dreamed of going. In the 1400s they were broken up, seemingly due to the chieftain's financial incompetence, and became the vassals of other clans like the Maclachlans.
When I was a child I liked the idea of my Scottish heritage being defined by deep blue Highland lochs bordered by pines. And swords, and kilts. At the time it was more attractive to me that my more immediate heritage. The reality was probably that my ancestors of that clan were probably poor tenant farmers. And the kilt wasn’t even invented when they lived in Scotland.
But I’ve often thought of the clan crest, a cut oak stump bearing shoots of new growth with the motto “reviresco”- we grow again, underneath.
Two years ago an overzealous logger on our land cut down the big oak tree in the front of the farmhouse. My father was pretty angry about it and stubbornly left the stump there, as if to refuse to let the tree go. I reminded him of the crest. When the spring came the stump sent out shoots with green leaves, as I knew it would.
In forestry school in Uppsala we had a couple of acres of willow coppicing forest, a practice I had not been familiar with before. Coppicing is the very ancient practice of cutting down a tree without killing it in order to utilize the re-growth. They told us that Sweden was the only place in the world that was using willow coppicing to fuel a biomass power plant. The coppice forests were rather beautiful too, whirring with the buzzing of both honey and wild bees.
Coppicing has experienced a renaissance in the United States on small farms, where it can be used as a method of producing firewood or material for crafts like baskets.
Oak can be coppiced in long rotations. So we’ll leave the stump there to give it a chance to grow again.
American Chestnuts were once an important presence on the landscape here. Their starchy nuts were an important source of food for many humans and animals. I once heard them called “tree potatoes.” When I was a girl I was often fascinated by the “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” of The Christmas Song.
I had never had one. Because of chestnut blight, which was introduced into the United States in the late 1800s from imported Asian chestnut trees, which are immune to the blight. The blight spread quickly, killing over three billion trees.
The American Chestnut should be extinct, but it lives on an an eternal coppice-like state, sending out hopeful shoots that grow and then die again and again in a world that no longer welcomes them. Unless you can get some of the last stock, from nurseries in Oregon and Washington, and plant them far away from these undead remnants. Then they might live, but the odds are against you.
The only hope is for them are scientists, who are have used the genetic material to create resistant varieties. America might yet be covered with chestnuts again. I have wanted to plant some resistant varieties on the farm, but the nursery I want to buy from always sells out so quickly, sure signs that people are replanting.
I tasted my first chestnut while browsing a Christmas market in the Czech Republic, where they sold bags of roasted chestnuts. They were hearty and slightly sweet, not quite the rich fatty nut I imagined in my childhood dreams. These days you can find chestnuts at the local farmer’s market. I think the flour is among my favorite alternative flours, especially for pancakes. It is silky and has maple notes. But it is expensive, which is amusing since in the past, like lobster and oysters, chestnuts were considered an undesirable peasant food.
I was disappointed in not getting the chestnuts this year, but I ordered a random variety of trees from Oikos and the DNR. I’ve been reading Common Sense Forestry by Hans Morsbach, which notes that he like us was a resident of Chicago who had land in Wisconsin. He also owned some restaurants, so I thought it would be interesting to get in contact with him.
Turns out I can’t. Because he died a few years ago. Knowing that imbues the book with a certain sort of melancholy I don’t often experience when reading books on growing things. He talks about how much of what he does he may never see come to maturation. And I know he never will see it.
That’s what’s really incredible. And I honestly can’t see why everybody who isn’t a child, everybody who’s theoretically old enough to have understood what death means, doesn’t spend all his time thinking about it. It’s a pretty arresting thought, not being anything, not being anywhere, and yet the world still being here. Simply having everything stopping for ever, not just for millions of years. And getting to the point where that’s all there is in front of you. I can imagine anyone finding themselves thoroughly wrapped up in that prospect, especially since it’s where we’re going to get to sooner or later, and perhaps sooner.-The Green Man by Kingsley Amis
If the trees I’ve planted could think, they would see me as I see the wood fly that lives for only a few days.
But they don’t think of this. And while trees sometimes take me into melancholy thoughts of mortality, to try to put yourself in the place of the woodland plant is to imagine that which cannot as Wendell Berry says “tax their lives with forethought of grief.”
But it is only for the moment that one can escape there. Even the “peace of wild things” is a “memento mori.” The gaps in our vitality the forest claim. A horticulturalist relative of mine told me he was clearing away the orchard to prepare for this. Past the orchard gate at that same orchard once I remembered peering into the dark forest. The hinges on the gate was twisted, closed by little vines like those oak or chestnut shoots, testing the world outside, seeing if it had been made ready.
Once a friend told me I had trouble sleeping. I told him how I get to sleep when it comes slowly to me. I go in my mind to past dreams, some of them now old enough that perhaps they are worlds of their own. One of the most vivid is a place of murky waters and thick forest. The trees are very old and imposing, holding many strange creatures and towns. It is my grandmother’s Southern Louisiana swamps, the Chattahoochee in Georgia, the dirty miasma of the Skokie canal, the rushlands that were once great Viking rivers in Ultuna. It is all theses places I have known in once, and perhaps places I haven’t. At some point, moving so much, without a home, this became the place I was from.
The call came in the morning, it was some cows we couldn’t keep in our fields, that another farmer had taken to his own farm. They had escaped. We drove northwest there, a shudder crippled my heart. It was as if this were the place in my dreams. The karst topography, holes on the surface of the Earth filled with waters of mystery. There was a heavy fog that morning. The cow had broken her leg in a hole, bellowing sadly stuck in the swamp. There wasn’t much else to do besides get a gun. There wasn’t much blood or commotion. We pulled her out of the swamp into the grass. She looked as if she was sleeping. Her large belly still sighed. It would have been filled with a calf soon, if misfortune hadn’t followed her into the deep green land. Instead the microbes that helped her thrive in life had turned against her flesh for one last meal.
We found a cow skull once; we thought it was
From one of the asses in the Bible, for the sun
Shone into the holes through which it had seen
Earth as an endless belt carrying gravel, had heard
Its truculence cursed, had learned how human sweat
Stinks, and had brayed-shone into the holes
With solemn and majestic light, as if some
Skull somewhere could be Baalbek or the Parthenon.- Galway Kinnell's Freedom, New Hampshire
We cut her open. The butcher handed me her liver, it was heavy and dripped with blood on my boots. I also took her sweet breads, they were large and succulent. They always are the best in a young cow. An unfortunate delicacy.
Like hunters we left the gut pile there by the swamp. An offering to some whose home we had disturbed. This land never belonged to any person, it never could belong. It has too close of a relationship with ancient disorder. That’s why it took our cow before we could. You don’t always get to prepare your orchards for when that day comes. I was reminded of this when my grandmother said she’d brought her son’s ashes back to Louisiana. I felt sorry I had been so far away for so long.
Later at home I was tired, but I had to process all the organs, cut away the sinews and freeze what I couldn’t eat soon. I didn’t want to waste anything, and besides it is one of those rare activities where I can be satisfied with work, where the time of work passes quickly in the mundane work of hands.
I cooked the liver and sweetbreads on a hot cast iron with a little salt. They were the best I’d ever had. The sweetbreads popped like popcorn, salty and fatty. I hesitate to give cooking advice for these things. I don’t recommend recreating that day.
That night I dreamt I gave stillbirth to a young lamb and laid him in the grass. I believe it was the lamb from Magnu’s Nilsson’s Faviken book and this artist's depiction of a small microcosm of life growing out of a death. Nilsson has said “ Meat is the remains of what was a living individual that we selfishly raised and killed with the sole purpose of feeding ourselves.”
I felt a million living tendrils
rooting through the thing I was,
as if I’d turned to earth before my death
or in my death could somehow feel.- Christian Wiiman
We always kept our distance from this particular herd of cows. They don’t have names. They have sharp horns. She died much like a wild deer I had seen while hiking once, its skeletal form bent against its tree where its foot was still tangled. Except maybe we are a little less cruel than nature and she didn’t die slowly, stuck in a hole for a long time waiting for the wolves. A part of me welcomed this nourishment from a death that was not a choice.
But an incarnation is in particular flesh
And the dust that is swirled into a shape
And crumbles and is swirled again had but one shape
That was this man. When he is dead the grass
Heals what he suffered, but he remains dead,
And the few who loved him know this until they die.- Galway Kinnell Freedom, New Hampshire
When I was about thirteen or fourteen and first had regular access to the internet, looking back into the past of my name, in boredom. I came across a women who shared it, Gwendolyn MacEwen, a poet and writer. She had died a year after I was born from the alcoholic malady I sometimes feel is a particularly Celtic curse. In pictures she has the most haunting eyes, eyes that seemed far older than her face.
There is one poem of her that I have been remembering since. It is Dark Pines Under Water:
This land like a mirror turns you inward
And you become a forest in a furtive lake;
The dark pines of your mind reach downward,
You dream in the green of your time,
Your memory is a row of sinking pines.
Explorer, you tell yourself this is not what you came for
Although it is good here, and green;
You had meant to move with a kind of largeness,
You had planned a heavy grace, an anguished dream.
But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper
And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper
In an elementary world;
There is something down there and you want it told.
I think of it often. I think it must be stored in the deepest part of my brain, where it has gathered a hold of the way words are in my thoughts, like a strange prayer that emerges in the woods and at night. Before her I didn’t really write, but it has been like an infection since.
I was never the sort that anyone could call private. But there is so much that just must be left unsaid for now at least, people whose shadows I trace with my words, deftly avoiding showing their faces.
One way I do that is to write of the past. Of things that no longer live in consciousness on this world. But even then people always seem to have a stake in things.
Instead I try to write of things that seem a bit more mundane. Like trees.
I knew it - you would have too, if you'd been there; it was a figure I’d glimpsed in a car park as a child; an expression crossing the face of a stranger late one night at Waterloo Station as I hurried for a train with my parents; a carving in the portico of a mediaeval church. In some nightmarish way it was particular, and it was also infinite. It was itself, it was the wood, it was the last roses in the garden, and yet it was also a wider sentience, perhaps best described as the feeling that the trees and fields we look at have always secretly been looking back into us.- Alasdair MacLean of The Clientele